When the deal goes down & Huck’s Tune/ Bob Dylan believes in God – poetically speaking

by Joost Nillissen

When the deal goes down (Modern Times) is a pretty sombre, but straightforward song, except for the last line of each verse:

I’ll be with you when the deal goes down.

And it is that line that has so many people scrambling for their copy of the Old and New Testament. What deal? In this context I should mention something that Tony Attwood referred to in his commentary on this song. In the famous CBS 60 Minutes interview, which is on YouTube, although you might have to subscribe to CBS’ service to see it.

Dylan is asked why he is still touring so much.

Dylan: ‘it’s a destiny thing, I made a bargain with it, a long time ago. I’m holding up my end.

The interviewer: ‘With whom?’

Dylan: (half smiling, evasively, maybe a little embarrassed): ‘the chief commander.’

The interviewer: ‘In this world?’

Dylan: ‘In this world and the world we cannot see.’

So who is the ‘you’? His wife, lover, friend, child? The chief commander? God? Jesus?

Good Lord.

Most of the lines in this song are thoughts we ourselves could have thought at one time or another, especially if you have passed middle age and, scarred and all, you realize it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.

Of course wisdom comes with pain and strife
Of course you go through dark patches in life
Of course your prayers evaporate in the air
Of course you have to deal day after day with countless tomorrows
Of course we live and die and do not know why

There is nothing new here, it is just incredibly well put and sung. He is weary, but wise.

Of course we eat and drink, feel and think
Of course we get lost sometimes
Of course we laugh and regret things we said
Of course midnight trains carry lonely souls
Of course they are bound by rolling shadows

The singer, still weary, still wise, is trying to define a deeper meaning to all this aggravation. For now all he can do is keep on keeping on, because… that’s the deal.

He’s grateful for the moon and its light
He’s grateful for the glow
He’s grateful that he has lived to learn to forgive
He’s grateful for the flowers, the precious hours
He’s grateful for the bond and the vision in the sky

The singer needs a vision in the sky, a sign from above, to remind him of the deal.

Because the rose he picked up, poked him
Because the stream is hard to follow
Because a deafening noise caused transient joys
Because he doesn’t understand them
But he knows that in spite of the disappointments and pain
He’ll stay true, he will not frown on this deal, he’ll keep his end of the bargain.
Keep on keeping on, that’s the deal.

It’s the deal we’re practically born with, you have to keep on keeping on, no matter how hard it might get sometimes, because if you don’t, you’re dead. Some people may sometimes think they’re better off dead and some people may feel the need to reaffirm the deal, solemnly, even religiously or poetically in order to survive. No matter with whom you make the deal – God, Jesus, the commander in chief – you are really only making a deal with yourself.

Those that can’t abide by the deal can go hang themselves, like merry little elves.

And that brings us to Huck’s Tune. (The bootleg series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs)

While in When the deal goes down Dylan is hanging on to this deal by his fingernails, in Huck’s Tune he is tired of his faith. I have to put you down for a while. It’s the same ‘you’ that he promised to be with when the deal goes down. The deal has become a (temporary) burden.

He is wandering through a cold world, where life is a version of death, alone, dreaming of his future wife. He is master of his own fate, but only as second in command. The Commander in Chief – a woman, no doubt, his Muse maybe – commands all, but at this particular moment it’s a heavy load.

Everything is fine, really, her kisses cause honey to drip, children hand out roses, even though they might poke through his clothes. They meet everyday and everyday there is a ball they can go to.

Life is full of surprises. Would could possibly be wrong?

Well… the problem is, he tried her twice and she’s not nice. That’s what’s wrong. It’s too hard, he’s gonna have to put her down for a while. He wants to get away from it all, lay in the sand, get himself a sunshine tan, and then he’ll be moving along, riding in style, while she tries to knock him dead.

He’s counting the years now, not shedding any tears. She has blinded him with what he could have been, but now he’d rather rejoice in Nature’s voice and listen to the wild song of the wind.

He remembers they sometimes had hopeless love in the room above and when he tells her she was fine as wine he’ wasn’t handing her some line. It was true.

But not anymore, not now. All her merry little elves can go hang themselves, his faith is as cold as can be. He did all he could, there’s proof he can show her, ‘if you don’t believe me, come see.’

And yes, he agrees with her, maybe he’s blue, maybe it’s a temporary thing, maybe he’ll get over it, but, let’s be candid with each other now, the game’s gotten old, the stack is gone cold. I’m gonna have to put you down for a while.

The deal is a great burden, poetically speaking.

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. Indeed, the commander-in-chief could be his desire to create art, which Dylan often compares to a woman that he just can’t let go.

  2. You have to look more closely to the lyrics. ‘Huck’s Tune’ is not the same as ‘When the deal goes down’.

    In ‘Huck’s Tune’ he is not with her, although she wants to come back and he is dreaming that she is back, but he is not ready for it:
    All the merry little elves can go hang themselves
    My faith is as cold as can be
    I’m stacked high to the roof and I’m not without proof
    If you don’t believe me, come see
    You think I’m blue, I think so too
    In my words you’ll find no guile
    The game’s gotten old, the deck’s gone cold
    And I’m gonna have to put you down for a while

    He has to put her down for a while, in another song he says: I’m trying to get closer but I’m still a million miles from you.
    It needs time.

    In the Deal goes Down, they are together, although he remembers the disappointment and pain:
    In this earthly domain, full of disappointment and pain
    You’ll never see me frown
    I owe my heart to you, and that’s sayin’ it true
    And I’ll be with you when the deal goes down

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