Bob Dylan: the lyrics and the music: Cover Down Pray Through

“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.


  1. Declamations of a fundamentalist belief or hedging one bets?!:

    He made my mouth like a sharp sword
    In the shadow of his hand he hid me
    He made me a polished shaft
    In his quiver he he hid me away
    (Isaiah 49:2)

    Up pops swagman William Blake with his two-edged (s)word/word(s) that both wound and heal:

    I will not cease from the mental fight
    Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
    Till we have built Jerusalem
    In England’s green and pleasant land
    (William Blake: Jerusalem))

    Dylan and/or his persona has this to say ~within the bounds of ambiguous diction, truth lies ~
    you’ve got to ‘double down’:

    To wit, a baroque metaphor:

    The word of God is sharper than a double-edged sword
    (Bob Dylan: You Got To Double Down)

    Even when singing ‘simplistc’ gospel songs, Dylan seldom pins himself down.

  2. Easily construed that the writer sticks up fot the Old Testament, and the one-sided Yahweh Who places blood over the door of Jews to save their children in Egypt:

    You heard about Pharoah’s army
    Trampling through the mud
    You heard about the Hebrew children
    Redeemed by blood

    Admonishes hard-line fundamentalist Christan true believers:

    Same spirit dwelling in you
    That raised Christ from the dead
    If it quickens your mortal body
    Then let it run to your head …..

    To wit:

    I need protection
    By the armour of the Lord
    The sword of God is sharper
    Than any double-sided sword

  3. I think pretty highly of this song, and used to use it to help my students reading Spenser’s Faerie Queene Book I and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, specifically where these works deal with the temptation to despair — which Dylan captured so well in the lines about someone troubled in the wee hours by a bad conscience (“you can run, but you can’t hide” from those truths), and moreover by the uneasy awareness that “sins you can’t even remember are waiting to meet you there.” The afflicted sinner has to reach out beyond some hope based on his own good deeds, to Christ for forgiveness and peace of mind.

    To me it’s a gem from his Gospel era.

  4. Cover down ~

    Said it is that the Pharoah orders throwing the sons of Hebrew slaves into the Nile.

    Yahweh gets vengence; has “passover blood” splattered on Hebrew doorways and sees to it that the sons of pagan Egyptains die.

    Times change.

    Claimed later on that Yahweh sacrifices “Hs only Son” – Christ – when matters take a turn for the worse.

  5. I’d love to know what a “convinced non-believer” is. I’ve long thought that the burden of proof lies with atheism. There is so much unknown when we look out into the universe. Existence could certainly be a gift but maybe I’m just covering my bets as I seek a deeper source. Dylan’s work (in many of its phases) energizes me along the way!

  6. Good grief Charlie Brown!

    The correct quote from”Cover Down” is:
    “Than any double-sided sword”

  7. A convinced non-believer for myself is one who has been brought up in a religious family, had the duty of overseeing the passing of my mother and father according to their wishes, and who having spent many years considering religion from many sides, has reached the conclusion that it is a) illogical and contradictory and b) if it were real it would not be. I have answered you Bill but don’t think this is the place to continue the debate, so may we leave it at that – each of us has had our chance to express our view in a few lines.

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