Bob Dylan’s Spiritual Quest 


In 1997 Bob Dylan was quoted in Newsweek, regarding his spiritual search, “Here’s the thing with me and the religious thing . . . I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music.” Dylan has always defied any attempt to label him but much of his quest for a spiritual meaning in life comes out in his music.

Dylan has been one of the most influential musicians of the last 60 years. He has explored belief, spiritual commitment  and ancient texts in the songs that he writes. Dylan’s music is complexity and contradictory which skirts the border between reality and mythology, raising  questions about just exactly what Dylan believes. Dylan himself doesn’t seem anxious to answer anyone’s questions. He seems comfortable with his stance as someone who can’t be boxed into a corner and that includes explanations about his belief system.

Background

Bob Dylan was raised in a religious Jewish home in Duluth and Hibbing, Minnesota. His musical talents brought him into the early years of rock-and roll music where he expressed much of his soul through song. One of his folk-heroes was Woody Guthrie who kept his personal life private. Dylan followed suit – from the beginning of his folk music career he went out of his way to make sure that the public would know as little about his true self as possible.

Early Lyrics

Dylan’s lyrics, especially those form his ’60s heyday, often tap into his Jewish traditions. His inaugural “Talkin’ Hava Nageila Blues” featured the famous Jewish folksong “Hava Nageila”. Yet even there, Dylan couldn’t be straight – he introduced it at a Village gig as “a foreign song I learned out of Utah”.

Interestingly enough though, Biblical references popped up frequently in his work. In notable tracks from the first decade in which Dylan wrote and performed he presented several Biblical-themed songs – the story of the Binding of Isaac in his Highway 61 Revisited and a section of the Old Testament from Isaiah 21:1-10 in All Along the Watchtower that tells of the fall of Babylon.

Perhaps the most poignant and telling is Dylan’s Forever Young in which he highlights Jewish prayer and on-point Biblical imagery in a adaptation of the blessing that Jewish parents give to their children at the Friday night Sabbath meal. Dylan wrote Forever Young for Jacob, his son, and features a line from the ancient Priestly Blessing: “May God bless and keep you always.” The story includes a reference to the story of Jacob’s dream “May you build a ladder to the stars and climb on every rung,” that references the Patriarch Jacob as well as Dylan’s son Jacob.

All in all, in the period from 1961 through 1978, the singer referenced Bible verses 89 times.

Christianity

In the late ’70s and early ’80s Dylan became interested in Christianity. His music from that era reflects this flirtation – interestingly, this era’s music generally received poor reviews, raising the possibility, as some observers have noted, that Dylan was ambivalent about this new-found belief system.

It’s assumed that the “Christian period” was a result of Dylan’s relationship with a born-again Christian woman. Dylan was upfront about his conversion, saying “there’s only two kinds of people — there’s saved people and there’s lost people. Jesus is the lord. Every knee shall bow to him.” His recording and concerts of that era focused on his new-found faith, including the Slow Train Coming album and concert tour. Some critics, however, have noted that if one really listens to Dylan’s music from his Christian period, what comes through is his yearning more than any real preaching. In short, he is still searching for his “truth.”

In terms of the records that Dylan produced during that era, they weren’t well received. Some felt that the music was akin to an online casino game – exciting for a few minutes but no long-lasting impact. Jann Werner of Rolling Stone Magazine was one of the only critics that was impressed.

Moving Forward

By the mid-’80s Dylan had begun to move away from Christianity as he became closer to the religion of his youth. The Jewish Chabad movement reached out to him and Dylan responded, traveling to Israel with them and conducting a Bar Mitzva ceremony for his son Jacob at the Western Wall. In 1983 he also released a strong statement, through the song Neighborhood Bully about his view of the way that the State of Israel was vilified for actions that other nations undertake with impunity.

Dylan continues to insist that he doesn’t have any time for organized religion but he maintains strong ties to the Hassidic Chabad outreach group. He takes part in their telethons and attends services at their synagogue.

Dylan’s lifelong search for spirituality continues but for now, it seems to be a search that is conducted within the realm of the Jewish world. He has noted that he is influenced by Jewish theologians, including mystics. He was impressed with one rabbi’s hospitality in particular, saying of the rabbi’s home, “It may be dark and snowy outside, but inside that house, it’s so light.”

Many people assume that Dylan’s son-in-law, Peter Himmelman, has influenced his father-in-law. Himmelman is a Grammy and Emmy nominated singer-songwriter, and the originator of Big Muse, a highly regarded methodology for developing deeper levels of communication and creative thinking. He is also an Orthodox Jew who imbues his Judaism into every aspect of his work and his life.

Dylan’s spiritual identity is complex. He is, however, still composing songs so it’s likely that his search will continue to be presented to the world through his lyrics.

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12 Responses to Bob Dylan’s Spiritual Quest 

  1. Larry Fyffe says:

    Indeed

  2. Larry Fyffe says:

    Thanks for info….so it seems my thoghts on Bob Dylan as being influenced by mystic Gnosticism are not not far-fetched at all – as de Graaf claims they are.

  3. Larry Fyffe says:

    ie from the darkness inherent in Nature, and, in particular, from being afraid of Eliot’s ‘eternal footman’, one can escape to the light.

