God knows by Bob Dylan. Two different versions of the song, and a very convoluted meaning.

by Tony Attwood

God Knows is one of the songs Dylan played around with time and time again.  In the process it was re-written over and over although the central notion of the phrase “God Knows” is retained throughout, as is the very unusual (for Dylan) chord structure.

From all this reworking we have just two versions available, one on “Under the Red Sky” and the other the “Tell Tale Signs” version (this being the one originally recorded for Oh Mercy).

At the time that Dylan came to write this song he had most recently composed Tweeter and the monkey man (one of his gothic tales) for the Wilburys, and then Born in Time, a gentle love song.   The next song he wrote after “God Knows” was Disease of Conceit.

All of this makes “God Knows” something of an oddity since it is an openly religious song, more in keeping with his writing ten years earlier with songs such as Are you ready with that same phrase repeated over and over.

But what is so different with this song from those of a decade previously is that Dylan is no longer telling us that if we don’t accept God as our lord and master in all things, then no matter what good deeds we do along the way, we are going to burn in eternal torment when the Second Coming occurs.  The message in the earlier era was clear and simple: if we have not admitted that God is omnipotent, omnipresent and desiring of worship, then we’ve had it.

This song is different, and it is helpful that we have the two versions because (not for the first time) the one that Dylan chose for “Red Sky” is (in my humble opinion) much inferior to the version recorded for Oh Mercy and now available on “Tell Tale Signs”.

There are many differences between the two songs, not least the ending.  Red Sky’s version has a very odd fade out during the performance of the verse (I can’t grasp a single possible artistic reason for this – which indeed may be my failing, but I’ve read all around this subject and I can’t find anyone who can put forward any explanation other than the fact that the engineer thought it a good idea at the time).  The “Tell Tale” version is much better in every regard, in my view.

Also when it comes to the lyrics, these are quite different.   Red Sky has as an ending

God knows we can get all the way from here to there
Even if we’ve got to walk a million miles by candlelight

Tell Tale Signs tells us

God knows we can rise above the darkest hour
Under any circumstance

I think those both have something to say.  What a shame they couldn’t both have popped up on the same version!

As it is the “Red Sky” version has (and I say this with all humility since I am writing about the greatest songwriter of our age) just about the worst opening line Dylan ever wrote…  “God knows you ain’t pretty”.

Ok he does redeem himself a little with the verse itself,

God knows you ain’t pretty
God knows it’s true
God knows there ain’t anybody
Ever gonna take the place of you

but even so.  The Tell Tale Signs version is less offensive

God knows I need you
God knows I do
God knows there ain’t anybody
Ever gonna take the place of you

We also get an interesting comparison between God’s two demolitions of the world: the flood in which Noah survived and the Second Coming in which only the believers will survive…

God knows it’s a struggle
God knows it’s a crime
God knows there’s gonna be no more water
But fire next time

Some of the rest of it I can’t fully understand

God don’t call it treason
God don’t call it wrong
It was supposed to last a season
But it’s been so strong for so long

It is almost as if Dylan is saying that God is not in total control but is just letting mankind pull the world apart through his own folly, so it will all end whenever mankind just gets to the end of the line (rather than on the date God says):

God knows it’s fragile
God knows everything
God knows it could snap apart right now
Just like putting scissors to a string

In one sense I think Bob was just throwing lines down, without the song needing to have the sort of unified message that the earlier Christian works had…

God knows that when you see it
God knows you’ve got to weep
God knows the secrets of your heart
He’ll tell them to you when you’re asleep

Dylan obviously loved the song as he played it on stage no less than 188 times from 1991 to 2006, and of course that is in part what encouraged the re-writing of the lyrics.

I suspect one of things he always enjoyed about the song was the use of the chord known in musical circles as “G augmented” (it is written G+ on song sheets), which I can’t recall him using anywhere else at all.  It comes half way through the third line and gives the whole song a different feel – although in the last three verses he drops this unique structure and sits with the more conventional G / C chords.

If you play the song just listen to “God knows there ain’t anybody” and hear the accompaniment to “ain’t anybody”.  It sure is different.

This sudden use of a chord that Dylan has never (or to cover myself perhaps I should say “very rarely”) used before shows just how much Dylan was experimenting.  OK it is only one chord, but rock music composers rarely stray from their own favourite structures and approaches so suddenly to pop up with a chord that one has never used before, and which has such a different feel, really is something.

And at the same time Dylan is going back ten years to his Christian songs, but with a completely different feel.  The emphasis is on the omnipotence of God not the need to worship Him.

The fact that Dylan dedicated “Red Sky” to his daughter, then aged four, gives us quite a clue however, for the message that God knows everything is one that is often given to young children, especially when trying to teach them that telling lies is not the best way forwards in family life, and that admitting wrong doing and asking for forgiveness (from your parents and in prayers from God) is better.

One unexpected chord doesn’t a great song make, but at least we have the two versions to compare, and through that can get a better idea of where Dylan was taking us at this moment.



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  1. “God knows you ain’t pretty” is a beautiful opening line. It’s what separates a good song from a great one. It bets everything and wins. It keeps me coming back to what at first seemed maybe a throwaway but then just wouldn’t let go. And God knows Bob has written some great ones.

  2. ‘God knows it’s a struggle
    God knows it’s a crime
    God knows there’s gonna be no more water
    But fire next time’

    I think it’s a song about reunion of lovers, after separation. No tears anymore, but the fire of love.

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