Bob Dylan And The Allegory
by Larry Fyffe
It is always surprising to me when music critics and even many fans of Bob Dylan’s claim that particular song lyrics indicate a sudden change in his nonconformist philosophical position – his convertion to the Christian religion or a return to his Jewish roots.
Many, very many, of Dylan’s songs, contain double-edged images drawn from the Judeo-Christian Bible. The lyrics of these songs can be interpreted, albeit differently, as allegories.
An allegory is metaphorical (a metaphor being a word or phrase applied to an object or event, not literally applicable thereto – for example, a ‘stone’ comes to represent more than a stone). An allegory is a story, a poem, or song that contains a hidden political or moral message. Jesus, called the Christ, speaks in allegories called ‘parables’ in the Holy Bible.
There’s the biblical allegory of woman as a would-be bride who seeks supremacy over the groom – over the individual; over the every man; even over Jesus.
She can be considered, in a metaphorical sense, the wayward institutions of church and state, as in the lyrics below:
As I went out one morning
To breath the air around Tom Paine’s
I spied the fairest damsel
That ever did walk in chains
I offered her my hand
She took me by the arm
I knew that very instant
She meant to do me harm
( Bob Dylan: As I Went Out One Morning)
The lyrics above can be considered akin to a Blakean allegory: the female Tiger attracted to the idol of the Golden Calf rather than to the spiritual Lamb of God.
Likewise, in the song lyrics below – the singer/songwriter is the persona of the groom, the Christ who rejects the advances of the materialistic Claudette in a society of decayed morals; she’s no purified Mary Magdalene, that’s for sure:
Cities on fire, phones out of order
They’re killing nuns and soldiers
There’s fighting on the border
What can I say about Claudette
Ain’t seen her since January
She could be respectably married
Or running a whorehouse in Buenos Aires
(The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar)
The following double-edged lyrics can be considered an allegory wherein the male is upside down and on the bottom -in the position of a bride who has discarded her spiritual side, and submitted herself to the decadent materialism of a modern Babylon:
It was gravity which pulled us down
and destiny which broke us apart
You tamed the lion in my cage but it just
wasn’t enough to change my heart
Now every thing is a little upside down
as a matter of fact the wheels have stopped
What is good is bad, what’s bad is good
you’ll find out when you’re reach the top
You’re on the bottom
(Bob Dylan: Idiot Wind)
Such rather difficult-to-interpret allegories of mankind being both heavenly and earthly, Dylan draws from the Holy Bible; what the future of the Universe holds lies solely (maybe) in the hands of an anthropomorphic God.
If there is a clear answer blowin’ in the wind, God nor Dylan ain’t sayin’, but God alone is the One who certainly knows what’s a-gonna happen to each and everyone of us here on earth.
And to tangle up matters further, He’s presented in Bible as half-god and half-human Himself – God unites with His earth-born Son, Jesus:
Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward
And the spirit of the beast that goeth downward
to the earth?
Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better
than that a man should rejoice in his own works
For that is his portion: for who shall bring him to see
what shall be after him?
(The Book Of Ecclesiastes 3: 21-22)
The problem is that God’s human side, Jesus, speaks in parables that are not all that clear though theologians attempt to make them so. Dylan’s entangles his own song lyrics to reflect the ambiguity of the Bible. The lyrics of the singer/songwriter reveal that he finds the dogmatic answers given by religious leaders to riddles posed in the Bible are difficult to swallow:
Like singer Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan finds that he would grapple with such matters in his own way, and in the song below and other songs , he says to his listeners, ‘do it your way’:
Well, you’re on your own
You always were
In a land of wolves and thieves
Don’t put your hope in ungodly men
Or be the slave to what somebody’s else believes
(Bob Dylan: Trust Yourself)
Dylan, in his art, consistently promotes this nonconformist philosophy – from the get-go.
What else is on the site
1: Over 450 reviews of Dylan songs. There is an index to these in alphabetical order below on this 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.
And please do note The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.