Gonna change my Way of Thinking – twice. How Bob Dylan changed his own song

By Tony Attwood

“Apocalypse soon if you don’t watch out”.

That was how Rolling Stone described this blues song – a song which has had two presentations, each with completely different lyrics and such a different backing that although both are clearly 12 bar blues, they become completely different songs.

In 2003 Dylan re-wrote the lyrics and accompaniment of ‘Gonna change my way of thinking’ from 1979 and then recorded this new version with Mavis Staples, for the album “Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan.

After the re-write Dylan clearly loved the new version as he used it as the opener for numerous shows from 2009 on, and from the reports that are available, did so with a verse and drive that are not to be found on the more sparsely accompanied earlier edition.  Certainly the concert recordings that we have back this notion up.

And although this started out as a solid trumpet blast on behalf of Christianity there is a lot of fun and games here to love whether the listener is Christian or not.  Indeed I suspect that I have a much easier time with the piece as a non-believer, than those who follow the gospels have.  But that’s just a guess.

Take the line, “we‘re living by the golden rule, whoever got the gold rules”. It’s a cheeky interpretation of the New Testament’s golden rule of do unto others as you would be done by.   And what is doubly fascinating is that in the very first Christian song Dylan composed “Do right to me baby” he totally got this Golden Rule backwards singing, “if you do right to me baby, I’ll do right to you.”  He clearly got back to the source text and resolved matters since then.

But it’s not that Dylan would have misunderstood at that point, after all “do unto others” comes from the Sermon of the Mount (Matthew 7: 12) and in terms of Jesus’ saying you don’t get much more pivotal than that: “So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets”.

I find this such a key moment because Dylan’s expression in “Do right to me Baby” was pure blues – in the blues the man fundamentally distrusts the perfidious woman and she has to prove herself, and even then he still probably doesn’t trust her much.  But now as we move on through his overtly Christian period Dylan has got it sorted and understood the message properly.  You have to do the right thing first, according to the way you would like to be treated.  It makes singing the blues quite a challenge.

As the song progressed so did the message.  “Every day you got to give yourself a chance,” takes us that bit further – every day is indeed important and to my mind the people who make the most of their lives do carry this vision inside them.  Every day it is important to do the right thing, to be a good, decent person who helps others in need.  Every day is a chance for new experiences, broadening one’s horizons, learning from the world around us.

But for me, and indeed for many who have approached this song before me, there is one line that leaps out and slaps me round the face so hard I just have to keep going back to it:

Well don’t know which one is worse
Doing your own thing or just being cool
You remember only about the brass ring
You forget all about the golden rule

For anyone who has any understanding of the 1960s and 1970s the phrases “do your own thing” and “being cool” ring out as part of that era.  “Don’t follow leaders” was Dylan’s earlier comment on the former, but it came with a notion of action which is independent, not influenced by social norms, laws, governments, conventions, rather than just doing nothing.

“Being cool” on the other hand was a “live and let live” vision as if there really were no rights and wrongs.  A vision that when you consider it, is all very well if it is used for  criticising outdated morality, but pretty useless as a way of dealing with murder, child molestation, wife beating, racism… well you see what I mean.

In this simple analysis “doing your own thing” wins hands down because it allows one to make moral choices, rather than blindly following leaders.  One’s own thing in the end might be to choose to follow a leader, whether that leader is Jesus Christ, Ronald Reagan, Gandhi, or Lao Tzu.  Or not.  It is up to you.

Doing your own thing doesn’t necessarily lead to inner emptiness although it can do.  Being cool most certainly gives nothing except being cool.

But there is another battle here – that of personal individuality.  God, it seems, gave man free will so he has to make a choice.  Make the wrong choice and at the time of the Second Coming (or your own death, whichever comes first) you are in trouble.  But for people like me who don’t believe in the Second Coming or the divinity of Jesus Christ, there are many other choices, and following the individuality that one has been granted through the randomness of one’s DNA, synapses, upbringing and experience, is certainly one of the most profound.  It leads to exploration on the widest scale, and through that the chance, on occasion to do some good things.

But I meander, as is my wont.

Dylan is writing about his own redemption – and through this has led many, many before me to wander off into a whole debate about freedom.  For that alone we should be rather grateful.  And he’s not just given us the chance to have the debate, he’s given us the chance to note his change of heart.

Half-wracked prejudice leaped forth
“Rip down all hate,” I screamed
Lies that life is black and white
Spoke from my skull. I dreamed
Romantic facts of musketeers
Foundationed deep, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

That 1964 warning from My Back Pages hangs like a haze over the Christian songs in which life very much is black and white – you are either for Him or against Him.  And how fascinating is it (well, it is to me) that Dylan started singing My Back Pages on stage in July 1978, wrote the original Gonna Change in 1979 but kept on singing My Back Pages on stage until 2012.   260 renditions.

