Dylan’s most challenging lines: Dignity

By Tony Attwood

This article explores an idea – I am not sure if I am going to be able to take this idea forward into a series of articles, and I want to see how this article feels first before I commit, but it is an idea that fascinates me.

My point is that occasionally Dylan throws out lines or sections of verses that seem to be completely at odds with his general view of the world, as we might take it from the rest of his writings.

This example comes from Dignity


I went down where the vultures feed
I would’ve gone deeper, but there wasn’t any need
Heard the tongues of angels and the tongues of men
Wasn’t any difference to me

Dylan composed the song in 1989, and as has been widely reported, left it until 1994 to perform it.  It is said that he was unsure whether the song really was something worth performing, or not.

The notion within the song is straightforward: many art works symbolise evil (for example) as a being or entity – often called The Devil.   Goodness likewise has an personification in the Christian tradition in God, Jesus etc.   So why not personify Dignity?

Why not indeed, and that is what, I guess, Bob was up to – or at least it is the only way I can make sense of these lines.

Searchin’ high, searchin’ low
 Searchin’ everywhere I know
 Askin’ the cops wherever I go
 Have you seen dignity?

And that’s fair enough – until we get to the “vultures” bit.  Bob seems to be saying that the angels of the Almighty and us ordinary folk are all the same.   Where everything is in a mess and people’s dignity has been stripped away from them, then there is nothing left.

I find this most interesting, and those four lines relating to the vultures have long puzzled me.  Of course I have to admit from the start that they might have no meaning – they might well simply be lines that Bob knocked out because they sound good.  To say that might seem to denigrate Dylan’s art – but I don’t think so.  He has, in my view, a rare ability to pull out lines which are memorable and interesting, but which are also meaningless or contradictory.  Or indeed so meaningful they can have 100 different meanings.

But to try and make sense of it, people in desperate situations, he seems to be saying, have had their dignity stripped away from them, and talking with such people doesn’t help them.  When their dignity has gone, they need to get that dignity back before anything else can happen.

Of course I don’t know if that is right – or if Bob meant those four lines to have any meaning at all, but even in such situations, his writing can provide me with thoughts and insights, which I do enjoy pondering.  And I quite like setting them out in little articles, because the process helps me clarify my thought (and after all, you don’t have to keep reading).

Every dictionary has its own definition of the word “dignity”, and here’s a simple one I rather like and which seems to fit with Bob’s approach in the song.

“Dignity is the right of a person to be valued and respected for their own sake, and to be treated ethically.”

And so to return to Bob’s four lines…

I went down where the vultures feed
I would’ve gone deeper, but there wasn’t any need
Heard the tongues of angels and the tongues of men
Wasn’t any difference to me

Where the vultures feed – where people have no dignity because they have been stripped of any means of having dignity, all the talking in the world won’t help, no matter who does it.

And so I’m reminded of another of my favourite songs, the Drifter whose song opens with “Help me in my weakness”.  In The Drifter’s Escape” the Drifter has no dignity, he even has to be carried out of the courtroom – and yet he does manage to get some dignity back with the ultimate irony – when everyone sees the destruction of the court room by the bolt of lightening, and they all bow down to pray, the drifter gets up and strolls out.  Dignity, of a kind, returned.

Dignity is stripped also from the subject of “Tell Ol Bill”

Tell me straight out if you will
Why must you torture me within?
Why must you come down off of your high hill?
Throw my fate to the clouds and wind

And the tragedy of the subject of that song is that there is no escape – there is no way to regain the dignity that has been stolen…

I look at you now and I sigh
How could it be any other way?

There is indeed a desperate hopelessness here.

Back with “All along the watchtower, it is the joker who has lost his dignity while the thief has found his…

“No reason to get excited,” the thief, he kindly spoke
 “There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke

And maybe that takes me back to the start.  If one feels life is but a joke, then dignity can come and be taken away at random.   There is no plan from on high, there are no rules, there is nothing we can do with certainty, the drifter escapes by chance, just as chance has brought the subject of Tell Ol Bill, so low.

Thus when Bob sings

I went down where the vultures feed
I would’ve gone deeper, but there wasn’t any need
Heard the tongues of angels and the tongues of men
Wasn’t any difference to me

it is indeed all just haphazard – a joke, a world without meaning, a world in which things just happen.

This is of course the opposite of most religious views, wherein the purpose is to worship the Lord, and behave according to the rules that the prophets have laid down.

And Bob might well have been qualified to make such a comment in 1989 because he had been Saved ten years earlier, and now reflects that the tongues of angels and the tongues of men all spoke the same stuff – both being capable of removing a person’s dignity.

As an atheist I find the whole process of believing totally, and then falling out of the system of belief, utterly fascinating.  But also I find that yes, I feel a need to have a certain level of dignity about myself as I try and find a way of proceeding through this world without going completely mad.

I am reminded of Douglas Adams comment in “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe” where he says, “There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.

“There is another theory which states that this has already happened.”

That works for me.  I guess, to have dignity, we all need something to hold on to.  But I’m with Bob in 1989 on this one.  Angels and men are both capable of stripping away one’s dignity.  Laughing at them both helps me keep myself together.  For Bob, in 1989, I guess it was writing songs that did it.  But I hope he had a few laughs too.

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  1. sometimes you just have to make something rhyme and you go with what you got at the time. Sometimes it’s a stream of thoughts and you’re not questioning it you’re just letting it flow, it’s the sub-conscience, it’s the bigger part of the brain. Sometimes you just don’t like the overall production of the song so you shelve it. I really like the song, the unplugged version. I love his use of language, a meditation on dignity, or the lack there of in society.

  2. I think of these lines in the same way I think of this line from Not Dark Yet:

    “Don’t even hear the murmur of a prayer.”

    In the spiritual life there’s the thing called spiritual dryness, the dark night of the soul stuff. It means that the person feels abandoned by God, though the opposite is true. They no longer feel God’s consoling presence, and I that’s how I hear these great lines from Dignity…

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