Dylan’s Christian Anthropology: An exploration of Rough and Rowdy Ways. Part 1 – multitudes

Publisher’s note: We are publishing a number of articles dealing sometimes with the individual songs from R&RW and sometimes with the whole album.  You will find an index to these articles and series in the Rough and Rowdy Ways page


Dylan’s Christian Anthropology Part 1

By Kevin Saylor

Aside from a few outliers (who still like the album), the early reviews of Bob Dylan’s latest release, Rough and Rowdy Ways, run the gamut from glowing to gushing. The new work joined a long list of Dylan albums described as “his best since….(fill in the year/album of your choice).” It is indeed another late career triumph from the greatest and most significant artist to emerge from the rock scene.

As often happens, reviewers find Dylan’s most recent material to be particularly relevant to whatever the current political and social climate happens to be. Or, given that we do not know how long ago these songs were recorded (“a while back” according to the Dylan quote attached to the press release of the first single, “Murder Most Foul), he is accredited with a remarkable prescience. For example, the New Yorker review describes the album as “unusually attuned to its moment.” But, as usual, the taste-makers are right about Dylan for the wrong reasons. His songs frequently seem to carry particular relevance to the current moment precisely because they speak to perennial concerns which never dissolve into irrelevancy. Far from being topical songs pulled from the headlines, these lyrics reference not only contemporary events, but go back in time past President Kennedy’s assassination to World War II to the Civil War to America’s founding, Ancient Rome, the biblical prophets, and ultimately to Adam and Eve.

Dylan can make such far-reaching references hold together because his art is informed, as it consistently has been for over 40 years now, by a Christian anthropology. He understands the human person to be created in the divine image, but fallen. The lyrics point repeatedly to Original Sin and a “bent world” (“Crossing the Rubicon”). At the same time, there is also a pervading sense of hope and the possibility of redemption. Dylan has known since his earliest lyrics that in the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart.” Such an anthropology entails limits on the possibilities of political progress and reform. To anyone who has been listening, Dylan has been saying at least since the mid-60s, and sometimes explicitly in interviews, that the government is not going to solve our problems. Genuine change occurs in the conversion of individual hearts more than in ballot boxes.

The new album resides at the intersections of art, history, religion, and politics. As much as anything, it is about how the imaginative creation of art can help us to understand and engage a world that we did not create and cannot be plastically moulded to our every desire. Dylan takes the collage or mosaic technique of composition he has used widely since 1997’s Time Out of Mind to new heights. Scores of allusions–to songs, including Dylan’s own, literature, movies, history–populate these songs, ranging from the blatant (“Crossing the Rubicon”) to the obscure (“Bally-Na-Lee”) to what I suspect are so esoteric that they won’t be discovered for generations.

Dylan has been accused of plagiarism for his uncredited references, but of course the use of frequent allusion is as old as art itself. As Cormac McCarthy has said, “Books are made out of books.” Dylan’s collage technique reveals the interconnectedness of creation, of humanity, and of art. No man is an island, since everything relates to everything else in one way or another. The technique is a way of shoring up fragments against the ruins during the “age of the anti-Christ” (“Murder Most Foul”) “in this lost land” (“Goodbye Jimmy Reed”). In this essay, in addition to tracing Dylan’s Christian anthropology, I want to examine a few of his allusions to explore how he utilizes previous works to create new meaning in his own art. My focus will not be on the musical arrangements nor on Dylan’s masterful vocal delivery, although, admittedly, these things are more fundamental to appreciating the extraordinary achievement that is Rough and Rowdy Ways.

The first allusion is the album title. “Rough and Rowdy Ways” takes its name from Jimmie Rodgers’ “My Rough and Rowdy Ways.” As 2012’s Tempest referred to Shakespeare’s The Tempest while dropping the definite article, here Dylan drops the possessive pronoun.

Rodger’s song tells of a man who meets a good woman and tries to settle down but cannot give up his displeasing “rough and rowdy ways.” It’s a common tale of a “rounder” who can’t be civilized even by a “perfect lady.” By dropping the “My,” Dylan universalizes the sentiment; all fallen men and women are guilty of “rough and rowdy ways.” Sinful behavior is not the exclusive province of drunken ne’er-do-wells.

In any interview supporting 2001’s Love and Theft, Dylan said that those songs were largely about the human desire to acquire power. These new songs are about our libido dominandi as well. Since Eve ate the apple, it’s a rough and rowdy world.

The cover photo is another allusion, recycling an old photo that had previously been used as a book cover. The picture shows a man leaning over an incandescent jukebox while two couples dance. The man at the jukebox might resemble Jimmie Rodger’s character, looking for some drinks and some action. He might be a figure for Dylan himself, selecting from that glowing machine that songs from the past that will pepper the music on the album inside the cover.  The dancing couples certainly show how art helps us to find solace in a ruthless world, dancing the blues away, as the jukebox pours out the balm of song.

