By Tony Attwood
All music evokes an emotional response, which of course means it evokes a personal response, and I am always suspicious of people who try to remove their personal views from commentaries on music, writing as if their view was some sort of universal revelation about the music.
Nowhere is this more true for me than “With God on our Side” which has a melody and structure which appeared in the song The Patriot Game. This song itself had two origins – one being the most famous phrases of Dr Johnson, and the other being the traditional song The Merry Month of May. So by the time With God on our Side came along we had a borrowing of a borrowing of a borrowing of….
The problem we have here is that the linkage between Dylan’s song and the Patriot Game is not just the music, but also within the detail of the lyrics, for the second verse of the Patriot Game runs…
My name is O’Hanlon, and I’ve just turned sixteen.
My home is in Monaghan, where I was weaned.
I learned all my life cruel England to blame,
So now I am part of the patriot game.
Which was why Dominic Behan, who wrote Patriot Game, got so annoyed with Dylan’s God on our Side and called Dylan’s song a parody. It wasn’t so much that Dylan took the song, because Dominic Behan did that too, it was the similarity of the lyrics transmuting the Irish struggle into… what? Certainly not an American struggle because there is no struggle going on here – America just defeats everyone who gets in the way.
So let’s backtrack a bit to get some perspective.
Samuel Johnson was one of the great literary figures of 18th century England, who wrote A Dictionary of the English Language, the first modern styled English dictionary. His sayings are spread throughout our language (at least in England) including perhaps most famously, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel” (1775). Dylan obviously knew this (but then everyone who is interested in English literature far and wide knows it I think) for he used it in Sweetheart like you:
They say that patriotism is the last refuge
To which a scoundrel clings
Steal a little and they throw you in jail
Steal a lot and they make you king
It is that verse, so close to the original that makes it difficult for me to see this as the serious commentary demanding wholesale analysis, that others see.
I heard a lot of the traditional Irish and English songs in my childhood, coming as I did from a working class musical background, and they always stayed with me. Indeed in the late 1970s I wrote a series of adaptations of pop and folk songs for use in schools, which Oxford University Press published across three volumes. It was my big breakthrough as a writer/musician – and interestingly (for me at least) it contained three Dylan songs (I negotiated the rights myself, and Dylan’s negotiators were incredibly reasonable in their fee request).
The Patriot Game and God on our Side, were of course far too political to be included in a book of songs that could be used in school, but I knew The Patriot Game and was saddened when I heard God on our Side for the first time. I admired the lyrical dexterity of the song, but still kept thinking – surely someone as talented as Dylan doesn’t need an old song and adapted lyrics transposed into a simplistic commentary on patriotism. Has he really run out of ideas?
Appreciating as I do that this site is read in Ireland and the USA as much as in my native England, there is no way I am going to try and explain the Border Campaign of the IRA in the 1950s, which is the heart of Patriot Game because if I try I am going to fail horribly. But if I may I would say that the understanding of what happened then, and throughout “The Troubles” is utterly different in each country. That does not mean that I suggest the standard English position is right – it’s just it would take me 20,000 words to cover the basic outline and I’d still get it all horribly wrong.
But if you have never heard The Patriot Game, I would urge you to listen, at least just once, to understand what Dylan heard and where he took the piece.
Here’s two very different versions on the internet at the time of writing
Come all ye young rebels, and list while I sing,
For the love of one’s country is a terrible thing.
It banishes fear with the speed of a flame,
And it makes us all part of the patriot game.
And the core of the message that comes a little later…
It’s nearly two years since I wandered away,
With the local battalion of the bold IRA,
I’ve read of our heroes, and I wanted the same,
To play out my part in the patriot game.
I think the problem is that this was just about the most famous song from the Troubles (at least as far as I was concerned living in England). Even Judy Collins recorded it, which surprised me when I heard it.
So how does one review a song when it is so tangled up with another song and a famous phrase that one has heard with other associations?
Of course one of the big problems from an English point of view is that Dylan tells history from an American point of view. I know what the “Midwest” is, but I didn’t really grasp its full implication back then any more than the average American teenager probably understands the nuances behind the phrase “Home Counties” or “Black Country”. Besides my knowledge of cavalries and Indians comes from black and white western films on TV. Hardly a good source of instructive history.
Dylan did however do the true folk song thing of updating the song as he went along, later adding…
In the nineteen-sixties came the Vietnam War
Can somebody tell me what we’re fightin’ for?