Gonna Change got 79 plays between 1979 and 2011 – the new version coming in, as I noted above, in 2009.  What a battle that seems.  “Life is black and white – good and evil,” shouts one side of Dylan.  “Oh no it isn’t” shouts Another Side of Bob Dylan.  For me, as you will have noted, Another Side is where it is at.

In the first version of Gonna Change Dylan is completely clear where he is.

But there’s only one authority
And that’s the authority on high

But he also gives us a fascinating extra thought, the thought that being a Christian doesn’t mean you have to sing religious songs and live a calm and quiet life.  Obviously not, for this is Bob Dylan on the never ending tour.   So I do love the lines

I got a God-fearing woman
One I can easily afford
She can do the Georgia crawl
She can walk in the spirit of the Lord

Just in case you aren’t too sure, allow me to divert  for a moment and fill in the Georgia Crawl bit.   Although I would consider myself something of an expert on dance (when not engaged in musical things, and not watching football, the evening relaxation is dancing – at least three nights a week, so I know a bit about its history) I had to double check that my memory of what the Crawl is/was is correct.  This is how I see it…

The Crawl was a blues dance with the sort of exaggerated sexual hip movements that many blues dances have – but the Crawl really laid it on thick.  It was highly provocative, and not something most of us would want to try after about the age of 35 for fear of doing something nasty to the back.  The sort of dance which if you took your nine year old for an evening out, and a couple were doing it, you really wouldn’t not where to look or how to answer the questions.

Blind Willie McTell mentioned it in his songs and there is a song “Geogia Crawl” by Henry Williams which has the lines

I can shake it east, shake it west,
Way down south I can shake it the best,
Doin’ the Georgia Crawl, oh, the Georgia Crawl

The second alternative version of Dylan’s song, the one not on the original LP is here – if you leave the recording running you get two versions.


For the last verse in the version above Dylan sings the first verse again.

Change my way of thinking, make myself a different set of rules
Put my best foot forward, stop being influenced by fools

However the lyrics given on the official site include this at the end…

I’ll tell you something, things you never had you’ll never miss
I’ll tell you something, things you never had you’ll never miss
A brave man will kill you with a sword, a coward with a kiss

Now that does fascinate me and I really don’t quite know what to make of it.  Maybe there is a religious connotation, but if so I’ve missed it.

Heylin describes the whole expedition across the two versions as a horrible mess – from first writing to final total re-write.  And yes I think he is right in terms of the lyrics.  A lot of the phraseology like the line about the horse and the one about the table are just nicked from older writings, and mostly it doesn’t add up to much for me.  But musically, unlike Heylin, I really do like both versions, and find I can very easily divorce myself from any meaning there is supposed to be in the lyrics so that I just enjoy the overall event.

It’s not great Dylan, in my very personal opinion, but it is good blues.  And I like a good blues number.


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  1. A coward kills with a kiss one would think has to be a reference to Judas’ betrayal of Jesus (as far as religious connotations go).

  2. I believe you are right, Scott, about the Judas’ betrayal. Further, the line “A brave man will kill you with a sword,” I believe, means being “straight up” with another person. It means telling someone what you believe to their face, not necessarily to literally kill you; and not deceptively, not a traitor, like Judas, who sold Jesus to the Roman oppressors for 30 silver coins. Judas, a Zealot, believed that Jesus was himself betraying “the cause” of his and others desire for a violent overthrow of the Roman oppressors.

    In my opinion, the original song is Dylan changing directions after a true spiritual call from God. It has the marks of a “conversion” or “call,” like the Apostle Paul, who, when Jesus comes to him, does a 180 degree change-of -life-direction (Acts 9). God’s initiative, not Paul’s. God’s initiative, not Dylan’s. Dylan’s song, and the entire Slow Train Coming album reveal Dylan’s change of life, and desire to have a new lease on life. Indeed, to embrace this newness, and spark, and to proclaim this new life as good, and true and God-given. As is well known, he himself survived the turbulant 60s, and 70s, the overindulgence of broken relationships, affairs, substance abuse, “being cool,” and “doing you own thing,” and he saw first hand how that kind of life literally killed many of his friends. (See Michael J. Gilmour’s fine book, The Gospel According to Bob Dylan: The Old, Old Story for Modern Times. This book takes a deep look into Dylan’s Christian music and his other music and life). This is borne out in Dylan is fighting for survival. He has found comfort and purpose in the Prince of Peace. It’s all or nothing for him, because he has seen a new light.
    I think the scorn and verbal abuse he endured after his “conversion” was very hard on Bob. He is a poet, and a sensitive genius; and who wouldn’t be impacted by their own friends and fans turning on them?
    I think that explains, to some degree, why he backs away from the more fundamentalist bent of his Christian music of the late 70s early 80s. He has, overall, been a deeply spiritual, incredibly insightful person from at the beginning; his “protest” songs are eloquent prophetic statement reminsescent of the Old Testament prophets. And, many of his love songs could be in the Song of Solomon category. His Christian sons are personal, convincing, passionate windows into the soul of a believer, touched by divine love and mercy.

