Pay in Blood: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

What is the most appalling word you could say to a young Jewish musician?

Actually, that’s a dumb question, because although I’ve heard most of them, being born and brought up in a part of North London where the insults are still heard, but not being Jewish, I don’t really know the answer.

But I can think of one.  Given that Christianity records that Jesus Chris was killed by Jews and betrayed by Judas Iscariot into the hands of the Sanhedrin priests in return for thirty silver coins, calling a young Jewish man “Judas” must be pretty high on the list of insults.

So when we consider May 17, 1966, the day when Keith Butler, at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, shouted the word “Judas” at Dylan.

Dylan replied, “You’re a liar!” and a moment later “Play it fucking loud”.

And there it stayed, a moment in Dylan’s history, until Pay in Blood.   Rolling Stone made it the 9th best song of the year and in reviewing it everyone focuses on the extraordinary lyrics.  But as always with Dylan we need to consider more than this – and particularly more than the lyrics we can make fit into our own preferred interpretation.

The conensus is that this is vicious – the most vicious song ever some say.   “It’s like a pilot pitch for Masters of War” is one of the comments that I rather liked.

The music however tells us something.  What we notice most of the time is the rocking motion of the chords C – F – C.   These chords can rock, because they both contain the note C, which means the bass can on occasion hold the C, and let the chords switch around above.  They rock back and forth in a gentle way that, when you focus on them, seems very odd, considering the lyrics.

Because even with the lyrics this gives us a sense of security, of certainty, of knowing where we are.  But then in each verse, suddenly that is pulled away from us – as indeed it needs to be, because these lyrics are not lyrics to be comfortable with.

The Masters of War comparison is interesting because in that song the music is driven on by the relentless beat that the guitar chords incorporate – it pounds away and won’t let go.  But here the band doesn’t do this, but time and again it lulls us into this security, only to wrench us out by playing two chords that don’t give us a rocking motion at all – D minor and A minor.  Now there’s nothing amiss here – these two chords fit perfectly in the key of C major that Dylan is composing in.  But the jerkiness or these two chords is so different from the lilting rocking motion, it almost throws us overboard.

So we are in a strange world.   Hard difficult words, against a gentle rocking rhythm broken suddenly by two lines that take us to the edge of the cliff, and back.

This is how it works in verse one…   I have written the two lines based on the minor chords in italics.

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 wrongs that you done
Sooner or later you 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.

After this we have a musical pause, which carries on the rocking motion, without any notion that the minor chord disruption in lines five and six happened.  One is left blinking, looking around, asking “what the hell happened there?”

Which is a bit like the “Judas” shout.  At  the time, we all knew what it meant – the expression of the annoyance that Dylan had turned his back on the solo guitar and singer approach of his early days, and ventured into rock with its electric guitars.  Here “Judas” just means, you have betrayed us.  But shouted at a young Jewish guy, it takes on a different meaning.

The image the lyrics give us is of an old man who is bitter about what others have done.  In the song we don’t know what they have done, and if “you” is one person or a group or the government or everyone.

The old man is powerless, but by sitting there, rocking back and forth (like an old timer on the veranda of his southern home looking out across main street in his small town) he is just waiting for that mistake to happen.

From this very first intermission section (lines five and six) we are left wondering.  Who is it Bob?  Who are you targeting this time?

I think that it is viable to think that after all this time it is Dylan’s answer to the “Judas” shout.

My starting point is a Rolling Stone interview with Mikal Gilmore Dylan said, “These are the same people that tried to pin the name Judas on me. Judas, the most hated name in human history! If you think you’ve been called a bad name, try to work your way out from under that. Yeah, and for what? For playing an electric guitar? As if that is in some kind of way equitable to betraying our Lord and delivering him up to be crucified’.   All those evil motherfuckers can rot in hell.”

Of course arguments have been made that this is a religious song and the blood is the blood of Christ.  The view is that, “Nothing more wretched than what I must endure” relates to Paul’s question in Romans 7:24 “Wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”

But to make this work you have to argue that Dylan has been writing religious songs all the time, so that “Feel like my soul has turned into steel, I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal. . .” is not about psychological scars from betrayal, but rather the scars not healed by the Son of God. (Sun/Son – clever eh?)

This is given depth by the references to stoning to death – which Leviticus is rather keen on for the sin of adultery, which if I read my gossip columns correctly would rather do it for Bob.

The trouble with these arguments is that each one stretches a point more and more.  The sun / Son idea, and seeeing “The more I die, the more I live” not as just a juxtaposition of concepts that every poet worthy of the name can get up to, but instead “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30), really does take elasticity too far.  

