by Tony Attwood
There is of course no single agreed set of hymns to sing in Christian services, and so there are hundreds – probably thousands – of hardly used songs that turn up in some hymnals, and not in others. And indeed just as there are people like me who think it is interesting to do a critique of each Bob Dylan song so there are people who review hymns and calculate how many hymnals each song turns up in.
“Palms of Victory” is a hymn that doesn’t score very highly on this list, but it is included in some collections of hymn books.
It is suggested that Reverend John B. Matthias, a travelling preacher, wrote the song sometime towards the end of the 18th century – a hymn that is also noted in some sources with the alternative title “Deliverance will come” – the line in the hymn at the end of the chorus. However it is normal for the writers of a song that is good enough to have been passed down over the years to have written, and left behind, others lessser works. No one who writes a quality song, only writes one song. But there seems to be nothing to indicate that Rev Matthias wrote other songs, so the claims seem (to me at least) rather week.
But the hymn did become appropriated by the folk music outriders – most notably the Carter Family who recorded it in the 1920 under the title “Wayworn Traveller”, and so we have two possible sources for Bob Dylan for “Paths of Victory” – either a hymn book (and yes, of course I know he was not a Christian at this time) or a folk recording.
Whatever the source, Bob took the song, changed the words, sang the new version on TV and had the result published in “Broadside”.
Since then country music has also adopted the original, and it also metamorphosed into a protest song about hunger called “Pans of Biscuits”.
So it is not quite true to say that Dylan took a hymn and turned it into a protest or political song – the song existed in these forms already, and if Bob did work from a recording based on the original hymn, then at best he was travelling a road that others had taken before.
You will also find that in some reports there is reference to Dylan having written the song in 1963, based on the fact that on 12 August 1963 he recorded it. The latter fact is true, but he also recorded in November 1962, placing the composition firmly in the earlier year – hence the positioning in my chronology of compositions.
If you have a particular interest in the song you really should listen to the two versions – one with a piano accompaniment on Bootleg 1-3 and the other with guitar accompaniment on the Whitmark demos. The piano accompaniment is not Dylan’s finest musical achievement by any means, and is very similar to the technique used in the Whitmark recording of “When the Ship Comes In”. Bass note / chord / bass note / chord and so on ad infinitum. It’s not my idea of fun.
There are also suggestions in the literature that “Paths of Victory” was the prototype for the song Times they are a changing.
Certainly that is possible – although if so there was a huge amount of demolition work before the rebuilding to create Times, not least a totally new melody and an utterly different time signature. Indeed the stand-out element of “Paths of Victory” is the melody which really is invigorating and uplifting, while the melody of “Times” is, well, beyond basic. In Times the first five words are all on the same note, and the first seven bars of the piece only use three notes in total. If I were teaching Dylan to undergraduates I would set the essay, “Compare and contrast the use of melody, accompaniment and time signature in Paths of Victory and Times they are a changing. What do you think Dylan was up to?
So the connection is really in terms of the uplifting sentiment – the view that things can be better, and will indeed be better. It is a message that makes “Times they are a changing” such an extraordinarily odd album, since virtually every song other than the title track (as I have pointed out before) tells us the opposite – nothing is changing, or if it is, things are getting worse.
The chorus of Paths of Victory really says it all…
Trails of troubles
Roads of battles
Paths of victory
I shall walk
And the new world is just around the corner
The trail is dusty
And my road it might be rough
But the better roads are waiting
And boys it ain’t far off
But there is another link between “Times” and “Paths” beyond the fact that it is going to be so much better in the future, and it is that the vision that this new and better world is inevitable. You can’t escape it, it is going to happen. Your sons and your daughters are already beyond your command, and if you can’t live in the new world then you are done for.
We see this message originating in “Paths” because as much as we wait for an explanation as to what is making this new world possible, (and come to that is there anything we can do to help it move along), all we get is the fact that we don’t have to do anything, it is there, it is happening.
The gravel road is bumpy
It’s a hard road to ride
But there’s a clearer road a-waitin’
With the cinders on the side
That evening train was rollin’
The hummin’ of its wheels
My eyes they saw a better day
As I looked across the fields
and so on, verse after verse.
What also really struck me in coming back to this song after many years of not listening to it, was the connection between the message here and the message Dylan preached during his years of preaching an over Christian message. In the Christian era the message was: the Second Coming of the Lord (with all the misery and suffering that entails for unbelievers) is on its way. It is inevitable. The path is set and you can’t do anything about it and people like me who don’t believe are done for.
Although the cause is spelled out in the Christian songs, (contrasting with this song and with Times), the inevitability is there. To me, and of course this is just me, it is interesting that Bob had this message and returned to it, amidst his many songs about life being awful and the world isn’t going to change. And it is interesting that I am not sure I have read anyone put this hypothesis forwards before.
Of course I am not saying he has always been like that – some of the the New Morning songs had a vision of a cheerful new world, as did pieces like “Country Pie” – but once again the path was just there.
Anyway, not one of my favourite songs of Bob’s not least because it is so repetitive – short verse, chorus, short verse, chorus. We get the chorus seven times and nothing happens, nothing changes. Certainly I think the record company was right not to take the piano version – that really is too rough and too basic, because although over time Dylan did become a decent pianist who could invent interesting accompaniments he was not able to do that in the early 60s. The guitar version is better, but after the third “life is going to be great” verse and the inevitable chorus I’d had enough.
There is one other interesting point about the guitar version however and that is the way Dylan larks around with the chords. It is as if he were trying to find a way to make the whole piece work better by implying more complex chords than there naturally are. There are only three chords in the song, but a number of times we get the “wrong” chord against the melody. It’s an interesting effect, but not enough to rescue the piece from its combination of repeated chorus and chirpy cheery message.
Others have tried the song out as well…
And if you really like weird… (really do try this, it is quite extraordinary – this is where the sousaphone comes in – I really have never heard a Dylan song accompanied by a sousaphone before)
And even the Byrds had a go but still couldn’t really rescue the piece, in my view.
The Discussion Group
We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook. Just type the phrase in, on your Facebook page or go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/254617038225146/ It is also a simple way of staying in touch with the latest reviews on this site.
The Chronology Files
There are reviews of Dylan’s compositions from all parts of his life, up to the most recent writings, but of late I have been trying to put these into chronological order, and fill in the gaps as I work.
- Dylan songs of the 1960s
- Dylan songs of the 1970s
- Dylan songs of the 1980s
- Dylan songs of the 1990s
- Dylan songs of the 21st century
All the songs reviewed on this site are also listed on the home page in alphabetical order – just scroll down a bit once you get there