Bob Dylan’s Hymns: What is Really Sacred?  Part 4: Ring them bells, Sad Eyed, Nobody ‘cept you


Previously in this series

  • Part 1: Lay down your weary tune
  • Part 2: What is really sacred?
  • Part 3: Every Grain, Released and Chimes of Freedom

by Taigen Dan Leighton

Ring Them Bells

“Ring Them Bells” appeared on Dylan’s “Oh Mercy” album in 1989. The song echoes “Chimes of Freedom” from 1964, for example in its fourth verse, “Ring them bells for the blind and the deaf,/ Ring them bells for all of us who are left,” reminiscent of “Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned an’ forsaked/ Tolling for the outcast, burnin’ constantly at stake,” from “Chimes of Freedom.” These bells toll for the outcasts, but also ring from the natural world, from the sanctuaries “through the valleys and streams,” recalling “Lay Down Your Weary Tune.”.

The song praises the sacred as an anti-hymn, lamenting the desecration of what is holy. The second verse ends, “the sun is going down/ Upon the sacred cow,” a double-edged perhaps ironic image. Cows may be truly sacred, for example in India, but also an expression of that which is falsely considered sacred, as in the biblical golden calf Moses encountered upon descending from Mount Zion. The song ends with the defilement of morality, “they’re breaking down the distance between right and wrong.”

“Ring Them Bells” resonates with “The Bells of Rhymney,” a song with music added by Pete Seeger to the lyrics of the Welsh poet Idris Davies. The song grieves for a Welsh coal mining disaster. “Bells of Rhymney” was covered by the Byrds in their 1965 “Mr. Tambourine Man” debut album, which also covered Dylan’s “Spanish Harlem Incident,” “All I Really Want to Do,” and “Chimes of Freedom,” as well as the title song. In “Ring Them Bells” Dylan calls, in different verses, to ring them bells to St. Peter, for Sweet Martha, and for St. Catherine. This recalls “The Bells of Rhymney” invoking the brown bells of Merthyr, the black bells of Rhondda, the grim bells of Blaina, the bells of Newport, the green bells of Cardiff as well as the sad bells of Rhymney. The sorrow of “Bells of Rhymney” for the dead miners and anger at the mine owners informs Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells” including ringing for “the child that cries, When innocence dies.”

Another antecedent for “Ring Them Bells” might be heard in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Bells,” which Dylan’s sometimes colleague Phil Ochs adapted for his beautiful song “The Bells” in his 1964 album “All the News That Fits.”

Poe’s Bells start by extoling delight. In the first two verses, “A world of merriment their melody foretells” and “a world of happiness their harmony foretells.” But the tone shifts to “Brazen bells! What a tale of terror now their turbulency tells!” This somber mood increases to “a muffled monotone … on the human heart a stone.” In the last verse we hear “the sobbing of the bells” and the poem closes with “the moaning and the groaning of the bells.” Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells” is not nearly so ominous as Poe’s Bells. Yet the song does present the loss of innocence as “the willows weep and the mountains are filled with lost sheep.” In the last verse “the fighting is strong” as “they’re breaking down the distance between right and wrong.” In this hymn Dylan acts as a guardian and protector of the sacred, noting how it is threatened.

In his song “I Contain Multitudes” from “Rough and Rowdy Ways” in 2020, Dylan honors both Poe and Blake, antecedent to “Every Grain of Sand.” He sings, “Gotta tell tale heart like Mr. Poe” and a few verses later, “I sing the songs of experience like William Blake.” Dylan is not shy about honoring the multitudes of his musical and poetic inspirations.

Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands

Dylan’s hymns often celebrate the sacred in the women he has loved. Dylan’s “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlandswas written in 1966 and released on “Blonde on Blonde.” It is one of Dylan’s longest songs, surpassed in length only by “Highlands” and “Murder Most Foul.” Its length might account for why Dylan has never performed “Sad-Eyed Lady,” or perhaps it is simply “too personal a tale,” as he sings about the “lonesome-hearted lovers” in “Chimes of Freedom.” (Dylan has performed versions of “Highlands” nine times, and nearly 600 times “Desolation Row” equal in length to the Sad-Eyed Lady, though he also has never performed “Murder Most Foul.”) Sad-Eyed Lady is a hymn-like love song, generally acknowledged as dedicated to Dylan’s first wife, Sara Lownds.

The song is complex, replete with colorful images, many likely symbolic references to events in their relationship. A full exegesis or interpretation of the song is not relevant to this article. But “Sad Eyed Lady” serves to exemplify a hymn dedicated to a loved one. It is one of three Dylan songs containing the word “hymn,” mentioning her matchbook songs and her “gypsy hymns.” Among many images that evoke Sara’s spiritual qualities the song mentions “your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes, And your silver cross, and your voice like chimes.” He appreciates her “silhouette when the sunlight dims” and the moonlight swimming in her eyes. He praises “your gentleness now, which you just can’t help but show,” and “your holy medallion which your fingertips fold, And your saintlike face and your ghostlike soul.” This song clearly honors his love for his wife, invoking her sacred qualities.

(Please note in the outtake recording below the song starts at 1’55”)

Nobody ‘Cept You

Another song that mentions the word “hymn” is “Nobody ‘Cept You” from 1973, released on “Bootleg series 1-3” in 1991. While Dylan states that there may not be much that is really sacred in the modern world, this song has the refrain, “there’s nothing to me that’s sacred ’Cept you, yeah you.” The song includes the verse:

There’s a hymn I used to hear
In the churches all the time
Make me feel so good inside
So peaceful, so sublime
And there’s nothing to remind me of that
Old familiar chime
’Cept you, uh huh you

In the following verse the singer recalls his childhood playing in the churchyard cemetery, but so much older now, he mournfully sees his former playground as “where the bones of life are piled.” No one sees him anymore “’Cept you, yeah you.”

This song, heard as a hymn, praises the sacred quality of “You, yeah you,” one of Dylan’s many love songs that invokes the sacredness of a romantic partner, who sees him clearly, even amid his changes. Certainly, one focus of the sacred for Dylan is love, and women. However, when Dylan sings about “you,” it is a good example of why Sean Wilentz calls Dylan “a master of ambiguity.”[3] Especially in his Gospel period, but also perhaps as an undertone in this song, the “you” may imply the Deity, or a sacred spirit, as well as his lover. Sometimes Dylan’s “you” may imply the audience for whom he sings. But in this song, as unambiguously as Dylan can ever be, he serenades a human lover, one who sees his spirit true.

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