Cover down: Dylan takes religious music somewhere new and prepares to move on

By Tony Attwood

One of the great things about Dylan the songwriter is his ability to take a subject and explore it from all sorts of directions.  I guess the most obvious early example of this is that he took the notion of lost love (one of the three fundamentals of popular music, the other two being love and dance) and gave us an extreme version in the songs of disdain (Rolling Stone, Fourth Street etc).

So it happened also with his religious music.  I have written in the review of Pressing On of my feeling that Dylan got caught up in the notion that if he wrote a song of Christian celebration it had to sound like gospel music.  But I also feel that having written “Saved” he did decide to see just how far all this rock and roll religious music could go, and the result was Cover Down.  I don’t mean to say this is a totally new form of music – it just adds an extra level to treatment that Christianity got from Dylan.

In both this case as in Saved we have a song where the chords hardly change – in fact in Saved there is only one chord in verse, until with “I’m so glad” before we get the movement.

Cover Down goes further and although it does have a second chord, and a third that is passed through, it is primarily just one chord with quick visits elsewhere.  A real look back to the early days of electric blues.

The song was never released on record, and simply formed part of the April 17 to May 21 1980 tour.  After that it was put away forever.  Even the official site doesn’t have the lyrics, probably because there is an argument over whether Dylan sings “Cover down, pray through” or “Cover down breakthrough”.  Personally I’m not too worried either way.

For me, whichever phrase I have in my head is the one I hear, and since I don’t really understand what either phrase actually means I just call it Cover Down which is what Bob called it when he introduced it for the first time.

But most of all this seems to be a song which came towards the end of the songs that are pure devotion to the Lord.  It is not the very end, but it is getting close, for after this we get, in the chronological sequence of writing

Now I am not trying to say by this that Dylan suddenly stopped being Christian, but rather his musical interest, which has always seemed to me dramatically to turn left and right at the same time with the writing of Caribbean Wind, started to recognise that you could still be a Christian without making every song you write a message about worshipping the Lord.

The message here is repent, and pray.  I think.  Certainly we have the phraseology based on various Bible texts as we are told that “the word of God is sharper than any double-sided sword” so maybe the message is also “be afraid, all ye sinners” for the world is most certainly screwed up.

The first performance is reported to have had Dylan not just introducing the song as “Cover Down”, (just those two words) but also saying, “Get up in the morning, you got to cover down.”   I am not sure that takes me any further in understanding the meaning.

Then apparently two weeks later he asked the audience, “How many of you out there know what I’m talking about?”  Upon hearing the inevitable affirmatives (I mean, who would go to a Dylan show and get up shout “I don’t have a clue Bob”) he says, “Used to be nobody knew what I was talking about.”

Maybe that was the moment he decided to write Caribbean Wind.   Certainly Cover Down was part of the rehearsals for the next tour later in the year, but it never made the set list, and that was that.

Maybe Bob had just had enough of taking Biblical text and setting it to music.  Maybe he thought that this might be the right thing to do for the devoted Christian, but it is less creative than coming from nowhere and writing Visions of Johanna.  Maybe he thought that he couldn’t write any more gospel style songs.

Whatever the reason for his change of direction, which I perceive as being first revealed in this song we have the regular strong Christian message

Well you heard about Pharaoh’s army
Trampling through the mud
You heard about the Hebrew children
Redeemed by blood
Same spirit dwellin’ in ya
That raised Christ from the dead
If it quicken your mortal body
Then let it run to your head

The same message, and yet in a sense I feel this is something akin to an epilogue – I know Dylan hadn’t finished with religious music by that time but there is something so all encompassing about this song that it sounds to me a bit like a closing of the door.  I think it is the line

Genesis to Revelation
Repent and confess

that makes me think he’s saying, “I’ve covered this from the first book of the Bible to the last, I’ve told you everything I know, what else can I say?”

And I get the feeling (and yes I know this is just me) that he is getting tired of taking texts (Hebrews 4:12 as many before me have pointed out) and lifting the lines to enable him to say

The word of God is sharper
than any double sided sword

It is (for me) as if he wants liberating from the notion that Bob now writes religion and that’s that.  His mind is shouting, “Hey Bob, I’ve got some thoughts of my own,” and in these next songs that is what comes bursting out.

For he also writes,

Demands are laid upon you
And burdens you can’t bear
Sins you can’t even remember
Are waiting to meet you there

And maybe that’s it.  Sins you can’t even remember.  So why not let the gift God gave you spring forth once more, unrestricted by sacred texts, free flowing to express what can be expressed irrespective of where it all came from?

And when Bob writes,

You got an image of yourself
You’ve built by yourself alone
But it will come a-tumbling down
Just like the walls made of stone
You will be separated
From everything you seem to be
You think you’ll be liberated, yeah
But the grave won’t set you free

I wonder if at this moment his own past image of the last couple of years is now under threat.  His self-image of the man who takes all different types of American , Scottish and Irish folk and popular music and gives it new dimensions has for some time been replaced by the image of being a servant of God, but now a new image is knocking at the door.  Because at some moment Dylan started to feel that not only will the grave not set you free, but in terms of creativity nor will utter devotion to Christianity.

Of course this is just me, putting my chronological interpretation into this song – and I would like to stress that none of this is to say I don’t enjoy this song.  I really do.  For me, as a piece of music, it really, really works in a full-blown way.  And I can love the lyrics – especially the last verse quoted above, because that verse could be just about one’s vision of oneself, without any reference to any form of organised religion.

We all have a self-image and it can easily crumble, and in the worst case scenarios people can just wish for death to escape their internal problems.  A belief in the messages of Christianity can be a solution to such problems, but many people find that Christianity is not the solution, and indeed many would argue that any recourse to a set of fixed views only makes matters worse.

That is not me saying “therefore Christianity is bad” but rather to point out the fact that just as for many people a clear view that there is an answer and it is this, is the way forwards, for many other people that view itself turns out to be the problem.  Some people have better mental health and better lives by saying, “the world in phenomenally complex and changeable and there are no absolute answers that are right for all time.”

And that’s why I sometimes think that maybe Dylan was singing “Break through” and not “Pray through”.  Break through to a new way of seeing the world.  But as I said at the start, I am never sure.

It is certainly possible to take inspiration from the Bible, and indeed get great insight from the Bible, but not be a Christian.  But to do that one has to break through the dogma.   Of course I could well be fooling myself, or I could now be manipulated by the Devil in thinking such things, and well, if I’m wrong I’m really going to suffer for my false views for all eternity.

Anyway, here we are, not at the end of Dylan’s religious journey, but approaching the end, and this song really does make an interesting insight into how he saw things at that moment.   Breakthrough or pray through – you pays your money and takes your choice.  Either way, it’s still a great song.

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