The problem is that Dylan doesn’t need to do this sort of long-distance expansion of notions, because he is perfectly capable of saying what he wants to say.  “Come you masters of war you build the big guns” is about as direct as you can be, as is “You’ve gotta serve somebody”.

The poetry and metaphors of the Bible are beautiful (except perhaps when it comes to casting out people who approach the house of the Lord in clothes made of two cloths) but Dylan is a fine poet himself, and he doesn’t need obscure half references – especially not after Trouble.   Remember the verse….

Drought and starvation, packaging of the soul, Persecution, execution, governments out of control, You can see the writing on the wall inviting trouble. 

You don’t come through a religious conversion and write lines like that and then place loads of Biblical references that only the intelligencia will get, in a song a few years later.

So ok, “You’ve got the same eyes that your mother does, if only you could prove who your father was. . .” could be a reference to the virgin birth, but from what I know of Dylan’s journey I’d say he’s simply calling the person a bastard.

In the Old Testament, as I (an atheist) understand such matters, the blood is the soul – the soul is in your blood.   “It is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life”.  Yes, its our old “stone them to death” pal the Book of Laws  (Leviticus 17:11).  “I pay in blood, but not my own” is, in this interpretation, the rejection of one’s own blood being the key to one’s soul, because we don’t have souls.  We have what we make of ourselves, our morality, our decision to be good, kind, loving, helpful people.

So, for me, the interpretation of this song as a Christian commentary makes no sense at all at any literary level.  And it fails at the musical level.

But as an old man looking back on that notorious “Judas” shout, it does make sense musically and lyrically.

Dylan in this song is the free-spirit, independent thinker, rocking in his rocking chair on the veranda, cursing those who have caused him problems and anguish in the past.

I take this view as the opening instrumental section gives no hint of any anger to come – but old men sitting in their rocking chairs can be vicious in their commentaries.   “You’re gonna get it, not me” is the message as he rocks back and forth, back and forth.

Sooner or later you make a mistake, I’ll put you in a chain that you never will break

This is an old man’s revenge.  For Dylan, the meaning is that he has the music, the music that he has created and which will live for hundreds and hundreds of years after he is gone.

Now I must admit I don’t get every reference – I’ve puzzled over the Southern Zone for some time, but without much luck.  There is a book called The Southern Zone which is about drugs, (but that would have been “I’ve circled around the Southern Zone”) and I think we can be fairly sure this is not about the Palmar Sur Airport in Costa Rica.   southern zone, is receiving international status with a $42 million expansion to the national airport, Palmar Sur Airport

But other lines are wonderful in that constant rocking rhythm, “Low cards are what I’ve got” is superb, followed by “But I’ll play this hand whether I like it or not”

Yes there is the reference to God in the song, but there’s also, Someone must have slipped a drug in your wine, You gulped it down and you cross the line”.   

But as always with Bob, you pay your money and take your choice.

Index of reviews.

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20 Responses to Pay in Blood: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

  1. Oded says:

    You are one of the dest dylanologists ever! thanks so much, once again.

  2. Oded says:


    Not that it 100% works for me, but just to strengthen your point, Dylan changes 2 beautiful lines in the lyrics (at least since 2013 Tour, and up until 2015),
    so instead of:
    You got the same eyes that your mother does
    If only you could prove who your father was

    You get
    Life is short, and it don’t last too long
    They’ll hang you in the morning, for singing a song
    Check it out

  3. Ron Doub says:

    Nothing quite so ironic as an atheist attempting to interprete a believer’s poem

  4. TonyAttwood says:

    Ron I can think of plenty of things far more ironic than that. In fact, come to think of it, I am not sure where the irony is. If only people sharing the same view interpret each other’s work, how do we ever get to see the deeper meanings that impact on the majority? For the majority are always excluded if only people of like mind can comment on each other’s work without it being ironic.

  5. Bob says:

    So ok, “You’ve got the same eyes that your mother does, if only you could prove who your father was. . .” could be a reference to the virgin birth?????

    No, come on. He isnt Judas.

    This is a reference to Obama, who reversed his morals and rules the nation.

  6. TonyAttwood says:

    Some evidence or theoretical base would be nice Bob.

  7. IshKaBiddle says:

    It’s Obama? really?

    If you really believe that, then it’s probably about you.

    The really great thing about analysing Dylan’s songs is, like analysing Lennon’s songs… simple.

    You don’t have to do it.

    All you have to do is dig it.

