by Larry Fyffe
In his song lyrics and music, Bob Dylan grapples with the big philosophical question: what is ‘good’ and what is ‘evil’, – on the more personal level, what is the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ thing to do in any given situation? Religion is of little help to him – it just ain’t that easy to come up with definitive answers to such questions:
(Dylan: My Back Pages)
Established religion asserts that the answers to these questions are set down in black and white, but the experience of growing up shows such matters not to be so clear; even religious leaders betray their own teachings. As an artist, Dylan presents himself, or his singing persona, as an individual who has to make final decisions on his own though he may suffer sorrowful consequences therefrom. Below, it’s Bob Dylan turn to tell a pilgrim’s tale:
(Dylan: Up To Me)
He has read the spiritual poems of pre-Romantic William Blake that speak of Adam and Eve’s eating from the Tree of Knowledge, and so are expelled from Eden where it’s all good. That God casts them out into a world where evil co-exists with good be a myth organized religion thrives upon, asserts Blake.
That is, the Church untangles the Tree lying outside the gates of Eden by defining an ‘objective’ morality in simple black and white terms, but it’s actually a self-denying morality that serves the power-seeking interests of black-robed priests:
(Blake: The Human Abstract)
Blake contends that individuals have the mental capacity to gain, through a proper balancing of reason and intuition, what is good for them and what is not. According to Blake, the dogmatic doctrines of established religion prevent them from doing so. The later Romantic Transcendental poets proclaim that contact with the workings of external Nature helps the individual throw off the chains of dogma.
Dylan also reads Frederich Nieitzche who says the achievers of power and wealth define their own behaviour as ‘good’, while that of those who don’t achieve are obviously ‘bad’. Furthermore, the wretched, out of resentment, define the actions of the rich and powerful as ‘evil’; it’s the ‘slave morality’ of Judeo-Christianity that comes to serve its leaders’ drive for masterly control.
Bob Dylan contends in many of his song lyrics that things continue to go from bad to worse, and though he is self-critical to the extent that anyone can be, it’s the hypocritical behaviour of religious leaders pretending to follow the teachings of Jesus – ie, they should love one another and help the poor- that he shakes his fist at:
(Dylan: Pay In Blood)
Dylan shifts often his point of view, and so it’s hard to tell where he stands – could it be that good and evil doings are both necessary parts of the One Big Plan, and so it really doesn’t matter which side one chooses to be on? Dylan sings songs whose lyrics can be interpreted as a vision of God (good) and the Devil (evil) together in a card-playing club – where sometimes one gets the winning hands, and at other times the other gets them,
(Dylan: Pressing On)
Being an artist, Dylan’s lyrics are often double edged – in those below, man is viewed as no more than a pawn in a chess game between the God and Satan:
(Bob Dylan: Gotta Serve Somebody)
Irony is Bob Dylan’s middle name. He writes some song lyrics that present things as they are with fate and luck, not free choice, having a lot to do with how things got to be that way.
The dark imagery drawn from the prose-poetry of Lucien Ducasse, who portrays himself as the revenge-seeking fallen angel, serves Dylan well in some of his song lyrics. Maldoror, the Devil, with black humour, unbinds man from the chains of religion:
(Lucien Ducasse: Songs Of Maldoror – again condensed by me)
Dylan turns Ducasse’s imagery upside down in the following song. Using his own black sense of humour, Dylan presents himself as the sun-god Apollo, son of Zeus, who threatens to condemn dog-like detractors to the cells of Hell:
(Bob Dylan: Pay in Blood)
No intention has Dylan of painting ‘Madonna And Child’ over and over again.
What is on the site
1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs. There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.
2: The Chronology. We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums. The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site. We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year. The index to the chronologies is here.
3: Bob Dylan’s themes. We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions. There is an index here. A second index lists the articles under the poets and poetic themes cited – you can find that here.
4: The Discussion Group We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link
5: Bob Dylan’s creativity. We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further. The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.