The Bob of Irony Part 1

By Larry Fyffe

A number of analysts of the song lyrics of Bob Dylan assert that many of them can be ‘decoded’, and found autobiographical. As far as I am concerned that’s a dubious path to travel down since Dylan songs tend to have universal, rather than personalized, themes. That is not to say there are no songs that at least give the impression that they are ‘confessional’ – this especially when it comes to Dylan’s “conversion” to the Christian fundamentalism, and his later disillusionment with some of its leaders and followers. These songs seldom criticize the teachings of Jesus per se, but instead the rather harsh interpretations imposed upon Christ’s parables by evangelistic leaders.

Bob Dylan at times mocks organized religion in a humourous way. On winding down his ‘Christian phase’, he imitates the style of a fire-and-brimstone evangelist preacher, a role he took on, presumably seriously, for a time; the accompanying upbeat music gives the Horation burlesque away:

Trouble in the city, trouble in the farm
You got your rabbit's foot, you got your good-luck charm
But they can't help you none when it's trouble
Trouble
Trouble, trouble, trouble
Nothin' but trouble
Trouble in the water, trouble in the air
Go all the way to the other side of the world, you'll
find trouble there
(Bob Dylan: Trouble)

The song is inspired by a con man who puts on the mask of a fire-tongued preacher in the movie ‘The Music Man’:

Yes, you got lots and lots of trouble
I'm thinkin' of kids in knickerbockers
Shirt-tail young ones, peekin' in the pool
Hall window after school, you got trouble folks
Right here in River City ....
(Trouble, trouble, trouble)
(Robert Preston: Ya Got Trouble ~ Willson)

Christian churches, including evangelistic ones, have a long history of fomenting hatred against non-Christians, especially the Jews – even to this day. Indeed, the Nazis picked up on the depiction thereof to justify the committing of the most heinous crimes against humanity imaginable. That’s not at all funny, and Dylan turns to Juvehalian satire to express his anger:

I need a shot of love, I need a shot of love
Why would I want to take your life?
You've only murdered my father, raped his wife
Tattooed my babies with a poison pen
Mocked my God, humiliated my friends
(Bob Dylan: Shot Of Love)

It’s quite a hyperbolic interpretation of words said to be uttered by Jesus that Dylan hurls back at the literal-inclined fundamentalists:

For I am come to set a man at variance against his father
And the daughter against her mother
And the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law
(Matthew 10:34)

As Christopher Ricks points out, Dylan uses Menippean mockery as well. The singer/songwriter criticizes the personal flaws of individuals such as arrogance, and hubris – those who consider themselves to have the one and only answer to the world’s problems. Though the following lyrics are double-edged as Dylan’s often are, they can be interpreted to mean many of those individuals who claim to be followers of Jesus ironically have a heart of stone. The poet William Blake envisions Christ as an imaginative child who shines the light of natural love in a world darkened by institutionalized hatred:

He's the property of Jesus
Resent him to the bone
You got something better
You got a heart of stone
You can laugh at salvation, you've can play Olympic games
You think that that when you rest at last, you'll go back to where you came
But you picked up quite a story, and you've changed since the womb
What happened to the real you, you've been captured but by whom?
(Bob Dylan: The Property Of Jesus)

Blakean to the core are the following song lyrics:

I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there's someone there, other times it's only me
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow fallen, like every grain of sand
(Bob Dylan: Every Grain Of Sand)

Wrote the preRomantic poet:

To see the world in a grain of sand
And a Heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour
(William Blake: Auguries Of Innocence)

Amen!

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