Bob Dylan’s Hymns: What is Really Sacred? Lay down your weary tune

by Taigen Dan Leighton

Introduction: What is Truly Sacred?

One of Bob Dylan’s seminal songs is “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” from “Bringing It All Back Home” in 1965. Dylan critiques the shallowness of contemporary consumerist culture that makes “everything from toy guns that spark, to flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark.” Dylan then proclaims, “It’s easy to see without looking too far that not much is really sacred.” [ii] In a world where not much is truly sacred, how does Dylan see what is indeed sacred, what he most values or finds meaningful?

Bob Dylan has written and sung many songs that might be described as hymns, devotional songs praising the sacred. Hymns have been defined as “simple and metrical in form, genuinely emotional, poetic and literary in style, spiritual in quality, and in their ideas so direct and so immediately apparent as to unify a congregation while singing.” [iii] I do not intend a comprehensive discussion of all of Dylan’s hymns, a major project, but simply to offer a selection with which to suggest significant aspects of Dylan’s spiritual perspectives. I will consider hymns reflecting the broad range of Dylan’s career and his varied responses to the sacred.

Dylan is one of the modern world’s great creative spiritual poets. While considering Dylan’s lyrics as poetry, I deeply appreciate that he is a performance artist, and his words and spiritual insights come alive most vividly in his sung performances. He knows his songs well before he starts singing, as he declares at the end of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”

Dylan famously has had periods of espousing fundamental Christianity and of involvement with orthodox Judaism. But Dylan’s spiritual perspectives go beyond organized religions or official theologies. His lyrics can be heard and appreciated apart from references to texts from traditional religious institutions, as enumerated in the various studies of Dylan’s citations and analogies from the Bible and from Roman religion, for example.[iv]

We can see Dylan’s hymns as sharing the perspective of describing the sacred in four major realms. The sacred resides in the natural, phenomenal world rather than by seeking an escape from the mundane. Dylan celebrates the morning breeze like a bugle blowing, and every leaf that trembles and every grain of sand. Secondly, the sacred appears in misfits and outcasts, in every hung-up person in the whole wide universe. Then in helpful, healing engagement with all those who have been marginalized, who live outside the law and thus must be honest.

Further, Dylan often sees the sacred shining in his relationships with women, seen in “the beauty that I remember in my true love’s eyes” in “Tomorrow is a Long Time,” or the moonlight swimming in the eyes of the “Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” Finally, the sacred resides on the road, in the process of our journey. Dylan celebrates this sacred value in the pilgrimage of his ongoing never-ending tour, as well as in numbers of his lyrics.

The songs to be discussed here exemplify these aspects of the sacred. They are presented in rough thematic order, though certainly some of his hymns express a combination of these sacred elements. We might also hear these spiritual themes in some of Dylan’s songs not necessarily definable as hymns.

Lay Down Your Weary Tune

One of my favorite Dylan songs, a very early one, is “Lay Down Your Weary Tune.” Dylan performed it only once, in October 1963, and it was released only on “Biograph” in 1985. “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” celebrates the musical sounds of the natural landscape, as opposed to Paul Simon’s “Sounds of Silence” released in 1964, the year after Dylan performed his “Weary Tune.” In this song the sounds of nature create a hymn to the sacredness of the world itself and herald a refuge from its stress and suffering.

The song’s chorus tells of the weariness of life and its struggles, and calls for finding rest and peace in its midst. The chorus goes:

Lay down your weary tune, lay down
Lay down the song you strum
And rest yourself ’neath the strength of strings
No voice can hope to hum

After his chorus, Dylan continues strumming and singing sweetly, melodiously, about the music of nature. He sings of being struck by the sounds before sunrise, “The morning breeze like a bugle blew, Against the drums of dawn,” with bugles and drumbeats blowing in the wind. In the next verse the ocean plays like an organ, with the crashing waves like cymbals clashing. The ocean’s impact, after another chorus, leaves the singer “unwound beneath the sun and skies unbound by laws” as “the cryin’ rain like a trumpet sang.”

This is not Dylan railing against a hard rain. The rain itself is weary and crying. After another chorus, Dylan suggests one context for this weariness, as the last leaves of autumn “fell from the trees and clung to a new love’s breast.” The bare branches play like a banjo to the wind again, this wind listening best to the cries of the world. The banjo “moaned,” evoking the new lover rather than the kind of banjo Pete Seeger popularized. The song here may suggest weariness with precipitous endings of shifting romantic intimacies.

In the last verse before the final chorus, the singer gazes down to the river’s mirror, watching the river flow. In this song the varied elements of the natural landscape become musical instruments, producing a hymn to help lay down worldly burdens, perhaps calling forth the chimes of freedom ringing. Nature and its music provide their own solace and refuge within the weariness of the world’s woes. The celebration of the musicality of nature, and the communion of all its elements and instruments, implies a semi-mystical union of the world with its appreciators, and perhaps especially with musicians. Notably, the instruments attributed to each natural element are imaginative and not akin to the actual nature sounds, such as the breeze like a bugle, dawn as a drum, and trumpet-like rain, along with the moaning banjo.

The series continues…


[i]  This is an expanded version of a talk presented at the World of Bob Dylan International Symposium, June, 2023, at the University of Tulsa’s Institute for Bob Dylan Studies.

[ii]  All lyrics of Bob Dylan songs are from:, unless otherwise specified.

[iii]  McElrath Eskew, Sing with Understanding, An Introduction to Christian Hymnology. (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1980).

[iv]  For Dylan’s connections to Roman religion, see Richard F. Thomas, Why Bob Dylan Matters (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2017).

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