    By employing together the rational part of the mind and its creative imagination, an individual frees his/herself from constraints imposed by social norms.

  4. Marco Demel says:

    Imagine an old man leaning over a heap of words, who feels enthusiasm in merging them together into a new story, into a new song.
    First principle is here: No special time, no special place- Timeless & Eternal.
    The poet is just standing on another stage of projection and reflection within all the tryings, the uncertainties and insights, that all people at all times have to face all possible fate, suffer and pain on the way to redemption and salvation.
    Longing, pining, yearning, figuring out this high account of patience and hope.
    His songs always are a helpful consultance for all the challenges of life.
    His reflections with important questions of our existence on Earth have come to a point, where he now can lay back. He´s got his deep believe in what comes beyond the horizon, what he has to expect of his highlands (since twenty years he´s already there in his mind), places like in „Aint talkin`“ or in „That lucky old sun“.
    So there is really no need to put him some new books in the shelf.

  5. You write under: “Moving Forward”
    By the mid-’80s Dylan had begun to move away from Christianity as he became closer to the religion of his youth”. This statement gives one the impression that being a Christian and at the same time are being Jewish is incompatible. And this is simply not true. Jesus is the fulfilment of the Thora and the prophets. Also after 1981 there are numerous statements which PROOF that Dylan still remains a follower of Jesus Christ. For many years, I believe up till 2012 he had the speaker announce at each and every concert: “WHO EMERGED TO FIND JESUS”. Would you do that if you had moved away from Christianity? Would you release “Trouble no more” to put emphasis on what is incorrectly called his “Christian period”?. Would you change the lyrics of “Gonna change my way of thinking”” and add: “Jesus is coming, Jesus is coming back to gather his jewels” and performing this song a whole season in 2012/2013? I could make the list much longer. Therefore if you make a statement like this, you should PROOF that he has moved away from Christianity. All the proof points in exactly the opposite direction. But this is something that the vast majority is not willing to concede. I feel that all this “moving away from Christianity” is just wishful thinking and not supported by any hard facts.

  6. Correction: The second line should read: This statement gives one the impression that being a Christian and at the same time being Jewish is incompatible.

  7. Tom Fabry says:

    Well stated Kees de Graff.. You can love, accept, and praise Jesus Christ and remain Jewish.. That is what Dylan does… The Lubavitcich Jewish movement is waiting for the messiah.. A nice old Jewish woman once told me when asked, what happens if your messiah comes and he says his name is Jesus/Jeshua? She said,’I wont mind, just as long as he comes.”
    Dylan still sings songs about Jesus Christ.. Most telling is a very recent interview, Billboard I believe, when he said of all his songs, In The Garden was one of 2 that were unfortunately overlooked…. In The Garden is about the life work, arrest, and resurrection of Jesus Christ….
    That is Bob Dylan on record pointing directly to the life of Jesus Christ once again….
    And yes, Dylan can still remain very Jewish and still love Jesus Christ.
    I am not sure why so many people have an investment is writing that Dylan left Christ behind…. Great new book touches on that, Bob Dylan, A Spiritual Life by Scott M Marshall.
    Bottom line, God loves us all, and Jesus Christ loves us all. People Get Ready cause there is a Slow Train Coming. Live in obedience to God and let God sort out the outcome

  8. Wallace H says:

    Kees,
    You make a good observation with cogent details that highlight that the artist in question maintains a spirituality (as demonstrated through his music and words) that can embrace Jesus as well as the Torah (Thora?). In fact, isn’t that what Jesus did?

    What interests me most about listening to him is that Dylan often grounds his work in the experience of the lover, the Seeker, the lost, or the frustrated. This is what many people can relate to, including myself. In fact, those experiences ultimately led me to Jesus.

    Dylan has confessed that publicly about himself. Need he do it again? Perhaps he does it privately? Personally, I need to renew my soul daily– my mind, emotions and will — through God. Without my connection to the Creator, my soul can drift into an abyss of issues. I have been down that wide road, and the consequences are nasty and could lead to a hellish end.

    I am thankful to enjoy the art of Bob Dylan on this Narrow way I have chosen to follow. I’m glad he helped pave that way through his work! I celebrate that Light that dwells within him.

  9. Don says:

    His Mother said he was always interested in all kinds of religion. During his Rolling stone interview around 2012 for Tempest, he said all the holy books have something to teach, the Bible, the Koran, The Hindu one, which I can’t spell. Anyway, it’s a good way to look at Faith, embrace them all.

  10. Jon says:

    Your blog is one-sided and misleading. It’s not that the connections to Judaism you refer to in the Moving Forward section aren’t legit. It’s what you leave out about his continuing interest in Christ and the New Testament that makes it so unbalanced. It may seem contradictory, at least to some, but he has maintained an interest in Christ and made statements, both in interviews and in concerts, that attest to this. I have no idea where he’s at spiritually, but he seems to have both things going on, and anyone who says otherwise simply has to ignore one side of the story.

  11. TonyAttwood says:

    Jon, I think to be fair it has to be said that this has been covered in many other posts on this site

  12. Norman McBride says:

    I totally agree with what you say. It seems the Jewish nation is trying to reclaim its son irrespective of what the evidence implies. Still not trendy to be a Christian I suppose.

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