I’d hate to be you on that dreadful day: Bob Dylan gets the ship ready via Dives and Lazarus

by Tony Attwood

This is one of the songs from the Whitmark demos, which Dylan procured from the 16th century English tradition of folk songs and which eventually he turned into, “When the ship comes in”.  By the time of that final transformation the English folk original music and lyrics were gone,  but the message was more powerful and more imaginative than before.

Throughout this evolution however it is always a very clear piece, saying, quite obviously, that there is going to be a Judgement Day and only those who believe and have behaved according to the Laws of the elders and prophets, will survive.   And the implication seems to be Bob is one of those who is going to make it, and those unbelievers who have behave badly will.  (It is only an implication but if didn’t think he’d be ok, why would he give the message?)

The origin of the song is “Dives and Lazarus” (Dives is Latin for rich, splendid, although here it becomes a man’s name), and is found in the Gospel of Luke (16:19 and onwards).

It became the basis of Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus by the English orchestral composer Ralph Vaughan Williams who had a deep interest in English folk music and was an associate of the folk song collector Cecil Sharp.  If you are interested in a version of the English folk song it can be found on “Round Again” by Swan Arcade (which is on Spotify if you can’t get the album.)  The opening verses of the song give a clear indication where it is going…

As it fell out upon one day,
Rich Divès made a feast,
And he invited all his friends,
And gentry of the best.

Then Lazarus laid him down and down
And down at Divès’ door:
Some meat and drink, brother, Diverus,
Bestow upon the poor.

Thou’rt none of my brothers, Lazarus,
That liest begging at my door;
No meat, nor drink will I give thee,
Nor bestow upon the poor.

Eventually Dives dies and goes to hell, while Lazarus is blessed, and of course Dives repents but it is all too late.

Then Divès looked up with his eyes
And saw poor Lazarus blest;
Give me one drop of water, brother Lazarus,
To quench my flaming thirst.

O, was I now but alive again
The space of one half hour!
O, that I had my peace again
Then the devil should have no power.

Luke 16:19 and onwards reads,

There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.

So that’s where Bob gets it all from.  His version however loses much that is in the tale, and it was not replaced until the ship did come in.  And perhaps just ponder for a moment the difference between

Well, your clock is gonna stop
At Saint Peter’s gate


Oh the time will come up
When the winds will stop
And the breeze will cease to be breathin

Same idea, two worlds apart in terms of the use of the language.  Here are the first four verses of “I’d hate to be you”.

Well, your clock is gonna stop
At Saint Peter’s gate
Ya gonna ask him what time it is
He’s gonna say, “It’s too late”
Hey, hey!
I’d sure hate to be you
On that dreadful day

You’re gonna start to sweat
And you ain’t gonna stop
You’re gonna have a nightmare
And never wake up
Hey, hey, hey!
I’d sure hate to be you
On that dreadful day

You’re gonna cry for pills
And your head’s gonna be in a knot
But the pills are gonna cost more
Than what you’ve got
Hey, hey!
I’d sure hate to be you
On that dreadful day

You’re gonna have to walk naked
Can’t ride in no car
You’re gonna let ev’rybody see
Just what you are
Hey, hey!
I’d sure hate to be you
On that dreadful day

So it continues.  It is not Bob at his best, but we do now know where it led.

Here’s another version of Bob’s song.  This guy may not be a brilliant presenter of his performance but he can play the guitar!

And just because I don’t have many chances to put up orchestral music on this blog, here’s the Vaughan Williams piece

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 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 produced 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 our articles on various writers’ lists of Dylan’s ten greatest songs.

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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