With God on our Side versus Mother of Muses: the puzzling politics of Bob Dylan

by Michael Johnson

When ‘With God on our Side’ appeared in 1962, no one was in any doubt that this was an anti-war song aimed at the meaninglessness of war. Its refrain mocks the way nations call upon God when it comes to slaughtering others. No nation goes to war without having God on its side. The irony of it all, calling on God to kill, was implicit in every line.

Here are the lyrics in full, with the exception of a verse on the Vietnam War Dylan later added.

Oh my name it ain't nothin'
My age it means less
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I was taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And that land that I live in
Has God on its side

Oh, the history books tell it
They tell it so well
The cavalries charged
The Indians fell
The cavalries charged
The Indians died
Oh, the country was young
With God on its side

The Spanish-American
War had its day
And the Civil War, too
Was soon laid away
And the names of the heroes
I was made to memorize
With guns in their hands
And God on their side

The First World War, boys
It came and it went
The reason for fighting
I never did get
But I learned to accept it
Accept it with pride
For you don't count the dead
When God's on your side

The Second World War
Came to an end
We forgave the Germans
And then we were friends
Though they murdered six million
In the ovens they fried
The Germans now, too
Have God on their side

I've learned to hate the Russians
All through my whole life
If another war comes
It's them we must fight
To hate them and fear them
To run and to hide
And accept it all bravely
With God on my side

But now we got weapons
Of chemical dust
If fire them, we're forced to
Then fire them we must
One push of the button
And a shot the world wide
And you never ask questions
When God's on your side

Through many a dark hour
I've been thinkin' about this
That Jesus Christ was
Betrayed by a kiss
But I can't think for you
You'll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot
Had God on his side.

So now as I'm leavin'
I'm weary as Hell
The confusion I'm feelin'
Ain't no tongue can tell
The words fill my head
And fall to the floor
That if God's on our side
He'll stop the next war

So far so good. Here is Dylan performing the song in 1988, at the beginning of the Never Ending Tour, when he seemed keen to reclaim his radical credentials. He performs the song with gusto in a vocal performance dripping with irony and anti-war sentiment. Here is the additional verse as far as I can make it out.

In the nineteen sixties came the Vietnam war

Can somebody tell me, what we were fighting for?
Too many young men died
Too many mothers cried
So I ask the question
Was God on our side?

This verse condemns war more directly than the other verses. So again we get the message. War is senseless slaughter. War is grief.

Now we have to fast forward nearly sixty years to Rough and Rowdy Ways and the song, ‘Mother of Muses’, where we find these lines, sung in reverential tones:

Mother of Muses, sing for my heart
Sing of a love too soon to depart
Sing of the heroes who stood alone
Whose names are engraved on tablets of stone
Who struggled with pain, so the world could go free

Mother of Muses, sing for me

Sing of Sherman, Montgomery and Scott
And of Zhukov, and Patton, and the battles they fought
Who cleared the path for Presley to sing
Who carved the path for Martin Luther King
Who did what they did and they went on their way
Man, I could tell their stories all day

 This is a totally different outlook on history to ‘With God on Our Side’.  Four of these men named, Sherman, Montgomery, Zhukov and Patton were generals; if not masters of war, exactly, they were certainly their agents. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about these heroes.

William Tecumseh Sherman (February 8, 1820 – February 14, 1891) was an American soldier, businessman, educator, and author. He served as a general in the Union Army during the American Civil War (1861–65), receiving recognition for his command of military strategy as well as criticism for the harshness of the scorched earth policies he implemented in conducting total war against the Confederate States.[2] British military theorist and historian B. H. Liddell Hart declared that Sherman was “the first modern general.”[3]

Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, 1st Viscount Montgomery of AlameinKGGCBDSOPCDL 17 November 1887 – 24 March 1976), nicknamed “Monty” and “The Spartan General“,[10] was a senior British Army officer who served in both the First World War and the Second World War.

Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov (Russian: Гео́ргий Константи́нович Жу́ков; 1 December 1896 – 18 June 1974) was a Soviet general and Marshal of the Soviet Union. He also served as Chief of the General StaffMinister of Defence, and was a member of the Presidium of the Communist Party (later Politburo). During the Second World War, Zhukov oversaw some of the Red Army‘s most decisive victories.

George Smith Patton Jr. (November 11, 1885 – December 21, 1945) was a general of the United States Army who commanded the U.S. Seventh Army in the Mediterranean theater of World War II, and the U.S. Third Army in France and Germany after the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944…. Was censured for slapping two soldiers who had shell shock.

If we exclude Sherman, who defeated the Confederacy, what do the other three generals have in common? They were the three major allies, Britain, Russia and the U.S who defeated Hitler and the Nazis in World War 2. Here was a war that was not meaningless. The path was cleared for the post war flowering of western culture. This sent me scurrying back to ‘With God on our Side’ to check the WW2 verse.

