When the deal goes down by Bob Dylan. A religious tract or rumination on death?

By Tony Attwood

The journal “Psychology Today” has a long history of commenting on Bob Dylan so it was not too surprising to find it making the comment that “The attitude of dwelling in the pain of human finitude is captured poetically in Bob Dylan’s mournful song, When the Deal Goes Down.”

As the magazine pointed out, Bob can do “love songs dark” and to illustrate the point they mention

Sky is gray
life is short and I think of her a lot
I can’t say
if I want the pain to end or not

And yes the point is valid.  The song can most certainly be considered to be about death, although it is interesting to note that Bob certainly didn’t sound as if he was deep in morbidity when writing the three songs that came immediately before this:

after which we get

But on the other hand, this was Dylan’s first return to writing in 2005/6 after just three songs in the last four years.   So perhaps running into trouble when it came to new ideas.  Even the master might find the new concepts to put into verse a little hard to come by after some 500 works.

But it is certainly a song Bob clearly finds amenable, as he is reported to have played it 148 times on stage since 2006.

The sources are well known, and covered by other writers:   Bob’s seemingly favourite poet Timrod and the songwriters Roy Turk and Fred E. Ahlert who wrote the Bing Crosby classic “Where the Blue of the Night Meets the Gold of the Day.”

Those are the bits that are easy to discover, and I’m happy to start there, because I was brought up watching Bing Crosby films on TV (along of course with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers).


But Bob is never going to get carried away into Bing Country.  Indeed as Larry Fyffe pointed out in his essay on this site Bob Dylan And Henry Timrod: The Country Coleridge Rambles Dylan did not want to be known as a guy who was affected by the moon.

The moon gives light, and it shines by night
Well, I scarcely feel the glow
We learn to live, and then we forgive
O’er the road, we’re bound to go
More frail than the flower, these precious hours

Larry continues, Bob is “Sampling once more the Coleridge-influenced male poet, who feels the power of the sun:

These happy stars, and yonder setting moon
Have seen me speed, unreckoned and untasked
A round of precious hours
Oh! here in that summer noon I basked
And strove, with logic frailer than the flowers
(Henry Timrod: A Rhopsody Of A Southern Winter Night)

But I have wandered from my first thoughts, and I’d like to go back to “finitude” as Psychology Today put it – the state of having limits.  And limits there certainly are in this piece…

My bewildering brain, toils in vain
Through the darkness on the pathways of life
Each invisible prayer is like a cloud in the air
Tomorrow keeps turning around
We live and we die, we know not why
But I’ll be with you when the deal goes down

And thus we toil, we work, we try to sort it all out, but in the end we can’t – or at least today we find that Bob can’t.  But also, Bob is back to the old days remembering Robert Johnson, the man from whom so much of the music that meant so much to Bob (at least before he discovered Bing Crosby) was to flow…

In fact if I may divert from the song in hand, if you are not wholly familiar with Robert Johnson’s work do spend a moment with “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” even if you are a person who feels that all of Johnson’s songs sound the same and the blues are so depressing.  And do stay with it – and just listen how it grows.


and if you are particularly interested, this was adapted from Charley Patton’s record, “You’re Gonna Need Somebody When You Die.”  And because I rather like Charley Patton and we know that Bob does too, here’s the link to that.


It may not feel it to everyone but I feel a link in the lyrics

We eat and we drink, we feel and we think
Far down the street we stray
I laugh and I cry and I’m haunted by
Things I never meant nor wished to say


I’m workin’ my way back home,
I’m workin’ my way back home,
I’m workin’ my way back home, good lord,
On this Gulfport Island Road.

The music is completely different, but there is something about this particular Johnson song that I keep coming back to.  It is the inevitability of needing just to keep on keeping on that binds the two together.

And if you have played the Charlie Patten song, and listened to the unaccompanied section you might just feel a relationship between what happens there and

The moon gives light and shines by night
I scarcely feel the glow
We learn to live and then we forgive
O’er the road we’re bound to go

But musically Bob has left the blues far behind, and he is now most firmly in the world of Crosby et al as the opening chord sequence shows:

C,  E7,  F6, Dm7-5

C,  G11,  C,  G

The old bluesmen wouldn’t know what we were talking about.

