Sign on the cross. The meaning of the music and the lyrics

By Tony Attwood

I have agreed in the correspondence columns of this site to pull back from endlessly mentioning Heylin, but I fear I need him here.  Not to be critical of him, but really to say, I just don’t understand.

Heylin, calls this an “unalloyed masterpiece” and sees it as “Every bit the equal to This Wheels on Fire”.  There is talk of “The indivisible link between singing and salvation.”

But Dylan obviously didn’t think enough of the song to rescue it.  Which leads us to the question of how much we trust Dylan’s judgement over his own music.

He has been strongly questioned over such tracks as Series of Dreams, Blind Willie McTell and Dignity being omitted from albums, but I think I can see in each case where he was coming from, as I have tried to explain in the reviews.  They were masterpieces, but unfinished, each with its own issues unresolved, and I can see how he wanted to finish them and take care of the final points of difficulty, but in each case he didn’t.

So when Dylan never returns to a piece, my suspicion is to think that he knows what he was doing in setting it to one side for all time.  And here I have to say that I have no idea what Heylin and other commentators who really love this piece are talking about.

My problem comes from several directions.  First, and most important, the claim of Heylin and others that this is a masterpiece are not backed up by anything in their commentaries.  They don’t edge me towards the lyrics, the melody, the meaning, the chord structure… As a result I don’t know where they are seeing the brilliance at all.

Second I have no idea what this song means.  Quite simply, what is “the sign on the cross”?  Of course I recognise it could be the inscription referred to in Matthew “This is the king of the Jews”, but I don’t see how that makes any sense all the way through.  Each time you tie the meaning down, it vanishes again.   So why does that sign worry Dylan?   How can he say,

Well, it’s that old sign on the cross
Like you used to be

What does that mean?

Now if you have read a few of these reviews you’ll know that I am not looking for literal meanings throughout in Dylan, for quite often he plays with words and engages in surrealism to put concepts across. I don’t take each line as having a meaning, but this is the song title, repeated and repeated in the song and I feel the need to find a meaning, or find a symbolism, or a surrealistic intent – which doesn’t seem to be there at all.

So when Dylan says

Yes, but I know in my head
That we’re all so misled
And it’s that ol’ sign on the cross
That worries me

I get worried.  That reference to us all being misled suggests Dylan is starting to refer to us all being sinners, misled by the Devil, but then how is the sign on the cross worrying from such a Christian perspective?

One thought I have had as a way around this is that Dylan is writing from a Jewish perspective, and that he is having doubts about the faith he was born into and considering the Christian faith.  That works at this point, but I am not sure it always does.   Take for example

Well, it’s that old sign on the cross
Well, it’s that old key to the kingdom
Well, it’s that old sign on the cross
Like you used to be

I can find other interpretations but not one that fits exactly with the idea of this being a song from a Jewish man reconsidering his faith vis a vis Christianity.

And then we come to the spoken section.   My first reaction was that Dylan was simply messing about.  The voice is so strange, like he is deliberately poking fun at the preacher speaking these words.

It is possible to disentangle these words to make it a serious bit of preaching but then if we do that we are back to seeing the title of the song from a Christian perspective not a Jewish perspective, and the sense vanishes again.

Take this section…

Yes, just a little time is all you need, you might say, but I don’t know ’bout that any more, because later on you might want to enter it, but, of course, the door might be closed. But I just would like to tell you one time, if I don’t see you again, that the thing is, that the sign on the cross is the thing you might need the most.

OK we can all make meanings out of that, with a few moments to think about it, but what is the point of such a ramble?  Why express it in this way?  What is the relationship between the music and the lyrics – a relationship that Dylan normally has so exactly sorted (which of course is the essence of this web site – the music AND the lyrics need to be considered).   Here Dylan has abandoned the melody, but the rather everyday chord sequence plods along as he speaks.

I am not saying that this is nonsense, just because I can’t grasp what is going on – after all I’m just a regular guy trying to look at Dylan’s work – but I am saying I don’t understand this at all.  I don’t understand the lyrics, the drop into the preacher talking mode, the references to the Sign on the Cross, the way the band plods along, the reason for the wavering voice, especially early on… any of it.  It doesn’t seem to link together to me.

I’ve looked through all the reviews of this song I could find, in an attempt to locate something that will give me an insight into what is going on here, and likewise to find any reason to suggest that Dylan is mistaken in setting this recording aside and leaving it sinking into the ground.

But the one review that I have found that made sense to me was in the Guardian, a left leaning intellectual English daily newspaper.  They said. of the Basement Tapes recordings generally, and with a mention at this point of Sign on the Cross…

“These guys are flying low over the mountains, pilled to the gills, low as Hamlet, high as kites. Take one listen to Teenage Prayer, which puts the I in innuendo. Or Please Mrs Henry, as scatalogical as a Carry On film. Or Sign on the Cross, in which the keys to the kingdom come wrapped in silver foil. These songs have Mystery written all over them, but beware of licking the label lest a white rabbit appear.”

