Spirit on the water: Dylan borrows from God, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Ovid.

By Tony Attwood

Update: 23 August 2017.  The previously noted live version is no longer available so a new link has been added.



This music is relaxed; it has nothing to prove. It is music of accumulated knowledge, it knows every move, anticipates every step before you take it. Producing himself for the second time running, Dylan has captured the sound of tradition as an ever-present, a sound he’s been working on since his first album, in 1962.

So said Rolling Stone on reviewing Modern Times, and by and large that seems about right.  Not right in reference to everything in the album, but in terms of Spirit on the Water, which it fairly reasonably calls a “dance-hall ballad” that works, and the review continues

Dylan invokes God’s creation of the heavens and Earth to describe his sweetheart’s face. There’s divine reckoning here, too, though: “I wanna be with you in paradise, and it seems so unfair/I can’t go back to paradise no more/I killed a man back there.”

It’s a nice twist for a song that lasts nearly eight minutes – I love you but I can’t be with you in eternity because I killed a guy in the past.   A particularly nice twist for a man who was a committed fundamentalist Christian a while back.   And indeed I can’t think of any other song that uses that twist.  Yes there are millions of songs that take us down the “I love you but can’t be with you” route, but not in terms of the afterlife; not for this reason.

Dylan thus quotes Genesis in terms of the opening of the song.    In the Bible itself the second verse in the King James version reads

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

Dylan reduces this to

Spirit on the water
Darkness on the face of the deep

Now one or two commentators have taken this as the starting point for proclaiming that Bob never lost his Christian faith but has been discussing it, or weaving it into his songs, in different ways all the time.

That isn’t an explanation I go with, and one reason is that for that line to work one also has to explain why he is also taking lines from elsewhere.  For example Sonny Boy Williamson’s Black Gal Blues runs

Lord knows I’m wild about you black, gal
You ought to be a fool about me

While Dylan goes with

I’m wild about you, gal
You ought to be a fool about me

In Sugar Mama Blues, Sonny Boy goes with

They are bragging about your sugar, sugar mama
Been Braggin all over town

while Dylan sings

They brag about your sugar
Brag about it all over town

Because of this I don’t see Dylan’s lines such as

I’ve been trampling through mud
Praying to the powers above

as being lines we should take literally.  They are lines that are part of the overall picture he is painting.

Likewise the man Dylan killed “back there” might be linking him to Cain who was driven out for killing his brother, but I don’t see it that way.  Maybe if Dylan hadn’t added in lines from Sonny Boy Williamson then there might be a case, but I not for me.  For me this is an impression of a man’s life told through the dream like relaxed qualities of the music.

It is more like the thoughts that we get when drifting off to sleep, thoughts that come from anywhere and everywhere and which don’t connect.

Besides which we don’t just have the Bible and Sonny Boy – there is a touch of Ovid too.

Ovid (whom Dylan has also quoted in Working Man’s Blues No 2, Ain’t Talkin, and The Levee’s Gonna Break and now gets used here as “Can’t believe these things would ever fade from your mind” (Black Sea Letters, Book 2, Section 4, Line 24), becomes

I got no choice
Can’t believe these things would ever fade from your mind

So in short I see no reason to take the religious reference and treat it in any other way from the other quotes.  Dylan collects turns of phrase he likes, that’s all.

What we most certainly do know is that Dylan loves this song.  He started playing it in October 2006 and at the time I write this review (November 2016 – ten years and one month later) he has played it in concert 524 times.  And you don’t do that if you don’t like it.

So what makes Dylan like it so?

It is dance like, and there are not too many such songs in the Dylan composition files.  And it is different from anything that most other popular composers have done.

Plus there is that lovely opening played on the chords of A E A E D A D E A….   You don’t have to be a musician to hear it and remember it.  So simple, played throughout, and it binds everything together.

Then the chord changes after it which are so unexpected (the F#m7 and Bm7) which don’t sound out of place, but are just … well, interesting.

In short it all works, without any sense of artifice, music and lyrics stroll along together in such a delightful way that even after seven minutes of it, we are not getting bored.  He even throws in a modulation in the middle 8, and you don’t get too many of them in Dylan either.

Here’s a live version…

Indeed in an interview with Robert Hilburn in 2004 Dylan said pretty much explained how it all worked…

“What happens is, I’ll take a song I know and simply start playing it in my head. That’s the way I meditate. A lot of people will look at a crack on the wall and meditate, or count sheep or angels or money or something, and it’s a proven fact that it’ll help them relax. I don’t meditate on any of that stuff. I meditate on a song. I’ll be playing Bob Nolan’s “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” for instance, in my head constantly—while I’m driving a car or talking to a person or sitting around or whatever. People will think they are talking to me and I’m talking back, but I’m not. I’m listening to a song in my head. At a certain point, some words will change and I’ll start writing a song.”

I’m suggesting the same happens with movies and with literature, and for Dylan in songs.  Certainly for me there is nothing more amiss in it than a painter using an image from elsewhere.

A lovely song, from a much loved album.

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What else is on the site

  • 1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.
  • 2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.
  • 3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.  A second index lists the articles under the poets and poetic themes cited – you can find that here.
  • 4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 
  • 5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.
  • 6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines




  1. The rhythm of the song evokes the feeling of walking alone down a road.

    “I can’t go back paradise no more,
    I killed a man back there.”

    I interpret this as Dylan cutting himself from his past, particularly after Time Out of Mind.

  2. I can understand why he played this song so many times, it’s a beautiful love song and it seems to me that it’s a way to communicate with his lover who is at home while he is on tour.
    Dylan did killed a man, namely in the movie ‘Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid’.

  3. I read Joseph Conrad’s ‘Victory’ and I read a lot of lines Dylan used in his songs. In this song:
    ‘You ever seen a ghost? No
    But you have heard of them’

    Pp. 361 ‘Victory’:
    ‘Ah, you don’t know what a jaquar is?
    But you have had a good look al these two.’

  4. The line about the narrator killing a man back there is a reference to the ‘Jews’ being falsely accused by St. John of being responsible for the killing of Christ.

    Dylan found it impossible to remain for long with the fundamentalists for that reason.

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