Of course we don’t know who it is Dylan plans to be with as the deal goes down, any more than we know who the bluesmen are singing to.  Nor do we know how strongly Bob wants us to link his deal to anyone else’s deal from the past.

Psychology Today’s article titled “I’ll Be With You When the Deal Goes Down” is about emotional pain, although the original meaning of “when the deal goes down” is death – it means the final hand of cards after which you meet your maker or burn in eternal torment in hell.

In an article on the internet one writer puts it, “To sum this up, I think that if you wish to understand what Dylan means when he says in this song: ‘When the deal goes down’ , you simply cannot ignore what Dylan said in the 60 minutes CBS Television interview in 2004 about destiny and about the bargain ,the deal,  he said he made with the Commander in Chief, God.”

Maybe so, as there are the lines

The midnight rain follows the train
We all wear the same thorny crown
Soul to soul, our shadows roll
And I’ll be with you when the deal goes down

And the conclusion

I owe my heart to you, and that’s sayin’ it true
And I’ll be with you when the deal goes down

So is it a latter day religious piece?  Possibly yes, but Bob is as always enigmatic – which of course in his time of preaching he most certainly was not.

Indeed I am always drawn back to that old conundrum.  For all the songs that could mean any one of 100 things, Bob never gives us explanations.  For the songs that were utterly obvious during the “Saved” period, he would give us a ten minute lecture.

I never really got that.  But then with my views upon religion, I guess that’s not surprising.


What 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. “Well, come out when the skating rink glistens
    By the sun near the old crossroads sign”
    (Dylan: Winterlude)

    Under ‘the sun’….perhaps, a bit of caution on his part because Bob is aware that Eve uncovered knowledge of good and evil by being the first to make a pact with the silver-tongued Devil…..a long time before Robert Johnson supposedly made his deal at the crossroads.

  2. Nice piece, great read. I think the deal is everybody’s deal: you wanna stay alive, you gotta keep on keeping on. It’s practically the deal we’re born with.
    At some point, when you find yourself in the darkest part of the deepest pit you may feel the need to reaffirm the deal. With yourself, with God, no matter. Bob believes in God – poetically speaking.

  3. Yes, indeed…In ‘Saved’, Dylan, or at least his persona, sings ‘Not by works/But by faith in Him who called”, casts doubt on his former position that it’s his art, his music, his works that gives him strength, a talent given him by the Creator whose face is hidden, but revealed somewhat by the rebellious, (later to become a ‘semi-god’) Jesus.

    A worthwhile experiment in organized Christianity Dylan undertakes since contained therein are seeds that can lead to its own destruction once you’re surrounded by an organized religious or political structure that institutionalizes thought.

    Poetically speaking, double-edged words and myths are all part of the mystery of human existence; for example, the rebel ‘Satan’ therein can tip you off that your talent is being used as a tool to benefit the organization and it’s leaders rather than for individual salvation.

    In the end, it’s up to everyone to decide for themselves where they do not want to be; in Dylan’s case, singing only gospel songs turns out to be one of them; as was singing only ‘political protest’ songs.

  4. Very well said, all. I feel that Bob Dylan is with me, or I am with him, in some sense. (I know he doesn’t want to hang out). But then I believe we are all in this thing together. Maybe he does too.

  5. All this myth, so beautifully put together, by the artist, call it religion or spiritual journey, is what Bob continues to deliver, right up through Triplicate, for all the world to see. This isn’t show biz and marketing. Dylan’s still happening here.

  6. Great article. Interesting comment, Ed. I’ve often wondered if the ‘you’ in many Dylan songs refers to his audience. See Dirge:
    ‘The stage was set, the lights went out all around the old hotel,
    I hate myself for lovin’ you and I’m glad the curtain fell.’

  7. This is a beautiful song that can bring me to tears. He is with the one he loves so very very much and he is with her when the deal goes down, ‘soul to soul’.

  8. Francois Rabelais, once a monk, a Renaissance writer of robust burlesque, as in:

    “When I drink, I think; and when I think, I drink”

    Referenced in an earlier work:

    – Puff had nothing but bad words for
    unemployment, Wrigley’s Spearment, Rabelais
    (Bob Dylan: Tarantula)

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