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.


  1. Hi

    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

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.


  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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”

  13. The writer says that in this song Dylan is writing that we have no soul and “We have what we make of ourselves, our morality, our decision to be good, kind, loving, helpful people.”
    Besides being an atheist’s wishful thinking (read “Bob Dylan-A Spiritual Life” by Scott M. Marchell for reference), this particular comment is actually the reason I can’t except athiesm. If we are strictly DNA, if we have no souls…words like “good”, “kind” and “loving” have no meaning. They can not. That fact that they do stands as witness to the fact that we are not just DNA. Love this spiritual song.

  14. Where does this idea that DNA excludes a goodly spiritual side (soul, if you wish) come from??

    Obviously, it does not.

    Lots of animal species are compassionate toward their mates and young like humans can be, but lots of humans also massacre one another in the name of God.

  15. I’ve witnessed animals that have more love in one of their whiskers than a ‘fire and brimstone’ preacher has in his entire body.

  16. In this incarnation Bob (I is another) maybe identifying with The arch angel Michael, who was responsible for chaining up Satan and casting him into a bottomless pit (the southern zone).

    “The Angel Michael Binding Satan” by William Blake illustrates this..

    Bob, seems to be gearing up for his final mission after transending all the temptations Satan offer him (Or how I survived so many blows
    I’ve been through Hell, What good did it do?)

    Now he is ready for his final battle, where Satan will pay in blood, for all the blood he spilt…

    Possible Arch angel allusions.

    – I’m drenched in the light that shines from the sun (close to Heaven).
    – I’m circlin’ (flying) around the southern zone.
    – I’m sworn to uphold the laws of God (Angel).
    – I’ve been out and around with the rising men (Other Angels).
    – I came to bury, not to raise (Michaels mission).
    – I’ll put you in a chain that you never will break (How Michael defeats Satan).

    Possible Satan Allusions

    – They strip your useless hopes away (father of lies).
    Another angry beggar blowing you a kiss (loved by sinners).
    If only you could prove who your father was (fatherless).
    Show me your moral that you reversed (reversed the laws of god).
    You bastard (fallen angel), im supposed to respect you.

    Bob also seems to call to the listener (Collecting his army) to reject the lie of “The Fall” (Usurper) like he has..

    “Our nation must be saved and freed.
    You’ve been accused of murder, how do you plead?” Ie who’s side are you on?

  17. My mother bore me in the southern wild
    I am black, but O my soul is white
    (William Blake: The Little Black Boy)

    ie, All children are born innocent (white), but there are those who have been deprived thereof by enslavement due to the colour of their skin.

  18. When I first heard this song in 2013, it made me think of a soldier in Afghanistan, from the sun beating down and taking the blows and wondering how he made it back home. Then throw in the lines about something in my pocket that could make your eyeballs swim, I got dogs that could tear you limb from limb. Sounds like a soldier with his weapons and dogs. Then circling around the Southern zone, would be in a black hawk or whatever in the Southern zone of Afghanistan, which is an actual military location that you heard about in the news. I’m certainly not adamant in this view, but that’s what came across to me the first time I heard it.

  19. Dogs is in reference to the constellations, specifically Canus major which is a modernized glyph. The earlier glyph was a reclining bull in a boat with the star Sirius between its horns, later corrupted and called Hathra. The star Sirius was the star to watch to announce the birth of mankind’s redeemer, Jesus Christ. It bloomed like the evening blooming water lilly. It sintellated and bedazzled. Romans 10:9

    FYI. jokerman is the constellation Ophyuchus. That is your first key.
    TEMPEST is thematic. Every song is in reference to a place and time that cannot be known out of context: a sleazy roadhouse for musicians somewhere in the boonies of Oregon – a quarter house. John from roll on john, is dualistic: the second reference is to Another living typos of John in Rev 10:10.

    Bob was motivated to write and compose from an online source that like Lenny Bruce, was unconventional. It was someone he looked for and like others, he produced songs. Liturature, movies, comedies, prose and even commercialized adverts were in the loop of material that unfortunately is no longer available. ” Game of thrones ” and “shades of grey” were frequently used nails of exclamation.

    Green Day did a whole album from the same material. It was an AM PM not a 7-11, btw.

    Bob has composed from bits and pieces that were of context to keep it together and sometimes made direct quotes. Many musicians did.
    They were networking and were inspired. ROAR and I just want to see you be brave were two products from different artists.

    It was a cultural paradigm that most missed but it is still on like Bob is.

    He did not plagiarize, he just reflected.
    Two trains running side by side.
    Wasted Years is a good example of observing the conversations and remarks of a third party.
    Rock on!

  20. Ollie nailed it, very insightful.
    This is the best website on Dylan I have ever seen, by the way, kudos.

  21. Jaime that is very kind of you. As you can imagine, it is always easier for people to be negative about ventures like this, so getting positive responses is great. The writers on this site work incredibly hard to create unusual and innovative articles about Dylan, and positive comments make it all worthwhile.

  22. He pays in blood, but not his own. I think he means the blood of his dying girlfriend, or wife, where we officially don’t know about.

    ‘You got the same eyes that your mother does, If only you could prove who your father was’. He wasn’t too fond of the woman’s mother, who didn’t appreciate their relationship.

    ‘Sooner or later you make a mistake, I’ll put you in a chain that you never will break.’
    The chain of love.

    ‘My conscience is clear, what about you’ is from a Dr Hook song ‘What about you?’ from the CD ‘A Little Bit More’, from 1976. This cd also contains the song A Couple More Years, which Dylan has covered.

    He is desperate and angry.

  23. I agree that the story (fabula) of the song is not religious, and that to the extent it is about one thing, it is from inside the mind of a deranged, hate-filled and deranged killer. So it fits into the folk tradition of the murder ballads and scene-of-crime songs (from Hurricane to In the Garden) Dylan has explored numerous times from many angles.

