There’s A Slow Train Coming: Bob Dylan

by Larry Fyffe

The song lyrics of Bob Dylan are often taken by listeners and music critics to be those of a dyed-in-the-wool apocalyptic visionary. Some of these listeners and critics accept the words of the Bible as the be-all and end-all of what the future has in store for mankind, ie, do what you might, it’s all over now, baby blue. So best to become a ‘true believer’ – you might be lucky enough to make it to Heaven.

Dylanologist Kees de Graaf, as far as I can tell, takes this view:

Again Dylan may had in mind Revelation 20:8, the battle of Gog and Magog.

May the Lord have mercy on us indeed when this war begins (de Graaf: The Cat’s In The Well)

It’s a plausible interpretation of the particular song lyrics in question. But put in the context of Dylan’s works as a whole, matters are not so clear:

The confusion I’m feeling
Ain’t no tongue can tell
The words fill my head
And fall to the floor
That if God’s on our side side
He’ll stop the next war

(Bob Dylan: With God On Our Side)

Listening to Dylan’s songs that relate to canonised religion reveals he’s honestly confused.  More than that, as an artist who feels compelled to rebel against orthodox teachings, including religious dogma, the singer/songwriter proclaims that ignorance stops ‘true believers’ from confronting God – to get Him to change His mind; to get Him to stop the apocalypse:

Jesus said, ‘If the flesh came into being
Because of spirit, that’s a marvel
But if the spirit came into being because of the body
That is the marvel of marvels’

(The Gospel Of Thomas)

Little wonder, many Gnostic gospels are omitted from official biblical canon. A God made in the image of man is surely blasphemous. That mankind can change the course of history for the good, even if there are setbacks, jeopardises the established authority of Christian leaders – their walls could come a-tumbling down:

I been double-crossed now
For the very last time and now I’m feeling free
I kissed goodbye the howling beast
On the borderline that separated you from me
You’ll never know the hurt I suffered
Nor the pain I rise above
And I’ll never know the same about you
Your holiness, or your kind of love
And it makes me feel so sorry

(Bob Dylan: Idiot Wind)

Dylan sings a Ballad, not for the Thin Man who drowns living things, but for the Brave Man who saves them:

 Ding, dong, bell
Pussy’s in the well
Who put her in?
Little Johnny Thin
Who pulled her out?
Little Tommy Stout
What a naughty boy was that
To try to drown poor Pussy cat
Who never did any harm
But kill all the mice in the farmer’s barn

(Nursery Rhyme: Ding, Dong, Bell)

Dylan ding-dongs the bells of alarm: where is the brave God that’ll stop the next war? Weary he is of the thin God at whose feet the bloodhounds kneel:

 The drinks are ready, and the dogs are going to war
The cat’s in the well, the leaves are starting to fall
The cat’s in the well, leaves are starting to fall
Good night, love, may the Lord have mercy on us all

(Bob Dylan: Cat’s In The Well)

Dylan is anything but an a an apocalyptic prophet who throws up his hands in surrender to inevitable fate:

The priest wore black on the seventh day
And sat stone-faced while the building burned
I waited for you on the running boards
Near the cypress trees, while the the springtime turned
Slowly into autumn

(Bob Dyan: Idiot Wind)

Waiting for Shelley perhaps: all is not lost – if winter comes, can spring be far behind?

Placed in the context of his songs as a coherent vision, there’s a slow train coming up around the bend. Slow it be, but it’s coming:

Sometimes I feel so low-down and disgusted
Can’t help wonder what’s happened to my companions
Are they lost or are they found
Have they counted the cost it’ll take to bring down
All their earthly principles they’re gonna have to abandon?
There’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend

(Bob Dylan: Slow Train)

That is, in time, rather than man being separated from God as he is now, he will be united with Him:

 There’s a Man up on a cross and He’s been crucified
Do you have any idea why or for who He died
When you gonna wake up, when you gonna wake up
When you gonna wake up, and strengthen the things that remain?

(Bob Dylan: When You Gonna Wake Up)

All visionary writings of the Gnostics have not been left out of the Bible -Jesus saith:

 Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain
That are ready to die
For I have not found thy works perfect before God

(Revelation 3:2)

As we have already seen, Dylan himself speaks with a Gnostic tongue. One that that says any spark of goodness that remains within the human body is in danger of dying out.

Trinitized Christianity, he metaphorically envisions as a religion of slaves, of bloodhounds that kneel – in need of a reformulation:

He looks so truthful, is this how he feels?
Trying to peel the moon and expose it
With his businesslike anger and bloodhounds that kneel
If he needs a third eye he just grows it
He just needs you talk or hand him his chalk
Or pick it up after he throws it

(Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window)

A kindred poet-spirit, the singer/songwriter has:

Children of darkness got no wings
This we know, we got no wings
Stay in a circle chalked upon the floor
(Dylan Thomas: Children Of Darkness)

What else is on the site

1: Over 450 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order at the foot of 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

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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