By Tony Attwood
‘Behold, the days come, sayeth the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah’ (Jeremiah 31:31).
“And they will not need to teach their neighbours, nor will they need to teach their relatives, saying, ‘You should know the Lord.’ For everyone, from the least to the greatest, will know me already,” says the Lord. “And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins.” (Jeremiah 31:34)
“And I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good for them. I will put a desire in their hearts to worship me, and they will never leave me. (Jeremiah 32.40).
As I understand it the covenant is a bond, a promise, a link of overwhelming significance. Put into the context of this song a covenant between a man and a woman is a bond between a couple who not only love each other but also share a belief that there is a God, and the Bible represents His teachings. So it is a triangle – the man, the woman, the teaching of Christ.
And if that were that I could write a little review of this song without much of a problem, especially if we look at the songs that Dylan had composed in 1979 up to the moment he wrote Covenant Woman:
- Gotta Serve Somebody
- I believe in You
- Ye Shall be Changed
- Trouble in mind
- Man gave names to all the animals
- No Man Righteous
- Gonna change my Way of Thinking
- Precious Angel
- When you gonna wake up
- When He Returns
- Saving Grace
- Blessed is the Name
There is (for me at least) a real link between Covenant Woman and Precious Angel – the two deep love songs of the period. Both were first performed on 1 November 1979. Precious Angel got 73 outings and lasted until 12 November 1980. Covenant Woman got 87 performances which took the song through until 11 June 1981, although most of the performances had occurred by November 1980.
Now that is interesting because Caribbean Wind (written in 1980) got its one and only live showing on 12 November 1980, the day we said farewell to Precious Angel. The next day The Grooms Still Waiting at the Alter (the next song written after Caribbean Wind) appeared in the show.
It was as if this deep, deep love affair, based not only on the love the woman but also the shared religious beliefs of both participants in the relationships, had mutated into something else – something being expressed in these new songs.
In one of his final addresses to the nation of Israel, (in Deuteronomy) Moses predicted that Israel would fail to keep the Old Covenant. But the New Covenant is a situation in which the chosen people are finally pleasing to Him.
By this time, the age of individual is long gone. The Lord has done away with free will by this time: ‘I will put my law in their minds, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people’” (Jeremiah 31:31, 33).
So by this I take it that we should read the opening of the song as a line of supreme importance:
Covenant woman got a contract with the Lord
Way up yonder, great will be her reward
Covenant woman, shining like a morning star
I know I can trust you to stay where you are
and Dylan feels he is part of the supreme almighty deal for mankind…
I’ve been broken, shattered like an empty cup
I’m just waiting on the Lord to rebuild and fill me up
And I know He will do it ’cause He’s faithful and He’s true
He must have loved me so much to send me someone as fine as you
But Dylan is not hanging onto the coat tails – he’s part of the ultimate salvation too.
You know we are strangers in a land we’re passing through
I’ll always be right by your side, I’ve got a covenant too
Musically Dylan delivers some interesting musical tricks, giving us a song in C, with all the chordal accompaniment that you could expect in such a song (the opening line alone gives us C, Am, Em, Dm) while the chorus adds a rather surprising blues B flat.
Of course other reviewers have sailed through this song where I have found its meaning convoluted and difficult to grasp. Some suggest the song is a homage to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Others suggest it is about the “covenant” represented by the marriage between a man and women.
Elsewhere there is the suggestion that the Covenant Woman’s identity is a woman called Ena (as in covENAant) which I am not really going to dwell upon. Elsewhere there is the more likely explanation that the woman in question was the lady who introduced Dylan to the Vineyard Fellowship: Mary Alice Artes.
Of course all are possible, but in the end, the sudden arrival amidst all the Christian songs of 1980 of Caribbean Wind and Groom’s still waiting at the alter suggests something more akin to a love affair that was supposed to be THE ultimate love affair, going wrong. I wonder if Dylan also had a final re-visit of this situation with You changed my life – the song with the very strange ending.
And now, looking at “You changed” again I wonder if that ending can be explained by reference back to Covenant Woman. It’s a bit of an obscure theory, but then, so is everything else associated with this song.
Maybe I should just stick with Caribbean Wind.
- You changed my life: why Dylan’s song was left behind
- Blessed is the name: Dylan loved to sing it but never recorded it
- Saving Grace: the origins and meanings within Bob Dylan’s song.
- Handle with care: The history and meaning of the Dylan / Wilburys song
- Love Rescue Me: the story behind the Dylan / U2 song
- Index of all the songs on the site
- Dylan’s best opening lines: an index
- How Dylan writes songs, and other articles.
- Dylan’s songs in the order they were written.
- Bob Dylan open discussion group on Facebook. Or go onto Facebook and search for “Untold Dylan”