The opening track, “I Contain Multitudes,” reveals Dylan’s complex use of allusions. The title is one of Dylan’s most obvious references to one of the most famous expressions of that most American of poets, Walt Whitman. It plays too on Dylan’s own mythos; a famously chameleon artist, he has always been vast. He refers by name to literary artists Edgar Allan Poe and William Blake; musicians the Rolling Stones, Beethoven and Chopin; the real-life Anne Frank who was persecuted by the Nazis and the cinematic Indiana Jones who fought the Nazis. Names of fairly well known songs such as “All the Young Dudes” and “Red Cadillac and a Black Moustache” are incorporated into the lyrics alongside obscure allusions to Irish poems (“The Lass From Bally-Na-Lee”) and Jewish tales (Howard Schwarz’s “The Angel of Forgetfulness”). The first lines evoke universal mortality: “Today and tomorrow, and yesterday too/ The flowers are dying like all things do.” This is less a 79 year old’s reflections on his own mortality than a consideration of the finiteness of all created existence: et ego in Arcadia. The song embraces the multitudinous possibilities existing even in the face of general mortality. If the album ends with a “Murder Most Foul,” it commences with a generous expansiveness, a commodious embrace of reality.

The song incorporates opposites, “I’m a man of contradictions, I’m a man of many moods,” yet it simultaneously offers straight-forward positions on certain moral principles, e.g., the need for companionship, “I’ll lose my mind if you don’t come with me,” and the importance of veracity, “I’ll drink to the truth.” Other positions are more poetically expressed but ultimately no less clear. He sings “I’ll drink to the man that shares your bed” and starts the succeeding verse by referring to  “Red Cadillac and a Black Moustache,” a song that repeats the refrain, “Who you been lovin’ since I been gone?” Taken together this seems an offer of forgiveness even for infidelity, as well as an admission, if the car and hirsute lip are ascribed to the persona himself, that the singer too is capable of betrayal. The next verse ends: “I go right to the edge, I go right to the end/ I go right where all things lost are made good again.” These lines rework scriptural passages regarding redemption, e.g., the parable of the lost sheep and the voice from the throne in Revelation 21 declaring, “Behold, I make all things new.” Betrayal, forgiveness, and redemption all form portions of the potentialities of human existence.

In this song as in others on the album, cupidity and concupiscence are singled out as particularly damning sins. The penultimate verse declares: “You greedy old wolf, I’ll show you my heart/ But not all of it, only the hateful part/ I’ll sell you down the river and put a price on your head.”

Given other references to The Divine Comedy on the album, this may allude to Dante’s she-wolf of Inferno 1, often read as a symbol of avarice, but, in any case, Dylan is well aware of the maxim: homo homini lupus. The lines also state the importance of hating and actively resisting vice. The song concludes, “Get lost, madam, get up off my knee/ Keep your mouth away from me/ I’ll keep the path open, the path of my mind/ I’ll see to it that there’s no love left behind/ I play Beethoven’s sonatas, Chopin’s preludes/ I contain multitudes.” The ‘madam’ here seems to be lust personified, as in the madam of a whorehouse. But lust is now resisted not with hatred but the better weapon of genuine love that keeps an open path in the mind, perhaps referring simultaneously to the narrow path leading to salvation, St. Paul’s stumbling block of I Corinthians 1:23, and the opening of Dante’s Comedy where the Pilgrim wanders off from the straight path and loses himself in a dark wood. Amidst the multitudinous possibilities laid out in the song, love is the ultimate key. And music–sonatas and preludes–help encourage love.

“I Contain Multitudes” takes its title from Whitman. Musically, however, it is no “barbaric yawp” but a lilting, softly sung, melody.

The second song, “False Prophet,” steals a funky blues riff from Billy “the Kid” Emerson’s “If Lovin’ Is Believing.”  We’ll come to that in the next article in this series.

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  1. The Adam and Eve/ Eden story comes from the Old Testament (the Jewish ‘Bible’, if you will), not the New.

    The concept of ‘Original Sin’ is introduced as dogma by the Christian Church –
    it is indeed very difficult to find the dogma seriously reflected in Dylan’s song lyrics, if at all.

  2. Nor is Augustine’s concept of ‘original sin, accepted by the Eastern Church.

  3. A fine piece the above article is, and the prospect of showing that Dylan takes the concept of ‘original sin’ seriously( Part II) is indeed going to be interesting, but, jumping the gun or not, I have yet been able to find it!

  4. For example, the following lyrics can be taken to be a sardonic comment on the the conceptualization of ‘original sin’ by St Augustine and St Paul:

    Temptation’s not an easy thing, Adam given the devil reign
    Because he sinned, I got no choice, it run in my vein ….
    Well, I’m pressing on to the higher calling of my Lord

  5. Your criticism does what all good criticism does, it sends the listener back to the album with new ears, and a new perspective. Great job. One quibble: the lyric from I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You that you quote as “show me something that I’ll understand…” is actually “something I don’t understand…”.

  6. You say he references The Lass of Bally na Lee when I fact he says Balian Bali spray from that an enjoyable read

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