Of course none of us is going to be pleased when another suggests that our favourite art work is the construction of a mind that had temporarily slipped over the edge and was desperately trying to claw its way back.  And I know what such an allegation sounds like.  I have a full size print of Jackson Pollock’s oil painting Convergence hanging in the entrance hall of my house, and many is the visitor who had thought it amusing to suggest that a child dabbing paint at random could have produced the work.  I disagree and speak of the emotions aroused in the picture via the light, texture and the various contrasting shapes. I also speak of the innovative style, and its relationship to the political situation in the US when it was painted, highlighting not just the need for free speech but the need to use it to challenge everyday convention and constraints within America itself.  It is politics without the gestures. Rebellion without being sure what you are rebelling against.

OK I recognise that by the time I have said all that my house guests have usually popped down the pub and left us to it, but my point is, I (and of course many others far more knowledgeable and talented than I) can express views on what we see in Pollock where other people find it a mess.

I find “Sign on the Cross” an unintelligible mess, but of course I am waiting for someone to give me an exposition of why it is more than just a drug fuelled bit of a kick around with a phrase Dylan happened to pick up.

Of course I am almost certainly wrong, but once more I find myself allied totally to Dylan and his decision to leave well alone and floundering with the commentary of Heylin.

It was ever thus.

Index to all the songs reviewed.


  1. I agree that it’s not clear what the song is meant to convey, but there is no mystery about the style and the narrative in the middle. The tune and the high wavering singing style is very familar from the old timey religion songs from folk, country and hillbilly archives. And the narrative style seems familar from pieces like the Hank Williams ‘Luke the Drfiter’ recordings and later stuff like ‘The deck of cards’. Even the way Dylan delivers the words seems to be sending up the ‘patronising’ style of these old monologues.

    I hear this song as another case of Dylan wanting to do something in a particular old style, and pretty much making up the words as he goes along. Whilst they are vague enough, they do pick up on recognisable phases from real songs (like ‘the keys to the kingdom’). If he had persisted wih it, it might have turned into something more interesting, in the same way that ‘You an’t going nowhere’ evolved, both melodically and lyrically. Of course, none of the stuff on these tapes was meant to be serious songwriting for a final purpose (to fill a planned album). I think it’s worth having, but probably not quite an unfinished masterpiece.

  2. The sign on the cross is about how labels can be very dangerous and worrisome, limiting our potential freedom. Also I see it as an indictment of modern religion. Dylan is Jewish of course so he is not supposed to believe in Christ if he believes in Judaism. Religion is often just a form of oppression that causes divides and clashes between opposing ideologies. Religion can be very comforting as well though, even more so for those isolated and confined in prison as in the songs lyrics. This is just a powerful gospel soul epic in my opinion.

  3. The sign on the cross did say “King of the Jews” did it not? Since I learned about John Gatto’s message about how our systems oppress creativity as well as labelling and categorizing individuals to keep them under control, my life has changed. This song was also a big part of my awakening to how my own life has been affected by religion and ideologies. I would turn “Sign on the Cross” up loud whenever it starts to play randomly at work. Dylan is the greatest American poet, but most importantly he is the voice of the voiceless, with a boldly honest open mind always seeking the truth behind the narrative screen of ‘history’ that we are fed through various methods of propaganda and control. Religion is deeply ingrained in American culture and Dylan has showed us how that can be used as a crutch when we fit ourselves conveniently into that tunnel of blind faith. I think this could be why so many don’t understand this song, or they don’t allow themselves to, because religion is considered such sacred ground that we shouldn’t analyze or criticise too much.
    Something difficult in my own life allowed me to have an ingrained skepticism for the supernatural. When I was about 9 years old my dear dad experienced a nervous breakdown. I would be standing by his bed wondering what was wrong when he said he saw demons around him at times. Obviously I didn’t see them there so I was perplexed for a long time as to what this unseen world of strangeness was all about. In recent years with my own awareness of truth being awakened I have read from Carl Jung and his deep journey into helping man integrate his shadow side (in religion the demon side metaphorically) so that we can face reality more completely. He believed that mankind was in serious danger if more people weren’t able to go through the hard work of becoming complete beings with individuation of their personality. Thank logos, the essence of life which flows through everything (not a fantasy, just natural life) for courageous seekers and journeymen for truth like Jung, Dylan, Chomsky and Gatto. Thank you for your time and consideration in this matter as well my friends and fellow soul warriors. Thank you Robert Zimmerman for all that you have shared with us.

  4. My meaning is that this one belongs to quite a number of songs among the 600 or so that are difficcult to digest just because they are no good.
    The only argument I can think of to defend it, is that it belongs tot the era of discovering vanishing America as expressed both in The Basement Tapes and John Wesley Harding as a whole – songs that all date from the same periode of creation (october-december 1967). If being looked at this way, we can argue that ‘Sign on the cross’ is a painting of a religious gathering of old, an example of how people may have lived the ancient ways of preaching. Seen this way, one can even judge that the song is good because the painting was done quite well.
    Nonetheless: musically it is a very boring song and Dylan was right to never release it regularly.

  5. Guys, you’re thinking too hard about this one. Just listen to the sound of thing, and picture in your head a 1950s radio broadcast of an Evangelical preacher. Bob is recreating something he heard on a trip through the South on a Sunday drive. The in and out audio, garbled words, Hudson’s small studio sound. A memory popped into his head, and Sign on the Cross came out.

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