    Dylan loves to change, to keep things fresh. His agile mind is ever creating and re-creating. Thus the well-spring that has given us some of the most poignant, biting, creative, and emotionally moving music of the past couple of generations.

    Yet, as Gilmour wisely states:
    “The narrator of ‘Thunder on the Mountain’ (Modern Times, 2006) tells us his soul is expanding. Notice, however, that one looking into his heart will only ‘sort of understand.’ This is the best we can hope for in asking questions about Bob Dylan, his faith, and his art. There are limits to what we can know. Whenever we intrude on another’s private world and attempt to explain what is ultimately out of reach, the results are bound to be deficient in one way or another, and inescapably tendentious.”
    The Gospel According to Bob Dylan, p. 92)

  3. i see mr dylan as a practical man first, a spiritual man second and an artist third. i personally dont think he has repented from christ, he simply continues to repent whereas most christians dont. repent in the greek is metanoia – a literal changing of the mind. its what jesus is all about. also, the kiss and the sword are references to judas and peter. judas betrayed him with a kiss and peter defended him in the garden and cut off a soldiers ear with his sword, which jesus promptly re-attached. judas was condemned while peter was given the keys to the kingdom.

  4. I thank Tony for his review, and peace to Bob and everyone else, and I give those all in the faith a kiss of charity.

    I got saved some time ago, and like Bob, I was the chief of sinners, and all my past works no matter how good, amounted to nothing. Then, I started reading God’s word for myself and saw that it was better than I’d been taught, and saw also that some pastors weren’t doing what it said to do. I asked Jesus to make a covenant with me, and I right away became his covenant woman. I experienced the same reborn feeling that Bob did, and I too became a brand new creation.

    Like Bob said, it knocked me down hard and I had an encounter, but nothing like his where my Lord put his hand on him and told him it would be OK. Wow! I felt five swooshes and all my sins go up out of my head, I felt electricity going through me, and The Spirit lifted me up in bed and hugged me tight. It was the best love I’ve ever felt. I wanted to praise God so bad, I couldn’t get the words out, and I almost started to speak in tongues three times, and each time the feeling got less, but I have faith Jesus will finish what he started on me.

    The Lord told me that there was much more in heaven laid up in store for me, but to stay for now and tell people my testimony. I had sweet sleep that night and the best ever, with no dreams. The next morning I woke up I felt brand new. Behold, it says, the old had gone and all things had become new. I felt Jesus’ Small Still Voice telling me to read his word and to tell people my testimony.

    Bob Dylan’s Saved album was the first album I ever bought, and I learned about it from my friend Ted, who also was once on fire for Jesus like Bob, and that was the first Dylan album he’d bought. I loved the album. I knew Bob was saved just like me. The album has the anointing over it. The things Bob said, were in spirit and not the old Bob anymore. Some of Bob’s rewrites of his gospel songs also have lyrics hard to be understood if one doesn’t have the “New Kind Of Thinking” that Bob sings of. But, it’s written, that understanding and salvation is also for you, your children, your children’s children, and all those afar off in future.

    The line about the man killing one with a sword means spiritually how it’s written in scriptures, how Jesus kills one’s old man by the word of God (The sword of The Spirit.) and by his cross and blood, in saying that one dies with Christ in his likeness, and is reborn likewise, and will also raise from the grave when Christ returns, the way Jesus raised from the grave.

    The analogy is also referred to in The Old Testament as Rachel and Leah, and others like them, hewing down and building up the whole house of Israel, which is pointing to the city made without hands, which is the New Jerusalem. It implies a follower of God is like a tree cut down as Christ was in a sense, but brought back even in death to be used on that building, like how the boards of the tabernacle of Moses were overlaid with gold and made to “stand up right” it says. Elsewhere, God says that he brought the Jews out of Egypt “standing upright.” The phrase is basically used not again except for those instances.

    Later, the scriptures make it clear that there’s a teasing connection between the tabernacle, with it being the lesser point in God’s eyes, while pointing to the needful thing, which are his living people. There were 48 boards for the tabernacle (42 (40 for the sides, plus 1 each on the back corners.) , and 6 for the back wall. There were also 48 cities for the Jews called common areas, with 6 of them being cities of refuge for the slayer to flee to in case they’d killed someone accidentally.

