“An attempt to show that analyses of Dylan’s music that focus just on the lyrics can miss the point.”
By Tony Attwood
“Cover Down, Pray Through”, is something of an oddity in Bob Dylan’s list of compositions. For a start, it doesn’t actually appear on the official list of songs on the official Bob Dylan site. In fact, if you go searching for details of this song there’s every chance that one of the first sites you’ll come across is the site that you are on at this moment; no one else seems to have taken much notice. We’ve reviewed it because our original raison d’être was to do a review of every song Dylan has written.
So I guess I should start with the recording, the one and only recording that I know about, in case you have missed it.
Now the point here is that the accompaniment is simply based on three chords repeated over and over again, without change. And there is the chorus which consists of the phrase “Cover down pray through”. So basically there is not much for Dylan to work with – although obviously, that is through Bob’s own choice.
And it does work with that repeated sequence, through having a melody which changes a little according to what the lyrics are offering, and the varied use of the female chorus. Plus the lyrics which are very clearly articulated; Bob really wants us to hear the lyrics.
Also he introduces an electric piano for the instrumental break playing an improvisation over the chord sequence which again fits perfectly
But more than anything it is those contrasts – the contrasts between Bob’s singing of the melody and that of the female chorus with its occasional scat singing – that make this piece work. It is a pure case of the music and the lyrics having equal parts to play.
As for the lyrics, there is nothing amiss with them, but because it is a religious treaty, we pretty much know what we are going to get. There’s no debating what is being said here, in the way that we might debate the exact implications of so many other songs. It says God will protect you if you believe. Everything you need to know is in the Bible.
So there are many reasons why the song might fail; it is repetitious and it has a message we have heard so many times before. And maybe Bob did think it has failed since it wasn’t put on an album, and hasn’t even made it onto his official site. But it is the music that drives it along. It really doesn’t matter if you don’t take in the words: that rhythm is hypnotic, there is a constant pulse, the melody changes and there is a really great interchange between Bob and the female chorus.
But at the heart of it all, is that rhythm and the melody – in short the music. True Bob does enunciate the words clearly, but really they are a set of declamations of a fundamental belief that we will all have heard many times before. If you are a believer then you know them, if you are a convinced non-believer (as for example I am) then you let them pass and enjoy the music.
So this really is a piece where it is the music that carries us along. I suspect many listeners haven’t fully focussed on the lyrics, having understood the basic message, but can enjoy the song because of the rhythm, the engaging and constantly varying melody, and the interaction of Bob’s voice with the chorus.
In short, it is the music that takes us through. Of course, we might choose to listen to the lyrics, but because of the music, that is just an option. What cannot be ignored is the music, and in this case, as so often, Bob has got the music just right.
This is not to say the lyrics don’t matter – they are fine if you want that message, and indeed the ending
You will be separated from everything you seem to be You think you'll be liberated but the grave won't set you free
which really is quite powerful stuff. But in effect it is the music that carries the piece through, and here Bob put as much energy into creating the music as he has done with those lyrics. And that’s what makes it happen.
I’ve no idea why the official site denies the existence of the piece, but then, there is an awful lot in the world of Bob Dylan that I have no idea about.