By Tony Attwood
A meander around the internet today found me over 180 cover versions of this song, including a surprising number of instrumental pieces.
It is of course one of the most widely known Dylan songs, and it has a highly distinctive melody, opening line, chord sequence and chorus, and when you’ve got all three you have a song that everyone will remember.
It is also an incredibly simple song, something that comes across if one just looks at the lyrics
Mama, take this badge off of me I can’t use it anymore It’s gettin’ dark, too dark for me to see I feel like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door Mama, put my guns in the ground I can’t shoot them anymore That long black cloud is comin’ down I feel like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door
This is not Dylan the great lyricist but Dylan turning a simple phrase into a song everyone remembers. It is in fact the antithesis of “Visions of Johanna” – and that one man could write both is extraordinary.
So perhaps it is the sheer simplicity that attracts everyone. I can only give the simplest of samplings of what musicians have done with the song..
Kuku treats it with due regard and simplicity and keeps the accompaniment down to a minimum, using the choir to give the extra element. I’m not sure about mixing up the verses though.
Turning the piece into an instrumental seems to be a favourite activity – perhaps the attraction is that there is so little to work with that the deviations that the performer needs can go anywhere. This is not to everyone’s taste, of course, because it deviates from the meaning of the lyrics, and instead becomes an extemporisation.
I find I can remove the lyrics from my mind, and enjoy where this goes; I find it fun, but I know not everyone is happy with this.
Staying with the basic elements that Bob has given us, means that those who can’t develop the song and can’t add their own deviations from the original get a bit stuck. Thom Cooper shows us just how much one can do with only the slightest movement.
Jochen’s contribution on this site to the discussion of the song is as ever comprehensive and insightful, and I certainly can’t improve in any way on his insights, so I’ll reprint from the original…
Following the horrific shooting of school children in the Scottish village of Dunblane, in which a 43-year-old man kills fifteen children between the ages of five and six plus a teacher, musician Ted Christopher rewrites the lyrics. Mark Knopfler helps free of charge and in the Abbey Road studios, with a choir of brothers and sisters of the victims, the single is recorded on December 9, 1996. It immediately climbs to first place in the English charts.
Psalm 23 is incorporated in it (The Lord is my shepherd), the second verse has been rewritten and a third verse has been added:
Lord these guns have caused too much pain This town will never be the same So for the bairns of Dunblane We ask please never again Lord put all these guns in the ground We just can’t shoot them anymore It’s time that we spread some love around Before we’re knockin’ on heaven’s door
Nobody knows what possessed the murderous coward, who commits suicide on the spot. Heaven’s Door remained closed to him, in any case.
I was thinking I would stop there, but was then reminded of The Cat and Owl, a mysterious ensemble – if you want to know more, try their Facebook page
And that’s where I shall stop, because I rather like that and it is just right for me at this moment. I forget the lyrics of the original and this soothes me at a moment when my head is everywhere at once. (Not in a bad way, I should add, but through very positive events: I have just for the first time met the brother I never knew I had).