    Like Sufjen Steven’s extraordinary John Wayne Gacy or Elliot Smith’s Son of Sam, behind the horror and abhoration of the songwriter for the subject, and in fact amplifying it, is the confession that there is some recognition of self: I’m a little like you (Smith), I’m a lot like him (Stevens), and in Dylan’s case we have his notorious statement about Lee Harvey Oswald that he saw something of himself.

    Dylan of course explores further: not just the person who pulled the trigger, but those pulling the strings: the secular Masters of War, the economic tyrants on Maggies Farm, the spiritual Jokerman, the mob bosses or whoever in Murder Most Foul.

    So if we can recognize the likeness of a mad killers in ourselves, and we are aware of these outside forces trying to control or coerce or cling to us, another of Dylan’s themes become clearer: independence being the choice of who to serve and whose thumb to get out under from : we gotta serve someone: hence “I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you” and the slew of lover-in-bed analogies. (Not to mention “You go your way i’ll go mine” and “its all over now, baby blue.”)

    So how does this relate to whether Pay in Blood is religious? When you have a song with phrases about enduring wretchedness, stoning to death for sins, paying in blood, upholding the laws of God, man cannot live by bread alone, hell, I came to bury not to raise, then clearly the words are steeped in Judeo Christian imagery relating to payback and violence and being motivated by religious concerns (for better or worse.)

    So while I don’t think the killer story is religious, the would-be killer certainly justifies himself in unsystematic biblical terms: but that the character is religious does not make the song religious.

    So in the mind of the attentive religious listener, these phrases are triggers or pointers to a systematic narrative (e.g. to the Jesus story) not to a grabbag of random phrases. Just as when Dylan references song titles in Murder Most Foul, he is intending (I think) to invoke more than just the poetry of the particular phrase but also aspects of the song, when he references biblical phrases in a non-religious story he invokes more than the phrase but to the refered-to lore.

    Most people would be aware of the Christian spiritual/interpretive/mystical technique (Via Negativa) that says that we find out much by seeing what is not, rather than what is, in things. So the creation myths in Genesis are not interesting as any kind of positive science, but serve to displace rival, polytheistic/animistic myths (that God was created or started, that there were multiple creators, that man was once a God, etc).

    Or that we can understand good not only by seeing it practised but by seeing its absence: indeed, that is precisely what causes the shock of horror, of injustice, of indignity: we perceive sharply the truth, beauty, justice, love, peace or whatever that should be there but is absent. When we see some distresding injustice, we ponder “how is it that I know the justice that should gave been there?”. And, truth, beauty, justice, love, peace being names of God, we are actually having a religious experience just as much as watching some cloying sunset or hearing a just court verdict or seeing some saintly act of self-sacrifice.

    So, where are we now? First that the story is not religious, second that the proragonist has biblical phrases infecting his brain, third that a religious or biblically-award listener will have numerous triggers by these phrases that someone of a different background will not, and fourth that, because of Via Negativa, an utterly non-religious work can work by antithesis and so actually be operating at religious level, albeit rather abstractly. But we probably all know of people turning religious because of recognizing some horror or lack: that older people, with more experience of bereavement and so on, are more religious than younger, is perhaps soje evidence.

    So this leaves the question, which we need to answer if we want to judge if the song is religious or not: was Dylan taking a kind of Via Negativa approach in writing the song? (Among all his other considerations, of course: no need to be reductionist.) Which would make it religious, but presumably only if you have “ears to hear”?

    In fact, is this an approach that permeates many of his songs for the last 30 years, since the preachy Gospel once? Does it explain the large number of songs which seem to be about dispair but have some hopefully little religious couplet tacked in oddly? (Highlands, Crossing the Rubicon) Or where it is absense or transience that prompts devotion? (Shooting Star, I’ve made up my Mind.)

    My answer is: kinda, sure, yes, why not?

    I think the sheer number of them needs to incline us to the view that many, perhaps most of Dylan’s songs have a well-integrated religious/moral/spiritual component: but not of the simplistic preachy kind but sophisticated, mercurial, and respectful to the audience (and aware of the word game his fans play with his songs.)

  24. A couple of things. First, didn’t anyone else notice that the music for the song is more or less cribbed from Smokey Robinson and the Miracles great song “Tracks of My Tears? And how about the story we hear about from Homer in the Odyssey (Book 8 lines 288-394) of the chain that the hunchbacked god of the forge Hephaestus made when the sun revealed to him that his wife Aphrodite was cheating on him (with Ares). It was an invisible chain that he used to trap the lovers in the act. The chain in unbreakable bonds (legs and arms, body and bones). And did could not Odysseys himself made the following statement? “How I made it back home, nobody knows, and how I survived so many blows, I been through hell, what good did it do…?” Just now the song seems to me to be a mash-up of different but related (in Dylan’s mind) stories like “Tangled up in Blue” or “Foot of Pride.”

  25. Re the Song: Pay in Blood.
    Surely and simply Bob is saying that the spilt blood of Jesus Christ at Crucifiction is the payment made on his behalf (and ours).. Bob would have believed that during his Born again/gospel early 80’s. A la Johnny Cash’s song ” Redemption” (1994). It’s all about holy blood shed for our transgressions “unto salvation” and don’t you know Bob and Johnny (good friends) certainly had their share.

  26. why are there different lyrics in “Bob Dylan, The Lyrics”? Does anybody know?

  27. My guess Volky, and it is just a guess, is that as Dylan writes and re-writes his lyrics, copies of them are left around in different places, used at different times, kept by different people, and ultimately when the website or the books want a copy they pick up what they think is the right version – but it turns out to be different from the one on a recording.

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