  8. Hal says:

    I agree that Pay in Blood does not make much sense as a Christian commentary, although not completely disconnected from biblical themes. There’s at least one obvious reference to the Bible in there: “Man can’t live by bread alone” (but by “every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4)). The line may of course also mean that man need a variety of foods, if you like. Or it may mean both, depending.

    This lyric is open and ambigous, and many interpretations are possible. You can almost read it like a riddle: “The more I take the more I give. The more I die the more I live. Who am I?” Or maybe even “Who am I now?” The content and character of the whole song seem to change with the point-of-view. The bitter old man point-of-view might work at some level or at some point, I think. However, it’s hard to find any apparent red thread, apart from the refrain “I pay in blood, but not my own”.

    Digging into the it, the allusions and references are overwhelming, Bible, Shakespeare, mythology. None of it subtracts from this intricate and beautiful song.

  9. Hello Tony, yes another fine analysis. Need a rest? Then come inside Bob Dylan’s Music Box and listen to every version of every song.

  10. Dorothy says:

    We may all have our own logical interpretations, but I enjoy wondering, and wonder at the genius if a lyric was written with duel meanings.

    You’ve got the same eyes as your mother does. If only you could prove who your father was.

    Might be The Virgin birth, as posted earlier. I would specify that Jesus was born of Mary, (“had her eyes”) but of no man. And He was crucified, for one reason, for claiming to be the son of God.

    There is a lot in ‘Tempist’ that sounds written by Dylan as a Messianic Jew, addressed to the Jewish people.

    ‘Scarlet Town’ says, ‘Help comes, but it comes too late.’ – A book written by a Rabbi who Dylan respects, says almost the same sentence, meaning that many Jews have lost their faith since the Holocaust. Always before, they were helped before the ladt minute.

    ‘You’ve got the same eyes as your mother does. If only you could prove who your father was’: Jewish bloodline comes down from the mother, not the father. If you aren’t Jewish, that’s an interesting thing to google.

  11. Al says:

    Maybe I can help you with this

  12. TonyAttwood says:

    All help welcome – if you want to write to me directly its

  13. “Someone must of [sic] slipped a drug in your wine…”

  14. Sean says:

    Think it’s about Bush and the Iraq invasion.

  15. Ignatz says:

    Bob Dylan knows the Bible well, and draws lyrically from many sources. The fact that he uses a phrase from the Bible does NOT mean that the song is specifically Christian.

    This is an angry, vengeful song, and attempts to give it a Christian message do violence to both the song and Christianity.

    Conservative fundamentalist Christians have a psychological need for validation that leads them to find Christianity in everything. Everything but their own lives, that is. Which often could not be FURTHER from anything Jesus Christ said or taught.

  16. clumsy d says:

    Very interesting, i’m sure there are endless interpretations … for me the song is mostly about economics, subjugation, and exploitation … the payments in blood are what he exploits from others, just as occurs daily throughout the world in our neoliberal, neocolonial order. The narrator is despicable, but honest about his degraded state, which he accepts as a low and nasty position but maybe the only one he had available, as in many ways he’s a pawn of evil ways as much as those under his thumb are.
    Definitely one of my favorite Dylan songs as his oblique and devastating critique is outstanding.


  17. Larry fyffe says:

    Weberman who has a hate-on for Dylan tries to interpret Pay In Blood as a Trumpian anti-Obama song, but it comes off as quite unintendedly funny….assuming Weberman is being serious which he might well be.

  18. Peter Light says:

    Dylan’s personal honesty sometimes betrays rather than outweighs qualities that I far from admire; in fact, abhor. Years after singing “Love is all you need, it makes the world go round,” I do not like Dylan’s self-indulgence in non-censorship of his own hate. Shitting in public is not usually appropriate. Neither is a lack of self-control, even after ample time for reflection far from the more excusable impulse of the moment. Slipping up in the here and now is very different than consciously deciding to proceed with sentiments that the world does not need. I would much rather watch parking meters than listen to this brilliant poet sell his ethical soul short with such a multitude of lines of juvenile viciousness, and read the attempts to be erudite that ignore there true nature by cloaking them in some kind of misplaced justification and praise.

  19. TonyAttwood says:

    I think your comments might have some merit if you gave examples and then examined them. Without that your commentary really doesn’t give us much insight into the origins of your thought.

  20. Peter Light says:

    Yes, here are the lines I was referring to:

    “I could stone you to death…”
    “I’ll put you in a chain that you never will break”
    “I got dogs could tear you limb from limb”
    “You bastard”
    “I’ll break your lousy head”

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