Bob Dylan’s songs considered as art for art’s sake


By Larry Fyffe

No one twists and turns the still existing themes of past times to make them better suited to modern times, more than does Bob Dylan.

Contrary to what many music critics claim, Dylan chooses his double-edged diction with great care, and thus careful attention must be paid: as in, for example, “the long black cloud is comin’ down”.

In the Bible verse below, Mary Magdalene mistakes the revitalized Jesus for a gardener:

Jesus saith unto her, ‘Women,
why weepest thou; whom seekest thou?’
She supposing him to be the gardener,
saith unto him
Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell
me where thou hast laid him
And I will take him away
(Book Of St. John: 20:15)

In the song below, that old story is revised in the fragmented, disorderly style of Modernist writing:

As I walked out in the mystical garden
On a hot summer day, hot summer lawn
Excuse me, ma’am, I beg your pardon
There’s no one here, the gardener is gone
(Bob Dylan: Ain’t Talkin’)

Leaving the plausible interpretation that the narrator is comparing himself to the now ever-present figure of Jesus, the persona taken on by Dylan is not the gardener of the Old Testament, but, like Jesus, is the one who remains. The weed-destroying gardener is gone.

Poet Paul Verlaine springs to mind and with him the theme that great art endures much longer than the person who creates it – even when the focus of the art is on death and decay:

Opening the narrow rickety gate
I went for a walk in the little garden
All lit up with the gentle morning sun
(Paul Verlaine: After Three Years)

Bob Dylan is quite adept at tweaking classical myths, legends of the Old West, folk lore, biblical narratives, morality tales, and even nursery rhymes – sometimes turning them completely upside down – for the sake of making art that is original. ‘Art for art’s sake’, one might say – turning villains into good guys, and vice versa, for example:

John Wesley Harding
Was a friend to the poor
He travelled with a gun in every hand
All along this countryside
He opened many a door
But was never known
To hurt an honest man
(Bob Dylan: John Wesley Harding)

The initials ‘JWH’ resemble the written Hebrew ‘YHWH’, the un-utterable reference to ‘God’.

Whether personally a follower of some variety of Christianity and/or Judaism
– or not -, the lyrics of many Dylan songs rework Biblical narratives, ie, at times, interpretable as God being, if not Satanic, at least in league with the Devil. As the persona considers himself to be – at least in the following lyrics:

Shake the dust off 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
(Bob Dylan: Pressing On)

Dylan reworks nursery rhymes.  For example below is a song that is interpretable as castigating God for turning a blind eye on mankind’s development of nuclear weapons capable of annihilating the human race. First the nursery rhyme:

There was a little boy and a little girl
Lived in an alley
Says the the little boy to the little girl
‘Shall I, oh, shall I?’
Says the little girl to the little boy
‘What shall we do?’
Says the little boy to the little girl
‘I will kiss you’
(Nursery Rhyme: There Was A Little Boy And A Little Girl)

Sings Dylan, as if he too turns a blind eye:

There was a little boy and a little girl
And they lived in an alley under the red sky ….
Let the wind blow low, let the wind blow high
One day the little boy and little girl were both baked in a pie
This is the key to the kingdom and this is the town
This is the blind horse that leads you around
(Bob Dylan: Under The Red Sky)

The following song lyrics, can be interpreted as saying that the singer takes on the a persona from one of the legends of the Old American West.

The dark vengeful God present in the Old Testament, whose wrath is relied upon by social authorities to justify the killing of fellow humans, gets rebuked by the sheriff. Instead, he turns to the light shining forth from the New Testament wherein the sheriff finds the peace-centred teachings of Jesus Christ:

Mama, take this badge off of me
I can’t use it anymore
It’s gettin’ dark, too dark for me to see
I feel like I’m knockin’ on Heaven’s door ….
Mama, put my guns in the ground
I can’t shoot them anymore
That long black cloud is comin’ down
I feel like I’m knockin’ on Heaven’s door
(Bob Dylan: Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door)

The lyrics above can be interpreted that ‘Mama’, as a representative of social norms, is the cause of her boy doing bad things. However, with “that long black cloud is comin’ down”- she’s being gotten rid of.

Bob Dylan is going to do things his way.

What else is on the site

1: Over 450 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.

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

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


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