Is Bob Dylan Good Or Bad?

by Larry Fyffe

In his song lyrics and music, Bob Dylan grapples with the big philosophical question: what is ‘good’ and what is ‘evil’, – on the more personal level, what is the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ thing to do in any given situation? Religion is of little help to him – it just ain’t that easy to come up with definitive answers to such questions:

Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats
too noble too neglect
Deceived me into thinking I had something to protect
Good and bad, I define these terms quite clear 
no doubt, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

(Dylan: My Back Pages)

Established religion asserts that the answers to these questions are set down in black and white, but the experience of growing up shows such matters not to be so clear; even religious leaders betray their own teachings. As an artist, Dylan presents himself, or his singing persona, as an individual who has to make final decisions on his own though he may suffer sorrowful consequences therefrom.  Below, it’s Bob Dylan turn to tell a pilgrim’s tale:

Now we heard the sermon on the mount,  and I knew
it was too complex
It didn’t amount to anything more than what the 
broken glass reflects
When you bite off more than you can chew, you
pay the penalty
Somebody’s got to tell the tale, I guess it must be 
up to me

(Dylan: Up To Me)

He has read the spiritual poems of pre-Romantic William Blake that speak of Adam and Eve’s eating from the Tree of Knowledge, and so are expelled from Eden where it’s all good. That God casts them out into a world where evil co-exists with good be a myth organized religion thrives upon, asserts Blake.

That is, the Church untangles the Tree lying outside the gates of Eden by defining an ‘objective’ morality in simple black and white terms, but it’s actually a self-denying morality that serves the power-seeking interests of black-robed priests:

The gods of the earth and sea
Sought through Nature to find the Tree
But their search was all in vain
There grows one in the human brain

(Blake: The Human Abstract)

Blake contends that individuals have the mental capacity to gain, through a proper balancing of reason and intuition, what is good for them and what is not. According to Blake, the dogmatic doctrines of established religion prevent them from doing so. The later Romantic Transcendental poets proclaim that contact with the workings of external Nature helps the individual throw off the chains of dogma.

Dylan also reads Frederich Nieitzche who says the achievers of power and wealth define their own behaviour as ‘good’, while that of those who don’t achieve are obviously ‘bad’.  Furthermore, the wretched, out of resentment, define the actions of the rich and powerful as ‘evil’; it’s the ‘slave morality’ of Judeo-Christianity that comes to serve its leaders’ drive for masterly control.

Bob Dylan contends in many of his song lyrics that things continue to go from bad to worse, and though he is self-critical to the extent that anyone can be, it’s the hypocritical behaviour of religious leaders pretending to follow the teachings of Jesus – ie, they should love one another and help the poor- that he shakes his fist at:

You bastard, I’m supposed to respect you
I’ll give you justice, I’ll fatten your purse
Show me your moral virtue first
Hear me holler, hear me moan
I pay in blood, but not my own 

(Dylan: Pay In Blood)

Dylan shifts often his point of view, and so it’s hard to tell where he stands – could it be that good and evil doings are both necessary parts of the One Big Plan, and so it really doesn’t matter which side one chooses to be on? Dylan sings songs whose lyrics can be interpreted as a vision of God (good) and the Devil (evil) together in a card-playing club – where sometimes one gets the winning hands, and at other times the other gets them,

Shake the dust off of your feet, don’t look back
Nothing now can hold you down, nothing that you lack
Temptation’s not an easy thing, Adam given 
the Devil reign
Because he sinned, I got no choice, it run
in my vein 
Well, I’m pressing on
Yes, I’m pressing on
Well, I’m pressing on
To the higher calling of my Lord

(Dylan: Pressing On)

Being an artist, Dylan’s lyrics are often double edged – in those below, man is viewed as no more than a pawn in a chess game between the God and Satan:

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes
Indeed you ‘re gonna have to serve somebody
Well it may be the Devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

(Bob Dylan: Gotta Serve Somebody)

Irony is Bob Dylan’s middle name. He writes some song lyrics that present things as they are with fate and luck, not free choice, having a lot to do with how things got to be that way.

The dark imagery drawn from the prose-poetry of Lucien Ducasse, who portrays himself as the revenge-seeking fallen angel, serves Dylan well in some of his song lyrics. Maldoror, the Devil, with black humour, unbinds man from the chains of religion:

Then dogs, driven wild, break their chains and escape
They run all over the country, a prey to madness
And start barking in turns like a hungry child yelling for food
Their prolonged howls fill Nature with dread
And woe to the belated traveller
These graveyard fiends will set upon him, will tear him to pieces
And eat him, their mouths dripping with blood

(Lucien Ducasse: Songs Of Maldoror – again condensed by me)

Dylan turns Ducasse’s imagery upside down in the following song. Using his own black sense of humour, Dylan presents himself as the sun-god Apollo, son of Zeus, who threatens to condemn dog-like detractors to the cells of Hell:

Well I’m grinding my life out, steady and sure
Nothing more wretched than what I must endure
I’m drenched in the light that shines from the sun
I could stone you to death for the wrong that you done
Sooner or later you’ll make a mistake
I’ll put you in a chain that you never will break
Legs and arms and body and bone
I pay in blood, but not my own

(Bob Dylan: Pay in Blood)

No intention has Dylan of painting  ‘Madonna And Child’ over and over again.

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. People often come to my clinic with bad conscience and self-esteem.
    They ask me, if I think they are evil.
    I tell them:
    The simple fact that you are concerned about whether you are good or bad, tells me that you are a good person.
    People who are totally indifferent are evil.

    It is also the whole point of The new Testament.

    We can´t be good all the time – ´but we can try the best we can – and that is good enough. The world is not black and white.

    I think Bob Dylan, as so many other people who has had idealistic ideas , found peace and comfort in the words of Jesus.

  2. Yes ineed in the words of Jesus, but perhaps not so much in the actions of some of his so-called followers.

  3. I should have delicately mentioned that ‘fatten your purse’ is slang for: ‘ give a good kick in the balls’

  4. I like the word delicately – – –
    But I dont know if I would rather have wished to be without the explanation.

    I admit the world is a cruel place to live and we have to survive.

    A dreamer like me tend to forget the story about the expelsion of The Garden of Eden.

  5. *’indeed’ is wrongly typoed above but the autocorrect doesn’t appear to care when it would indeed be good if it did instead of just being a nuisance.

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