So many young men died
So many mothers cried
Now I ask the question
Was God on our side?
However, as many have said, God on our Side confronts the US with its own past of violence and aggression and laughs at it being God’s Chosen nation. And that is good, as would be any song that hit out at English pretentiousness in the same regard. Once you believe in your absolute right, then your are doomed.
Indeed there is a relevance now in England as the government the year dictated that teachers have to teach “British Values”. The problem is not just the notion that we should need to teach “British Values” but rather the notion that a government elected by a minority can define what these values are. A few weeks ago I wrote an article outlining my concern with the government’s “British Values” and saying we should add to their list such things as adventurousness, creativity, exploration and a willingness to stand up to and question authority and pretension. I got more emails supporting that point than I’ve ever had on any piece about schooling I’ve ever written.
The problem is that if you put a lot of people together who consider being law abiding as what all decent people should be, they start to get nationalistic, and the right of individuals to live their own idiosyncratic life drifts away. The Drifter becomes not just a wandering outsider but a man to be arrested, put on trial, and convicted by a jury more concerned with its own world vision than anything the Drifter has ever done.
But this is not to say that I don’t admire the song. Lines like Oh the country was young, with God on its side as an excuse for genocide is well founded, not least because of Psalm 25:7: “Remember not the sins of my youth, or my transgressions”.
You see I absolutely 100% cannot go along with that. There are many things you can excuse because of one’s youth, but many that you can’t.
But just as I can’t go along with the simplicity of the Psalms, nor can I with the simplicity of Dylan in the lines
Though they murdered six million
In the ovens they fried
The Germans now too
Have God on their side
There are uncles that I never knew because they were lost in the second world war, and my father served on the front line in France and was one of those men who would never ever speak of the war thereafter when I asked. But still I would have fought Nazism had I been called. And until recently the guy I sat next to at football matches in London is a German and we both stood side by side on Remembrance Sunday before a game to pay respect to the fallen. These are too complex a set of issues to be reduced to simple lines.
In the sense that Dylan is saying that history is far too complex to be simplified into school one-liners I am with him, but somehow the way he is saying it seems still too simple for the complexity of the subject matter.
So when I read that “With God on Our Side is one of Bob Dylan’s most devastating songs of social protest I have to defer. The song is copied, the starting point of the lyrics come from another song, and it deals in a simplistic way with horrifically complex issues. The concept that a nation has God on its side is patently laughable and so even from the off the song fails.
The fact that the 1995 version Dylan got rid of the Russians verse also shows me something within the underlying meaning is wrong. Maybe the whole issue of God’s pre-cognition is just too complex for folk song structures. Or maybe it is so utterly obvious to me that God is not on our side because there is no God, I just cant value this song.
I suppose it is far more likely that I just don’t get “God on our side” in the same way that I don’t get”God Bless America” or “God Save the Queen” given the context of what I perceive the USA as having done to the Indians, or the British having done to the native Australians or the horror we managed to create in South Africa, which we then abandoned in 1910 to its fate.
At least the Irish national anthem, as I understand it, doesn’t give us God on the side of the Irish.
We’ll sing a song, a soldier’s song,
With cheering rousing chorus,
As round our blazing fires we throng,
The starry heavens o’er us;
Impatient for the coming fight,
And as we wait the morning’s light,
Here in the silence of the night,
We’ll chant a soldier’s song.
At least that seems to reflect the founding of the modern nation.
On September 25th, 2001, Dylan did an interview for Rolling Stone Love And Theft, and said
You hear a lot about God these days: God the beneficent; God, the all-great; God the Almighty; God the most powerful; God the giver of life; God the creator of death. I mean, we’re hearing about God all the time, so we better learn how to deal with it. But if we know anything about God, God is arbitrary.
Is that at last a clue? If God is arbitrary then life is chance. Now that I can cope with.
And suddenly I can recast the whole song. It is not With God on our Side but rather When the dice rolls in our favour.
Here, finally, it all makes sense. Life as chance. Yep, I can go with that. Dylan was making fun of Dominic Behan by re-using the song he had used and some of his lines, and he’s also pointing out that God’s pre-cognition makes no sense at all in a world that has had such madness as the 3rd Reich, South African apartheid…
And with that thought I offer three versions….
Famous Tonight version (from a classic BBC TV early evening news and review programme of the 1960s – although it is only a partial version).
Vimeo version – with ever changing guitar rhythms
Live version – much later interesting re-working with much of the melody gone.