Dylan’s Christian anthology 4: Jimmy Reed; Crossing the Rubicon

By Kevin Saylor

“Goodbye Jimmy Reed” is a blues stomper. As in “Blind Willie McTell” and “High Water (For Charlie Patton),” Dylan turns a commemorative song into something much more and perhaps other than the legendary bluesman named in the title. The most puzzling thing about “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” is that the first verse seems to be set in Ireland: “I live on a street named after a saint/ Women in the churches wear powder and paint/ Where the Jews and the Catholics and the Muslims all pray/ I can tell a Proddy from a mile away.”

“Proddy,” an Irish-Catholic insult for a Protestant, would not likely be in the vocabulary of a Chicago bluesman born in Mississippi. Niall Brennan, however, has some interesting reflections on how phrases from this song might be a shout-out to fellow blues aficionado Van Morrison, which can be found here: https://www.highsummerstreet.com/2020/07/goodbye-jimmy-reed-hello-van-morrison.html#more

Whatever the case may be with the first verse’s odd diction and setting, the song contains themes consistent with the rest of Rough and Rowdy Ways, most notably the connection between music and religion.

In a 1997 interview, Dylan said, “Those songs are my lexicon and prayer book. All my beliefs come out of those old songs, literally, anything from ‘Let Me Rest On That Peaceful Mountain’ to ‘Keep On the Sunny Side.’ You can find all my philosophy in those old songs.

I believe in a God of time and space, but if people ask me about that, my impulse is to point them back toward those songs. I believe in Hank Williams singing ‘I Saw the Light.’ I’ve seen the light too.”  The first verse concludes, “Goodbye Jimmy Reed–Jimmy Reed indeed/ Give me that old time religion, it’s just what I need.”

“Give Me That Old Time Religion” is one of those old songs that form Dylan’s lexicon and prayer book. Both the song and the old creed are just what he needs. Different versions of the song contain various lyrics, but a few seem particularly relevant to “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” for instance, “Make me love everybody,” “It can take us all to heaven,” or “It was good for the Hebrew children,” a line especially poignant for a Jew who has embraced Christ.

The second stanza namechecks another of those old songs (and a James Baldwin novel): “For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory/ Go tell it on the mountain, go tell the real story/ Tell it that straightforward Puritanical tone/ In the mystic hours when a person’s alone/ Goodbye Jimmy Reed–God speed/ Thump on a Bible–proclaim the creed.” The lyric attaches the doxology to the Christmas carol, “Go tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is born.” The Christmas story is the “real story,” as found in the  Bible, to be proclaimed straightforwardly as a creed.

Lust, or perhaps sin and temptation more generally, are also addressed in this song. “Transparent woman in a transparent dress/ Suits you well I must confess/ I’ll break open your grapes, I’ll suck out the juice/ I need you like my head needs a noose/ Goodbye Jimmy Reed, goodbye and so long/ I thought I could resist her, but I was so wrong.”

We deceive ourselves if we think we can resist sin on our own even though we know the wages of sin is the scaffold. In the final verse, the persona is either in a cemetery looking for Jimmy Reed’s grave or a church looking for the Lord: “‘God be with you, brother dear/ If you don’t mind me asking what brings you here?’/ ‘Oh, nothing much, I’m just looking for the man/ Came to see where he’s lying in this lost land.’”

“I’m just looking for the man” likely alludes to the Don Lee penned gospel song “That’s the Man I’m Looking For,” containing the chorus, “If you can remember ask Him what’s His name/ If He tells you Jesus just say we’re so glad you came/ Tell Him you know someone that still calls Him Lord/ Then send Him on to me cause that’s the man I’m looking for.” Whether it’s gospel, blues, or the old time religion, the end of the search is Jesus the Lord.

The hymn-like “Mother of Muses” invokes Mnemosyne, who in addition to birthing the muses is the goddess of memory. Given Dylan’s vivid and vast historical imagination, Mnemosyne serves as an appropriate presiding deity. He asks her to sing of nature but also of “honor and fame and glory be.”

He loves Calliope, the muse of epic poetry. Then, as traditionally in epic, though rather surprisingly in an American pop song from 2020, he praises military heroes who “struggled with pain so the world could go free.”