    The Holiest of Holies was also called “the refuge.” But, in Psalm 46, the writer makes it clear three times that the God of Jacob, and not the refuge, is the refuge of Jacob. It’s clear God is pointing to his people as being his refuge more so than the temple. Jesus refers to this in part in the gospels and upbraids the Pharisees for making the temple more God than God. The encased boards in gold used to cover the holiest of all site of all of the Jews, where the ark of the covenant, with it’s mercy seat, was, implies that God’s people protect their king sitting on the throne.

    Romans addresses somewhat how one dies in Christ this way by the Law of Moses, which is holy and just, but only being a schoolmaster that led one to Christ. It speaks of the Law killing one and bringing sin into remembrance, which can only be killed by the cross and blood. Spiritually, so to speak, one flees to Christ as his refuge in this way, and is likewise in that sense, not to leave the city until the death of the high priest. It says Jesus is the high priest now that died and freed men from the curse of the law, and became the curse himself; wherefore, one now has free entrance to flee into the city and refuge that’s everlasting where their king never dies.

    It speaks of Jesus doing this as being the forerunner of our faith that went into the Holiest of Holies once and for all, with his own blood and not that of an animal for sacrifice. Forerunner, indicates that believers are the “runners” that follow after. These are foolish sayings, but it’s written that it’s foolish to the wise to confound them, for God’s foolishness is wiser than the strongest wisdom of the world.

    Bob is making a point between the two kinds of death and how one is of the world and how one is of Christ. The kiss refers to Judas. A kiss of charity is the ultimate sign of spiritual affection in scriptures, and used often in the beginning and ending letters of Paul and others in The New Testament. For Judas to do that, makes me sick. Scriptures say how striking someone with this sword mentioned by Bob, will be a service to them, if they are of The Lord, or even be it for one already in The Lord to hit them with the blunt of it versus stabbing, as the other way for the scripture saying, “As iron sharpens iron, so a brother sharpens the countenance of his other brother.”

    These are brave things though. I could not say them, but then I’d be a coward. As Bob says, if you have things now concerning that world to come, versus the world to be done away with, you’re much better off as it is written. I think it’s interesting Tony was fascinated by the lyrics. If he or anyone else wants to know how to be saved, it says to only call upon the name of The Lord, repent of your sins, and you’ll receive the gift of The Holy Ghost.

    Bob didn’t go through a phase. He got saved. He increased in favour and righteousness with God. Then something happened and he lost that closeness and became lukewarm, and got a spirit of bitterness. He still believes in Jesus and he reads his word, but he’ll not tell people his testimony. What Bob experienced, I and others experienced. That’s a testimony. As Bob says in the lyrics I mentioned, a brave man will not be afraid to correct and sharpen his other brother with his sword, because there’s a judgement. A coward will not not warn another.

    I can’t be afraid to say, “Bob, I think you’re wrong.” Paul says he rebuked Peter before them all because he was in need of correction. It says, “Spare the rod, hate the child.” It’s a soft rod. Not a club. It says, “Your rod and your staff comfort me.” It says, “Before I was corrected I went astray.” I was corrected once for becoming lukewarm after I got saved like Bob, and I don’t want to see anyone go through what I did, because there is a hell and it’s forerver.

    In my opinion, Bob is wrong to change his Christian songs like this for the reasons that he does. As Tony and others say, it’s reverting them back to unsaved Bob speak, which they like, and that’s more comforting for them versus the “testimony” reborn speak we all can’t deny. I like seeing Bob, like he did in the Rolling Stones interview, where he talks about being transfigured, which he’s obviously trying to witness to the interviewer, but it was lost on him, and Bob didn’t come right out and mention the name of Jesus. But, without mentioning that name, there isn’t any other name by which one may be saved.

    I’ve seen a lot of good reviews by Tony, Clinton and others, but not one yet by a Christian that looks at Bob the way that Bob was when Bob wrote those songs. The lyrics are saying spiritual things and can only be understood in Spirit. I’d like to see a true review in that way. Any new books trying to write off Bob’s testimony as a lark, or say that Bob is still telling it in his new songs, are wrong. The new bootleg vol. of Christian songs is wrong in my opinion in how it’s a lukewarm take on Bob’s testimony. You can’t mix sweet water with bitter it says. I know that some of you will not understand these things, but I have faith that someone will receive them. If anyone wants to contact me they can at .

    Jesus bless.

  5. Dylan may have well been ‘saved’ but he moves on -who are you to say he can’t revise his own songs?

  6. “A brave mam will kill you with a sword, a coward with a kiss” is a line from an Oscar Wilde poem …..which also ends the movie “The Trails of Oscar Wilde” starring Peter Finch.

  7. Reading too much Christian dogma into a song that can be generalized as having a Christian theme actually takes away from the song rather that adding to it. It’s great if one is saved by dogma, but imposing one strict and literalist meaning on the lyrics by Dylan is adding too much of one’s own beliefs to the a song that’s more open to figurative meanings, including black humour and burlesque that Oscar Wilde was so fond of.

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