Bob Dylan’s hymns part 3: Every Grain, Released and Chimes of Freedom


Previously in this series

by Taigen Dan Leighton

Every Grain of Sand

In 1981 Dylan wrote “Every Grain of Sand” released on the “Shot of Love” album, considered part of Dylan’s Gospel period. Dylan has performed the song more than 300 times, and in his tours in 2023 has closed his concerts with it. The song further celebrates the sacred value of our phenomenal world. It begins, “In the time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need/ When the pool of tears beneath my feet flood every newborn seed.” The mood of the song begins with regret, sorrow, and repentance, even if the next verse starts with the singer perhaps ironically having “no inclination to look back on any mistake.” But he sees the need to “break the chain of events” that leads to this present situation, and then sees the sacred present, “In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand.”

Each second verse thereafter ends with “every grain of sand.” The singer comes to understand, onward in his journey, “That every hair is numbered, like every grain of sand.” This seeing all elements of the world encompassed in every grain of sand, the macrocosm in the microcosm, echoes the song “Auguries of Innocence,” ca. 1803, by the great 19th century British visionary poet William Blake (1757-1827). Blake begins these Auguries, defined as omens, prophesies, or predictions, with:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour [10]

Blake’s grain of sand embraces and contains the whole infinite universe including all times and heavens. In his “Auguries of Innocence” Blake proceeds to catalogue numbers of animals who are in tortured situations such as “A Robin Red breast in a cage,” “A dog starv’d at his Master’s Gate,” “A Horse misus’d upon the Road,” and “The Beggar’s Dog & Widow’s Cat [unfed]” along with many others.

Despite this proliferating suffering, Blake advises:

Man was made for Joy & Woe;
And when this we rightly know
Thro’ the World we safely go.

He adds later, “Some are Born to sweet delight,/ Some are Born to Endless Night.” This Blake lyric elaborates on the wholeness of the world, incorporated in a grain of sand. While containing great sadness and injustice, Blake also embraces the possibility of joy and delight when openly facing this world and all its elements.

Dylan’s grains of sand are similarly all-encompassing. Dylan specifically calls forth the sadness of regret and loss. The song ends:

In the bitter dance of loneliness fading into space
In the broken mirror of innocence on each forgotten face
I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand

Each grain of sand is likened to a sparrow falling. Dylan celebrates this life with its sandy grains replete with all elements of the world’s landscape, from trembling leaves to every hair to the passing away of birds flying in the sky. Like Blake, Bob Dylan sees redemption, or at least consolation, in facing this wholeness.

Not only does every grain of sand include and embrace a whole world or the universe, but every grain of sand matters. Each bit of creation is sanctified in Dylan’s vision, every hung-up person in the whole wide universe holds ultimate value. Dylan expresses this another way in “Only a Hobo” from 1963, released in the Bootleg Series, vol. 1-3. While out walking the singer spies an old hobo lying dead in a doorway, and sings, “Only a hobo but one more is gone, leaving nobody to sing his sad song, leaving nobody to carry him home.” For Dylan every creature is sacred and worthy of respect and reverence, along with the whole wide universe.

I Shall Be Released

“I Shall be Released” from 1967 might serve as a revealing counterpoint to seeing the wholeness and spiritual value of the everyday world of phenomena. Originally heard on “Music from Big Pink” by The Band, appearing on various Dylan bootlegs thereafter, and performed nearly 500 times by Dylan, the song poignantly calls for release from the sorrows of the world, aiming for “some place so high above this wall.” Yet in this song Dylan sings that, “I remember ev’ry face/ Of ev’ry man who put me here.” The singer does not dismiss or forget the experiences of the mundane human world. The sacred includes his friendships and loves, and all the people and situations that “put me here.”

In this hymn to release, the word “release” has relevant implications for Dylan’s relationship to the sacred. His hymns provide release from the obstructions of a consumerist culture that values material acquisition and the frivolous, from “toy guns that spark to flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark.” Further, his hymns offer release and relief from the limitations of our narrowed materialist perceptions and values. Consumerism and commodity acquisition objectify the world and block open awareness of its beauty and possibilities of intimacy. Thus “this lonely crowd” is denied the value and meaning of what is truly sacred.

Chimes of Freedom

Dylan’s song “Chimes of Freedom” from “Another Side of Bob Dylan” in 1964 is a kind of hymn, which he performed fifty-six times between 1964 and 2012. In what might be seen as a development of “Lay Down Your Weary Tune,” the natural phenomena of thunder crashing seems to be the chimes of freedom flashing. The sacred that is praised in this song is the suffering of a whole array of “countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out” people. The lightning is “tolling for the outcast, burnin’ constantly at stake,” and tolling for “each unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail.” The song praises their relief and freedom from suffering, dedicated to “every hung-up person in the whole wide universe,” that they might hear the chimes of freedom flashing.

Much of “Chimes of Freedom” is about freedom from oppressive conditions, rather than positive expressions of what freedom is for. Freedom from, and adamant refusal to accept any oppressive social system, was expressed the following year, 1965, in one of Dylan’s greatest protest songs, “Maggie’s Farm” from “Bringing It All Back Home.” The singer is insistent that he “ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more.” Later “in the 1980s Maggie’s Farm was widely adopted as an anthem by opponents to British Prime Minister Margaret [Maggie] Thatcher.”[2]

Positive qualities of freedom that Dylan finds sacred are included in “Chimes of Freedom.” Such images as, “the warriors whose strength is not to fight… [and] the echo of the wedding bells before the blowin’ rain” celebrate helpful and free spirit. The chimes are “striking for the gentle, striking for the kind, striking for the guardians and protectors of the mind.” These gentle protectors are the sacred praised in this hymn to freedom. In the denouement of the final verse Dylan describes “being starry-eyed and laughing … when we were caught.” The song closes with gazing “upon the chimes of freedom flashing” as a beacon of true value and the sacred, and a comfort for the outcast and marginalized.

[1]  Geoffrey Keynes, edit. Blake Complete Writings (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), pp. 431-434.

[2]  See:’s_Farm


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