The Second World War
Came to an end
We forgave the Germans
And then we were friends
Though they murdered six million
In the ovens they fried
The Germans now, too
Have God on their side

As the history of America’s wars unfolds in the song, WW2 is the odd man out, for what is being condemned is not the senseless slaughter of war but our forgiveness of the Germans. (Dylan conflates the German people with the Nazis, as was commonly done at the time.) WW2, it seems, was a war worth fighting, because of the Holocaust – the six million ‘fried’. We are reminded of Dylan’s Jewish heritage, and why he might have had a particular perspective on that war.

Returning to ‘Mother of Muses’, those generals are to be revered for ‘the battles they fought’.

‘Man,’ sings the Bard, ‘I could tell their stories all day’.

This kind of language is Homeric in its intent. These generals that he celebrates have become, in Dylan’s Classics soaked mind, the modern day equivalents of Odysseus, Ajax and Hector. Men who ‘struggled with pain so the world could go free’. Because they cleared the world of the evils of fascism, the great world of American culture, symbolized by Elvis Presley in this song (but celebrated at length in Murder Most Foul) could flourish, out of which the civil rights movement would grow, symbolized here by Martin Luther King. And out of that movement, of course, the young Bob Dylan would grow.

All this Homeric valorizing leads Dylan, usually ever aware of our mortality, to boast that the names of these heroes ‘are engraved on tablets of stone’. I can’t help but wonder if the Bard has forgotten the lesson of Shelley’s Ozymandias: words engraved on stone come back to mock us.

Are these the same kind of ‘heroes’ the Bard was ‘made to memorise’ in the earlier song?  This question made me return to ‘With God on Our Side’ with new eyes. Is the song really what we always thought it was?

Some of Dylan’s protest songs have been unmasked as something quite different. Tony Atwood has characterized ‘The Times they are a-changing’ as a protest song that doesn’t protest anything. That’s because the song is a meditation on time and eternal recurrence. If sung in a young, strident voice, it may sound like a protest song. If sung in an old, experienced voice, it sounds more like grandfatherly advice on how to deal with the young. ‘Blowing in the Wind’ is a series of unanswerable metaphysical questions. What marks them both is a certain fatalism. Times will go on changing. Our questions will go on ‘blowing in the wind’.

Coming back to ‘With God on our Side’ I find a similar fatalism. Could it be that the radicalism of the song is partly at least contextual, the social/political context in which it was written and received? I looked at some of the verses again.

The cavalries charged
The Indians fell
The cavalries charged
The Indians died
Oh, the country was young
With God on its side

Strip the verse of its irony, and we find that genocide is not being condemned exactly – we just get the fact, baldly presented. Evident is a kind of bleak fatalism: this happened and that happened. On WW 1, we hear:

But I learned to accept it
Accept it with pride

Do we have any reason not to take this as the literal truth?

With regard to the Russians, we find this:

I've learned to hate the Russians
All through my whole life
If another war comes
It's them we must fight

Must fight? Is there no alternative? Can’t we decide not to fight another war? Apparently not, as we are caught up in the imperatives of history. That imperative is carried through into the next verse about the next war:

But now we got weapons
Of chemical dust
If fire them, we're forced to
Then fire them we must

There seems no way out. The logic of war has us in thrall and there is no escaping it. Might as well try to escape fate.

The verse on Judas is linked to the other verses by this same theme – we cannot escape our destinies. The argument here flows from one of the paradoxes of Christianity. If it weren’t for Judas and that kiss of betrayal, Jesus would never have been arrested and martyred. Jesus would not have been able to fulfill his destiny. So, Judas must have been a part of God’s perfect finished plan. All kinds of heresies flow from this problem.

Now the last verse comes into perspective.

So now as I'm leavin'
I'm weary as Hell
The confusion I'm feelin'
Ain't no tongue can tell

The confusion he’s feeling is about the nature of God’s will. It seems that all this war and death are pre-ordained – could God enter history and put an end to the wretched cycle of slaughter? Doesn’t seem likely. So the very last two lines are the most pessimistic of all. Our fates are sealed.

So is this still mainly an anti-war song? I’m not so sure anymore. The song records and laments God’s will and our fates – hardly a rallying cry.

Dylan’s performance of the song in 1994 at the Unplugged concert may bear out my new sense of the song to some extent. Unlike the vital 1988 performance, the 1994 version is much more of a dirge. The music drones. Dylan leaves out the more explicit anti-war Vietnam verse. Yet the performance, oddly dispassionate, is as powerful as any he’s given. We have moved from the anger and outrage of the earlier version to weary acceptance.

 

Of course we should feel no obligation to reconcile the early Dylan with the older Dylan. After all, the man ‘contains multitudes’, but that doesn’t stop us from looking at his earlier work through the lens of the later songs.

Kia Ora

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10 Responses to With God on our Side versus Mother of Muses: the puzzling politics of Bob Dylan

  1. Harry Life says:

    Sherman can also be squeezed into WWII because of the tank; Scott, an Anerican air hero – and there’s the concept of the ‘just’ war’ – millions of slaves were freed in the American Civil War, and the racist-inspired German and Japanese military of that time defeated in WW II – no matter how hellish the war; America’s involvement in Vietnam being another matter all together –
    a war against European colonialism undertaken by the Vietnamese.

