This article revised 24 December 2017 including the addition of the video of the live version.
By Tony Attwood
This overtly religious song has an interesting sub-plot, the issue of rejection, of being the outsider. It is the theme that every artist (perhaps except Shakespeare and Beethoven) must suffer from at some stage – the rejection by those that don’t quite understand what the hell is going on inside the artist’s head.
So the artist steps back and to sustain his sense of self-belief, has a choice. Either he gives up, or he continues to believe in what he has done, or he believes in something else which is thought to be guiding him on.
Thus it is with Dylan, who has had many criticisms from questions about the quality of his vocals to his “right” to go electric, from his abandonment of the music of civil rights and revolt to the music of surrealism, to his decision to become a born-again Christian and (following the teaching) to tell the world about it.
What is remarkable about the recording of this song on “Slow Train” is the way in which Mark Knopfler (who was specifically approached by Dylan to play lead on this album) copes with all this. Brilliantly, is the answer, for it is the guitar work of Knopfler which moves this recording from excellent to stunning. To the best of my knowledge Knopfler is not an overtly Christian man.
Interestingly the official version of the lyric doesn’t emphasise that this is a religious piece as we have “you” not “You”. But the consensus is that it is a hymn.
The song is so simple that it could easily not work – it needs the accompaniment to make it happen. There’s a lovely musical twist too, going to the flattened 7th, the blue chord, on the word “town”. It is the human approach to the God that is carried by that chordal change. Dylan says, in that use of the flattened 7th that he is just a regular guy who sings the blues, approaching his new faith.
And they, they look at me and frown
They’d like to drive me from this town
They don’t want me around
’Cause I believe in you
The only element here that gives us the clue that this certainly is a religious song is the end of this first verse, “They’d like to drive me from this town, They don’t want me around, ’Cause I believe in you” People who are just happy in the friendship and love of others don’t get persecuted.
So it continues…
They show me to the door
They say don’t come back no more
’Cause I don’t be like they’d like me to
And I walk out on my own
A thousand miles from home
But I don’t feel alone
’Cause I believe in you
Everything here could be about another person, not Jesus. It is just about someone staying with Dylan to sustain him. It could be a song of a father being driven away from his children as the result of a vindictive divorce.
This is, in fact, the exact opposite of the songs of disdain, and it does sound like a song to his God, although once one thinks about it being to a son or daughter, it is hard to get that thought out of one’s head.
The middle 8 takes us on…
I believe in you even through the tears and the laughter
I believe in you even though we be apart
I believe in you even on the morning after
And then we have the extraordinary change – the sort of change that marks out the brilliant song writer from the ordinary.
Oh, when the dawn is nearing
Oh, when the night is disappearing
Oh, this feeling is still here in my heart
It’s interesting that he should choose these words since a person who believed in himself and the love of friends would never find such times threatening. Instead the dawn could well be a moment of re-birth and re-affirming of oneself and one’s life. But it seems, not for Dylan at this time.
From the position of the Christian Dylan has no problem. But Dylan’s great problem from the position of a militant atheist is that he could not find this security and belief in other people. He had to turn to a God to find this security, never really knowing that some can do it by themselves. The swami finds it through a faith in the self – but that seems lacking to Dylan, the supreme artist reaching out for help…
The theme is always the same.
Don’t let me drift too far
Keep me where you are
Where I will always be renewed
And that which you’ve given me today
Is worth more than I could pay
And no matter what they say
I believe in you
And so the ultimate crisis of the converted. Friends or religion? Dylan is clear.
Oh, though my friends forsake me
Oh, even that couldn’t make me go back
And one wonders what Dylan’s music would have been like if he had only been able to believe in himself more often. Clearly he did much of the time, but not always.
Listening to the song and hearing it as a non-religious piece is a revelation in itself. Just because Dylan probably meant it as a hymn and a confession doesn’t mean that this is how it has to be. True, the religiosity is ultimately overwhelming, but as a love song it would be so utterly beautiful. To have that sung to you would surely be the greatest tribute.
Here’s the live version – and it has the almighty When He Returns straight after it. Sorry about the ad in between – I can’t edit that, but you can skip in a few seconds.
This was the 100th song analysed on this site (just in case you are interested).
What else is on the site
1: Over 460 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 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 produced 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.
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.
And please do note The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews