Why does Bob Dylan like “I am the man Thomas”?

By Tony Attwood

Between 4 September 1999 and 30 August 2002 Bob and his band played the song “I am the man Thomas” 59 times as a concert opener.  The song comes from Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys and was written by Ralph Stanley and Larry Sparks.

It is difficult to place the exact date of the composition of the song, but it appears to have been around 1971/2, although it could have been written earlier but not used.

It hardly needs pointing out that the song represents Jesus talking to his disciple “Doubting Thomas”, who  refused to acknowledge the resurrection until he had seen it for himself.  Hence the parable of faith not requiring tangible evidence: the centre piece of the difference between faith (without evidence) and science (based on evidence).

Here’s one of the 59 Dylan performances.

I am the Man, Thomas, I am the Man
Look at these nail scars here in my hands

They drove me up the hill, Thomas, I am the Man
They made me carry the cross, Thomas, I am the Man

I am the Man, Thomas, I am the Man
Look at these nail scars here in my hands

They crown my head with thorns, Thomas, I am the Man
They nailed me to the cross, Thomas, I am the Man

They pierced me in the side, Thomas, I am the Man
I died on the cross, Thomas, I am the Man

They buried me in the tomb, Thomas, I am the Man
In three days I rose, Thomas, I am the Man

This is not an exact reproduction of the original lyrics, Dylan having combined verses two and three from the original score.  And indeed the lines were varied from performance to performance as is Dylan’s wont.

Roy Lee Centers, Keith Whitley, and Ricky Skaggs are the performers in the original, which comes from a highly prolific time for Clinch Mountain Boys who seemingly released no less than eight LPs in a two year spell starting in February 1971.

Here is the Ralph Stanley version

This is certainly not the only Ralph Stanley song that Bob Dylan has performed – others include “I’ll not be a stranger“, “Stone Walls and Steel Bars” and “White Dove

Indeed in 1997 Bob Dylan recorded the song “Lonesome River” with Ralph Stanley for an album of songs written by and/or recorded with Ralph Stanley.  On the press release of the 2CD set Bob is quoted as saying, “This is the highlight of my career.”

Of the recording of Lonesome River Ralph Stanley said, “That’s the first time it has ever been done as a duet.” It had always been performed by the Clinch Mountain Boys as a trio.

That recording in November 1997 was the first time Dylan had recorded in Nashville since his 1969 album “Nashville Skyline”. Ralph Stanley was quoted as saying, “My wife, Jimmie, thinks its the best thing on the whole project. I think Bob does an excellent job.”  It appeared on Tell Tale Signs, Rare and Unreleased.

An index to the other songs and songwriters that we have included in the Why Does Dylan Like series is given here.

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But what is complete is our index to all the 604 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found, on the A to Z page.  I’m proud of that; no one else has found that many songs with that much information.  Elsewhere the songs are indexed by theme and by the date of composition. See for example Bob Dylan year by year.



  1. But I still have to wonder, why does Dylan “like” this song. Perhaps it appeared in the setlists during this time because it’s a short, easy to play tune, by a friend of Bob’s, and makes for a good warm up for the band as they lean in to another night on the NET.

    Or perhaps it’s Bob’s way of keeping the speculation going; “does he, or doesn’t he believe in Jesus anymore?” I mean, surely this song was never intended, by its author, especially, as merely a reductionistic comment on the alleged conflict between faith and science.

    Maybe it’s just a recitation of the passion narrative, penned as a sort of catechesis, though again, I kinda doubt Ralph would’ve even thought of that three dollar theological term. Although, if you asked him, I’d venture he’d agree it’s pretty much that, but not in such fancy terms.

    Maybe it’s just Bob saying that he’s doubts, but still believes. Maybe he IS the man…Thomas.

  2. To say that faith means “without evidence” is a common trope, but is not an accurate representation of what the word means to believers. Faith means faithfulness, being faithful, in this case, to God. To a believer, there is all sorts of evidence for belief. The story of Thomas raises interesting points on this theme. It never occurred to me to turn the story into a type, but rather is a particular story about something real that happened to Thomas, and perhaps is an encouragement to the 99.99999% of people in the history of the world who don’t have first hand knowledge of the resurrection to not let that be a bar to believing.

    As for Dylan, he has been often playing beautiful, down to earth gospel tunes to open his concerts for decades, and one can argue about what that means, but on the one side you might get a confused and complicated answer, and on the other hand, a very simple answer. And that answer, I think, is that he is bearing witness in a subtle and appropriate way to his audience, sowing the seeds at his disposal, that Jesus is the Man.

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