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
- Part 4: What is Really Sacred? Ring them bells, Sad Eyed, Nobody ‘cept you
by Taigen Dan Leighton
I’ve Made up my Mind to Give Myself to You
The song “I’ve Made up my Mind to Give Myself to You,” is from Dylan’s album “Rough and Rowdy Ways” in 2020, and points to a few of Dylan’s aspects of the truly sacred. Like “Lay Down Your Weary Tune,” this hymn celebrates the world’s landscape. The singer is “lost in the stars.” He sees “the first fall of snow, [and] the flowers come and go.” He says, “My heart’s like a river – a river that sings” recalling the natural elements that perform in “Lay Down Your Weary Tune.” This is the backdrop for the song’s purposeful refrain, “I made up my mind to give myself to you.” The natural setting goes through to the last verse, “From the plains and the prairies – from the mountains to the sea.” This extends “From Salt Lake City to Birmingham, From East L.A. to San Antone” and everywhere he goes, “I don’t think I could bear to live my life alone.”
Dylan’s use of pronouns has long been ambiguous, as previously cited from Sean Wilentz  for “Nobody ‘Cept You.” The “you” in “I’ve Made Up My Mind” carries various referents. The first obvious “you” here is a woman, a romantic partner. The singer is “pledging my time to you, hoping you’ll come through too,” as Dylan sang in “Blonde on Blonde.” This is a love song in which to “preach the gospel, the gospel of love,” and as a hymn it praises “you” in a sacred commitment to a relationship to a lover. It is one of Dylan’s most beautiful of his many love songs.
However, sometimes when Dylan sings “you,” it might be addressed to his audience, or sometimes even to himself. In his so-called “gospel period” in the 80s You is the one God. However, in the last verse of “I’ve Made up my Mind” Dylan sings, “I hope that the gods go easy with me.” In referring to a plethora of gods he is not here looking at “you” as the one monotheistic deity.
In “I’ve Made up my Mind to Give Myself to You,” Dylan sings, “I traveled the long road of despair,” echoing “Every Grain of Sand” with its “morals of despair” and going “onward in my journey.” The reference in “I’ve Made up my Mind” to a traveling man might well be a tribute to Ricky Nelson and one of his signature songs. But “traveling man” of course refers to Dylan himself, going back to his very first album’s “Song to Woody” ending, “The last thing that I’d want to do, is to say I’ve been hittin’ some hard travelin’ too.”
Dylan’s long and dusty road continues right up to his still current never-ending tour, far beyond “Salt Lake City to Birmingham, From East L.A. to San Antone.” Thus “I’ve Made up my Mind” is also a hymn to the road, literally and metaphorically, to the terrain Dylan has traversed in his songs and his touring, as well as to the “You” to whom he is committing.
The road Dylan celebrates in Chinese spiritual context is the Tao or Way, the very heart of the spiritual path and process. We can add to what is truly sacred for Bob Dylan the journey or pilgrimage through the world, his hard travelling in his songs as well as in his widespread performing tours. In many spiritual traditions, pilgrimage is a key practice of the sacred.
In a recent concert on his “Rough and Rowdy Ways” tour, Dylan followed his performance of “I’ve Made up my Mind to Give Myself to You” with a cover of the Grateful Dead song, “Truckin’.” This anthem and hymn to the road, released by the Dead in 1970 on “American Beauty,” has been covered by Dylan many times, and names eight cities. Its pivotal line, “What a long, strange trip it’s been” certainly applies to Dylan’s varied, genre-encompassing songwriting career as well as to his performance tours.
A more painful aspect of the sacred path is explored for our contemporary situation where “the sufferin’ is unending” in “Ain’t Talkin’,” the final song of “Modern Times” released in 2006. The song begins, “As I walked out tonight in the mystic garden, The wounded flowers were dangling from the vine.”
The mystic garden recalls the musical natural world of “Lay Down Your Weary Tune.” But the “wounded flowers” depict a damaged world gone wrong. This is followed by the chorus starting with the title line, “Ain’t talkin’, just walkin’, Through this weary world of woe.” The singer has returned to a weary world, whether or not he previously laid down his weary tune.
A few verses later the singer avers, “Ain’t talkin’, just walkin’ Through the world mysterious and vague.” The world as mysterious at least suggests possibility. But then the nature of this dark pilgrimage is clarified, “Walkin’ through the cities of the plague.” A little later he elaborates, “They will crush you with wealth and power.”
The verse that affirms this song of silently just walkin’ as a spiritual hymn to the path goes:
All my loyal and my much-loved companions They approve of me and share my code I practice a faith that's been long abandoned Ain't no altars on this long and lonesome road.
The singer is not on a solitary pilgrimage, even if it is on a long and lonesome road. He is accompanied by “loyal and much-loved companions.” His faith has long been abandoned, an ancient spirit tradition with all altars gone, and perhaps all ritual and ceremony forgotten. The long and lonesome road must be re-excavated, or even reinvented. This indicates Dylan’s creative genre exploration. Though calling on his cherished lexicon of many musical and poetic traditions, there were no roadmaps for Dylan’s particular spiritual career. This hymn is also a lament, “The sufferin’ is unending, Every nook and cranny has its tears.” The final destination of this hymn’s dark journey is “the last outback at the world’s end.”
The hymns I have discussed all honor the sacred right in this world, on the road, and even amid suffering. These are not hymns praising something sacred beyond this phenomenal world with its sorrows and delights. Dylan has written many songs critiquing social injustice throughout his career, not only in his early “protest” songs. But his hymns offer tribute to the goodness and sacred that remain in the world, and he encourages us in “Highlands” to strengthen the things that remain.
Dylan’s hymns celebrate the sacred in the natural landscape, in the sounds of the breezes and the flowing streams. Some of Dylan’s hymns sing of the forlorn, ignored folks who must live outside the law and its injustices. But among them are the guardians and protectors who care for troubled people. Dylan’s hymns also sing of the sacred in his true loves’ eyes and in the intimacy of lovers. He sees the sacred further in his never-ending travels, in the songs themselves and in the tradition of songs that Dylan channels. The journey itself is sacred. Finally, as an insightful spiritual poet Dylan’s hymns offer release and relief from our narrowed materialist perceptions that block open awareness, thus denying true value and meaning.
Rev. Taigen Dan Leighton PhD, Sōtō Zen Buddhist teacher, leads the Ancient Dragon Zen Gate congregation in Chicago. He is online professor at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. Leighton’s ten books of Buddhist commentaries and translations include numerous references to Bob Dylan. Leighton’s Zen Questions includes an essay interpreting “Visions of Johanna” as a song about Zen Mind. Just This Is It: Dongshan and the Practice of Suchness features discussions of “I’m Not There” and other Dylan songs.