Joel and Dylan Change a Tyre


By Larry Fyffe

Bob Dylan, the singer/songwriter quite often uses the literary technique known as ‘burlesque’.

A song by Dylan, inspired by the biblical Book of Joel, takes the form of ‘high burlesque’ where an elevated artistic style is applied to an inappropriate subject. In this case, Princeton University officialdom at an honary degree-awarding ceremony is compared to an army coming from the north, perhaps the Assyrian invasion of Judea, as depicted in the Book Of Joel.

In the Old Testament Book, the army is compared to plague of insects, including locusts:

Sure was glad to get out of there alive
And the locusts sang, well it gave me a chill
Yeah, the locusts sang such a sweet melody
And the locusts sang with a high whinin’ trill
Yeah the locusts sang, and they were singing for me
(Bob Dylan: Day Of The Locusts)

Yahweh sends an army into Judea from (northern) Israel, a land of idolatry itself, as a punishment to the southern inhabitants of Canaan for their taking up of idolatry:

That which the palmerworm hath left hath the locusts eaten
And that which the locusts hath left hath the cankerworm eaten
And that which the cankerworm hath left hath the caterpillar eaten
(Joel 1: 4)

Fortunately, there is a way to get out of this desolate situation alive:

And rend your heart, and not your garments
And turn unto the Lord your God
For He is gracious and merciful
Slow to anger, and of great kindness
(Joel 2:13)

For Yahweh, it’s payback time – through Joel, the Hebrew prophet, the Almighty God says He’s going to put the boots to the citizens of the neighbouring City of Tyrus:

Yea, what have ye to do with me, O Tyre ….
Because ye have taken my silver and my gold
And have carried into your temples my goodly pleasant things
(Joel 3: 4,5)

In a serious allegory, Bob Dylan plays a modern-day Judean Joel, a sad-eyed prophet from Desolation Row; accustomed as they be to the City of Harlots across the street, any suitors who attempt to carry off the equally sad-eyed Lady of Judea are going to get a poisonous smack on the lips:

The kings of Tyrus with their convict list
Are waiting in line for their geranium kiss
And you wouldn’t know it would happen like this
But who among them really wants just to kiss you
(Bob Dylan: Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands)

On top of that, the kings of Tyrus sell Jewish children, and for that Joel says they’ll pay dearly:

The children also of Judah and the children of Jerusalem
have ye sold unto the Grecians
That ye might remove them far from their border
Behold, I will raise them out of the place whither ye have sold them
And will return your recompense upon your own head
(Joel 3: 6,7)

The modern Joel expresses anger at the maltreatment endured by others whose spiritual beliefs stress harm none who harm you not. Russian Orthodox St. Herman sets a good example as a kindly priest.

Interesting for word alchemist Gnostics is that ‘milk’ contains the consonants ‘mlk’, the initials of Martin Luther King Jr., an advocate of nonviolent resistence to inequitable authority:

Gonna raise me an army, some tough sons of bitches
I’ll recruit my army from the orphanages
I been to St. Herman’s church, and I’ve said my religious vows
I’ve sucked the milk out of a thousand cows
(Bob Dylan: Thunder On The Mountain)

Christian churches for the most part want Judea to take off her Jewish dress, and bury it away. But who among them do they think could bury you?

Images from the Book of Joel, Dylan draws upon for use in a lot of his song lyrics; it’s a small book of the Bible, but a big source of inspiration for the songwriter:

The beasts of the field cry also unto thee
For the river of waters are dried up
And the fire hath devoured the pastures
of the wilderness
(Joel 1:20)

The Zarathustrian symbols of earth, air, water, and fire are good for use in nursery rhymes that baby-sittin’ Joel can sing:

Let the bird sing fly, let the bird fly
One day the man in the moon went home
And the river went dry
(Bob Dylan: Under The Red Sky)

Singer Billy Joel, like Bob Dylan himself, and poet William Blake, uses the imagery:

You will never quench the fire
You’ll give in to your desire
(Billy Joel: The Stranger)

Images and tropes from the Book of Joel provide food for love songs:

I believe in you when the winter turn to summer
I believe in you when white turn to black
I believe in you even though I be outnumbered
Oh, though the earth may shake me
(Bob Dylan: I Believe In You)

Joelian language abounds:

Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble
For the day of the Lord cometh, for it is nigh at hand
A day of darkness and of gloominess
A day of clouds and of thick darkness
As the morning spread upon the mountains
(Joel 2: 1,2)

What else is on the site

1: Over 460 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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