    Judas was not involved in a war, but sided with the the Roman secular authorities and the regilious authorities with their concept of ‘God’ that was permitted by the Roman rulers at that time.

    Dylan grapples with the mythical and religious concept of fatalism (thanks a whole bunch Calvin) but the historical progress toward freedom, based on the legend of the deliverance of Jewish slaves from Egypt, gets mixed in as well.

    How much Dylan’s personal spiritual or religious views (as he ages) fit in with his deliberately ambiguous artistic creations – is indeed diffiicult to ascertain.

    He ain’t clearly saying, that’s for sure.

  2. Mike Johnson says:

    Thanks Harry, I wasn’t sure who Scott referred to. I think Mother of Muses affirms the notion of a just war, whereas ‘With God on Our Side’ the situation is more ambiguous, which gives rise to ‘the confusion I’m feeling’ at the end of the song.

  3. Paul Sutcliffe says:

    I’m not sure that ‘Mother Of Muses’ makes any political statement-it deals with the nature of art, where memory and history can be transmuted into something new through poetic imagination. ‘With God On Our Side’ represents what Dylan called his ‘finger pointing’ period. I think he left making direct political statements about the time of ‘My Back Pages’. There are always inferences and allusions, but they are never direct and solely of a political nature. Otherwise you are in the field of pure reductionism where ‘Murder Most Foul’ is a song about conspiracy theories surrounding JFK’s death.
    Furthermore, some of his more political-historical connections are not openly stated, such as the links between Caesar, Mckinley and Kennedy. You have to work these out for yourself. In many ways, this album needs more a philosophical perspective of history than a political.

  4. leuwie says:

    Remind Bob Dylan as Bible Reader #1 in the very last lines “If God’s on our side He’ll stop the next war” hints to the Apocalypse WW#3

  5. Alwie Leuveld says:

    Remind the last verses “If Gods on our side He”ll stop the next war” points to the Apocalypse – ‘when the Ship comes in, when a hard rain’s a-gonna fall, when the night comes falling from the sky

  6. Peter McQuitty says:

    Leonard Cohen’s “The Butcher” is an eloquent expression of the ideology underpinning “The Times They Are A-Changing”.

  7. Francesco Spagna says:

    …Who is the first person narrator, “who” is thinking/speaking in Bob Dylan’s songs? In With God on our side is clear, in Mother of Muses (and most of the songs) not. Thus, a comparison, in my opinion, doen’t make sense…
    All the best
    Francesco

  8. TonyAttwood says:

    Francesco: much literary criticism and analysis is based on assumption because the writer chooses not to explain. One can simply live without it, or explore it. Exploring literature and comparing what one finds is part of the essence of a civilised society, in my view, but no one is forced to undertake the activity, nor indeed read the words of others.

  9. Paul Sutcliffe says:

    Interesting that the two ‘I’ songs prelude the album, followed by the two ‘my’ with ‘you’ songs , then possibles where you could speak of dramatic monologues: ‘I’ speaking to a non-existent or allegorical ‘you’. Finally, variations on this with individual and collective voices. A feast of ‘points of view’, which still need to be explained. As I have said before, I think Dylan is both explaining his philosophy and method of artistic creation and showing how this can work. We are invited to find the internal logic/ connecting features pertaining to this in the whole album. In this sense, the album is his most open, but still necessitates intensive study to find the ‘key’ links. Just as in Key West(Philosopher Pirate) you can’t really appreciate the song’s meaning without reference to the hidden history contained in the various fragments, which the man’looking for love and inspiraion’ has salvaged from the wreckage of his own memory.

  10. Ray Gooch says:

    >‘Blowing in the Wind’ is a series of unanswerable metaphysical questions.

    This brought to mind a very old post:

    “The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind
    The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

    Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
    Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
    Pastoral scene of the gallant south
    The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
    The scent of magnolia sweet and fresh
    Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
    Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
    for the rain to gather
    for the wind to suck
    for the sun to rot
    for the tree to drop
    Here is a strange and bitter crop

    I was surprised that a young Dylanista had not realized that the song Strange Fruit would come to mind for anyone hearing the questions in the song Blowin’ in the Wind, when it was a new song in April 1962. Or the answer.

    (Other aspects were more obvious — Bound for Glory, where Woody Guthrie compares his political sensibility to newspapers blowing in the winds of New York City streets and alleys — Bob Dylan’s comments in the June 1962 Sing Out!, “… it’s in the wind and just like a restless piece of paper it’s got to come down some … But the only trouble is that no one picks up the answer when it comes down so not too many people get to see and know … and then it flies away. I still say that some of the biggest criminals are those that turn their heads away when they see wrong and know it’s wrong.” — Mavis Staples’ astonishment on first hearing the song, she could not understand how a young white man could write something which captured the frustration and aspirations of black people so powerfully.)

    Times change.

    Yes, how many years can some people exist
    Before they’re allowed to be free ?
    Yes, how many times can a man turn his head
    Pretending he just doesn’t see ?
    The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind
    The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

    Postcards of the Hanging, indeed! 7 Breezes. “

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