Goodbye Jimmy Reed (2020) part 6: O ye of little faith

Goodbye Jimmy Reed (2020) part 6

by Jochen Markhorst

VI         O ye of little faith

For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory
Go tell it on the Mountain, go tell the real story
Tell it in that straight forward puritanical tone
In the mystic hours when a person’s alone
Goodbye Jimmy Reed – Godspeed
Thump on the bible - proclaim the creed

 “I wanted to make something more religious,” Dylan says of Tempest, in the interview with Mikal Gilmore for Rolling Stone, September 2012, but in the end he finds the religious songs he wrote for it too similar.

This does intrigue Gilmore. “What do you mean by religious songs,” he asks, “something like Slow Train Coming?” “No, not at all,” Dylan replies, “more like ‘Just A Closer Walk With Thee’.” Getting already pretty close to old-time religion indeed, close to hardcore gospel like “How Great Thou Art”, “Rock Of Ages” and “Nearer My God To Thee”… entering the territory of Mahalia Jackson and Luke The Drifter, in other words. Which is apparently still buzzing in the back of Dylan’s mind in 2020, as evidenced by the opening of the second verse of “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” – the last lines of the Lord’s Prayer, as they are already written in the New Testament: “For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, For ever and ever. Amen” (Matth. 6:13). The praise, the doxology to put it liturgically, which the congregation sings after the choir has sung “and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”.

Like old-time religion, the follow-up line go tell it on a mountain is just as much an excursion into Mahalia Jacksonland. After all, “Go Tell It On The Mountain” was already on the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ setlist back in the nineteenth century, and has never disappeared from the canon. From The Weavers to Bobby Darin, Sinatra to Simon & Garfunkel, The Staple Singers to Peter, Paul & Mary, and Dolly Parton, Harry Coninck Jr and James Last… since its first recording in 1941 (Dorothy Maynor) to the present day, the spiritual has been indestructible. Not out of place, then, this verse in Dylan’s song, but the initial expectation that “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” tells a story is gradually beginning to evaporate.

“Something more religious,” as Dylan dreams aloud in 2012, it is, though. For now. So far, every verse (apart from the “chorus line” Goodbye Jimmy Reed – Jimmy Reed indeed) has a religious reference or component: Saint, churches, pray, Proddy, religion – culminating in the opening lines of this second verse, which quote the Lord’s Prayer and one of gospel music’s greatest hits. But, unlike spirituals like “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” or “Go Tell It On The Mountain”, without any coherence; “It doesn’t amount to anything more than what the broken glass reflects,” as Dylan sings of the source of the Lord’s Prayer, the Sermon on the Mount (in “Up To Me”, 1974). A mosaic-like character reinforced by the change in tone, in this second verse:

Tell it in that straight forward puritanical tone
In the mystic hours when a person’s alone

… where that first line has a somewhat cynical undertone. Not so much in the recitation as in the choice of words – especially “puritanical”, a word that generally has rather negative connotations (as “very strict”, “censorious”, “anti-pleasures”) and as such is used by Dylan elsewhere:

“America was still very ‘straight’, ‘post-war’ and sort of into a gray-flannel suit thing, McCarthy, commies, puritanical, very claustrophobic and whatever was happening of any real value was happening away from that.”
(interview with Cameron Crowe, Biograph booklet, 1985)

And where the second line, while again having religious overtones (mystic hours), has again a completely different tone: poetic, gentle. And for the Van Morrison-lovers, indeed has a “Van-the-Man colour” (although Van actually never sang the particular word combination mystic hours).

It’s an unusual word combination, by the way. Californian whiz kid Beck uses it once, in the whimsical “Lemonade” (on the Deluxe Edition of his masterpiece Odelay, 1997), but that’s about it. At least, as far as the song catalogue is concerned. Beyond that, we find it in the canon one single time:

Then on the earth partially reclining, sat by your side, leaning my chin in my hands;
Passing sweet hours, immortal and mystic hours with you, dearest comrade–not a tear, not a word

… in Walt Whitman’s moving funeral blues “Vigil Strange I Kept On The Field One Night”, a lamento, while waking by the corpse of a fallen comrade in arms. The same Walt Whitman whose I contain multitudes from “Song For Myself” triggered the opening song of Rough And Rowdy Ways – it is at the very least likely that Dylan also picked up this mystic hours from a Whitman anthology. Ultimately hardly important, of course – neither the source nor the poetic tone. Decisive for the associating poetic songwriter seems to be the motif, the religious signifiers, passed from verse to verse like an estaffette baton.* Something we see Dylan do more often. The opening of “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands” (Blonde On Blonde, 1966), for example:

With your mercury mouth in the missionary times
And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes
And your silver cross, and your voice like chimes

With – coincidentally – yet again religious signifiers in every line (missionary – prayers – cross), but in Dylan’s oeuvre other themes provide motifs just as often. Like “weather conditions” in “Jokerman”, or “traveling” (“Lo And Behold!”), “fairy tales”, “card game”… it is in itself not too surprising that a poetic songwriter, freely associating, allows himself to be carried away on the waves of his stream-of-consciousness while staying within the shores of a chosen theme. As evidenced by the final two-liner of this second verse:

Goodbye Jimmy Reed – Godspeed
Thump on the bible - proclaim the creed

…“Godspeed” and “bible” and “proclaim the creed”; the song’s final religious bursts, and closing with a tone miles away from “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” and “Go Tell It On The Mountain”. For “bible thumping” and “proclaiming the creed” have nothing of the conciliatory, harmony-preaching of the Sermon on the Mount or the elated rapture of Mahalia Jackson, but on the contrary everything of the irreconcilable intolerance of the Puritans – of the “Give Me That Old-Time Religion”-singing Karens from Inherit The Wind.

“Has your sense of your faith changed?” Mikal Gilmore asks in that 2012 interview. “Certainly it has,” Dylan cheerfully replies, “o ye of little faith.”


*Publisher’s footnote: Estafette.   Being a native English speaker who works as a writer, I like to think I know quite a bit of the English language, but I got caught out by Jochen’s use of “Estafette”.  It is, I now know having looked it up, a perfectly acceptable word in English, meaning: a military courier.  I thought I would add this, just in case you were caught out, as I was.  Although it is most likely that I am the only ignorant person here.

To be continued. Next up Goodbye Jimmy Reed part 7: You can see the light


Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:

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