Today’s cognoscenti laud protesters and rioters not men of war, but Dylan knows that sometimes liberty must be protected with force. The American Civil War and World War II were fought to set and keep men free, so Dylan sings the praises of “Sherman, Montgomery, and Scott/ And of Zhukov and Pattton and the battles they fought/ Who cleared the path for Presley to sing/ Who carved the path for Martin Luther King.”

This song does not recant or nullify those from the young Dylan who wrote “Masters of War” and “With God On Our Side.” Those songs opposed war profiteering and chauvinistic jingoism, but were not anti-war per se. Nor does “Mother of Muses” glorify acts of war. Rather it recognizes that sometimes evil must be cleared from the path to make way for artistic expression and peaceful reform. Dylan links two democratic kings, Elvis and MLK, who each strove to liberate in his own way. Honorable military leaders secure the necessary peace for art and social reform to occur.

The end of the song turns from world to personal history: “Mother of muses, unleash your wrath/ Things I can’t see, they’re blocking my path/ Show me your wisdom, tell me my fate/ Put me upright, make me walk straight/ Forge my identity from the inside out/ You know what I’m talking about.”

Men of war may be an unfortunate necessity, but the singer, like Solomon, asks for himself wisdom not martial glory. The muses’ wrath is important because sometimes the pen is mightier than the sword and is always the preferable means of settling disputes. Wisdom consists of discernment and rectitude. He asks to see the obstacles that keep him from walking in righteousness. He knows this is not a matter of identity politics. Identity must be forged from the inside out, not vice versa. We walk the straight path because of the content of our hearts and consciences, not because of any group we belong to.

In the last verse, he asks Mnemosyne, “Take me to the river, release your charms/ Let me lay down in your sweet loving arms/ Wake me–Shake me–free me from sin/ Make me invisible like the wind/ Got a mind to ramble, got a mind to roam/ I’m traveling light and I’m slow coming home.”

The river of the muses is Hippocrene, but the singer asks for absolution not inspiration. To be “woke” in this context does not carry the current slang meaning of adhering to a politically correct awareness of values defined by media culture. Rather, it means what it meant in 1980, when, quoting Revelation, Dylan sang, “When you gonna wake up and strengthen the things that remain?” He asks for baptismal rebirth that washes away sin, so the invisible wind is yet another reference to the Holy Spirit. To travel light is to remain unattached to the things of this world, which is not our true home, as when Christ advised the twelve to take nothing on their journey.

The hard-driving “Crossing the Rubicon” is a dark, obscure tale, but one that ends in hope. Crossing the Rubicon is obviously a metaphor for taking decisive action in uncertain times. The setting is not ancient Rome since there are explicit references to praying to the cross, the Holy Spirit, Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell. The story opens in an infernal setting, “during the most dangerous month of the year/ At the worst time–at the worst place”; the persona has “abandoned all hope” yet he rises early to “greet the goddess of the dawn”; he then finds himself “three miles north of purgatory,” but praying to the cross; he wonders how he can redeem idly spent time in the “dark days” of a “world so badly bent”; he does not know how much longer he can continue but he embraces his love and crosses the Rubicon; next he is filled with rage, threatening to kill someone; he can find no righteous man, yet the sun shines down and he pays his debts; finally, he climbs a hill where he believes he will find happiness and love if he survives, pours a cup, and passes it along.

I have tried to reconstruct the narrative of the first half of the song, although, in fact, it is more disjointed than my summary allows. Nevertheless, it is clearly a story about how to maintain faith (prayer), hope (dawn, redeeming the time [cf Eph 5:16 and Col 4:5]), and love (found atop the hill) in a broken world. The persona knows he must act boldly without surrendering to despair, idleness, or indifference. But who is this “you” he threatens to kill? The saga only grows more mysterious as he accuses this “you” of “defil[ing] the most lovely flower/ In all of womanhood,” an act he finds intolerable and deserving of death. Yet he claims, “I’ll miss you when you’re gone.” He declares that, “You won’t find any…happiness or joy” here and so should “go back to the gutter…find some nice pretty boy.” Is this the same you that has been said to have a wife and to have defiled the flower of womanhood? Is this you bisexual? Or is the pretty boy a tool rather than a lover? Or, as seems more likely, is this “you” a personification of some malignant power? If so, what is this power? The story flirts with allegory, but resists any easy identification. Of all the songs on Rough and Rowdy Ways, I find “Crossing the Rubicon” the most difficult to get a handle on.

And yet, it contains one of the most important verses for understanding the album: “I feel the Holy Spirit inside, see the light that freedom gives/ I believe it’s in the reach of every man who lives/ Keep as far away as possible–it’s darkest ‘fore the dawn/ I turned the key and broke it off and crossed the Rubicon.”

Once the persona feels the Holy Spirit, although the world remains dark and bent, he finds the light of true freedom. In order to feel the Spirit, the speaker has had to take resolute action in the face of uncertainty and danger, engage in prayer and self-examination, pay his debts and drink his cup, and confront a menacing enemy. Having done these things, he revives in the understanding that it is always darkest before the dawn. The Holy Spirit allows him to trust a providential order in which the sun always rises. As the song ends, it is still winter, but he lights a torch, looks to the East, and soldiers on across the Rubicon. Equally important, he asserts that such freedom and grace are offered to everyone. However corrupt the world, redemption is available to all–except perhaps the song’s ‘you,’ another reason to read this character allegorically. Even if many of the details are difficult to sort out, “Crossing the Rubicon” offers a guide for surviving in a ruthless world, as it progresses from its hellish opening through purgatory and across the river, which by the end of the song has become the Jordan as much as the Rubicon.

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  1. Yea, verily, the figurative “God in space and time” is not the eternal God (Lord) of religious orthodoxy. Amen.

  2. To solidify the concept that God is not in space and time, there be those who assert that the correct translation of Genesis 1:1 be:

    “(God) In the beginning created the heaven and the earth”

    Avoids the interpretative possibility of a Gnosic demiurge-like fragmention of the One Absolute into a Trinity.

    In in his lyrics, Dylan does not appear to hold either of these two opposing philosophies, but rather that the concept of God figuratively changes over time as expressed through art and song.

  3. ‘Rubicon’ is difficult to shovel into the Christian mould – the narrator thereof crosses over and looks the eternal Footman of Death in the eye, and is met with a snicker because it is he who holds the ultimate power,

  4. Beware of the vampires:

    Mona tried to tell me
    To stay away from the train line
    She said that all the railroad men
    Just drink up your blood like wine

  5. Dylan lyrics serious they may be but often they contain dark humour, irony, sarcasm, satire, punning … and it’s not always clear to the listener/reader when he’s doing so.

  6. Thanks for the site, and the thoughtful comments I’m finding throughout. On Goodbye, Jimmy Reed… could it be that the title doesn’t refer to Jimmy Reed’s demise, but the singer’s? There’s certainly been a tour through much of Dylan’s ‘lexicon,’ the last several albums — that I see, maybe, as a laying of wreaths, tributes and farewells…. Jimmy Reed the person died long ago, but his music is alive to Dylan and so many others and will continue to live… But the singer won’t be around to hear it forever. “I came to see you one more time to say goodbye….”

    Also, a question for you smart folks. Why all the threats of violence in Rough and Rowdy ways… arms are in danger of getting hacked off, etc etc.

  7. Just a comment on the opening lines. I think you and whoever transcribed the lyrics at Bobdylan.com are mishearing line 4: I believe the line is “I can tell a party from a mile away.” “Proddy” just doesn’t make sense to me, because it would imply religious conflict. “Proddy” is a derogatory term used by Catholics against protestants. It makes far greater sense to me that Dylan is describing a street shared in harmony by people of disparate faiths: Jews, Catholics, and Muslims, who have certainly been in conflict at other places and times, but not here. They pray together. And the song would suggest that it is the religion of music, as represented by Mr. Reed, that brings them together. In other words, I hear this song and this album as decidedly non-denominational, not overtly Christian in its messaging, despite the references to “old-time religion” and Bible thumping. As you say, and as Dylan has said, the religion is in the music. That’s his most consistent Bible throughout his career. That’s where he feels most strongly the presence of God. My two cents. Thanks!

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