Bob Dylan As Isaiah: What Is Grass?, I Asked


By Larry Fyffe

Singer/songwriter Bob Dylan dons the mask of the earlier Judean prophet Isaiah. Dylan does not simply repeat the Book of Isaiah, as some Dylanologists would have it, but through analogies and allegories, he criticizes the political and economic culture of modern-day America.

The original prophet Isaiah has visions dealing with the history of the Hebrews. He sees Judea holding off the Assyrians only to fall to the Babylonians; then he has visions of Judea facing two Persian armies.

God-fearing Zarathustrians the Persians be:

For thus hath the Lord said unto me
Go set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth ….
And behold, here cometh of a chariot of men
With a couple of horsemen
And he answered and said, Babylon is fallen, is fallen
And all the graven images of her gods he hath broken
unto the ground
(Isaiah 21: 6, 9)

Isaiah observes that under the Persians, the Judeans are treated better than they were under the heels of the Babylonians; yet, Hebrew ‘princes’ ignore the instructions of their Hebrew God, Yahweha – that both the great and the small of the chosen people are to be treated with equity.

The singer/songwriter envisions modern capitalistic America as a revolution betrayed:

All along the watchtower
Princes kept the view
While all the women came and went
Barefoot servants too
Outside in the distant
A wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching
And the wind began to howl
(Bob Dylan: All Along The Watchtower)

Allen Ginsberg, riding his asses, and Bob Dylan, smoking his camels, are approaching, warning the people of America that they have lost sight of a humane and spiritual Paradise. Instead, they pray to Moloch, the idol of wanton materialism:

They broke their backs lifting Moloch to Heaven
Pavements, trees, radios, tons! lifting the city to
Heaven which exists and is everywhere about us
(Allen Ginsberg: Howl)

The Isaiah of yore envisions Judeans co-opted by or captives of those who reject Yahweh’s call to assist the righteous who be less fortunate than they:

For thou hast been a strength to the poor
A strength to the needy in his distress
A refuge from the the storm, a shadow from the heat
When the blast of the terrible ones is as a storm against the wall
(Isaiah 26:4)

A call heeded in Romanticized America, according to the re-incarnated prophet:

Suddenly I turned around and she was standin’ there
With silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair
She walked up to me gracefully and took my crown of thorns
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm
(Bob Dylan: Shelter From The Storm)

The other Isaiah envisions the end of the wealthy and boastful seaport of Tyre (in Phoenicia, now Lebanon), a merry-making Paradise of ‘harlots’, of whom their neighboring Hebrews are envious:

And her merchandise and her hire shall be holiness to the Lord
It shall not be treasured nor laid up
For her merchandise shall be for them that dwell before the Lord
To eat sufficiently, and for durable clothing
(Isaiah 23:18)

Bob Dylan disguised as Isaiah, sees wanton wealth surrounded everywhere by poverty in the America of today:

Businessmen, they drink my wine
Ploughmen dig my earth
None of the along the line
Know what any of it is worth
(Bob Dylan: All Along The Watchtower)

Seems America has a ‘spiritual’ lesson to learn from Yahweh’s messenger:

Well, the moral of this story
The moral of this song
Is simply that one should never be
Where one does not belong
So when you see your neighbour carryin’ somethin’
Help him him with his load
And don’t go mistaking Paradise
For the home across the road
(Bob Dylan: The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest)

It ain’t easy being a prophet, the guitar-pickin’ Isaiah humourously sings:

He said he’s going to kill me
If I don’t get out the door in two seconds flat
You unpatriotic rotten doctor Commie rat
(Bob Dylan: Motorcycle Nightmare)

While In the manner of the Gnostics, the Judean prophet offers a riddle:

The voice said, “Cry”. And he said, “What shall I cry?”
“All fresh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is
as the flower of the field
The grass withereth, the flower fadeth because the spirit
of the Lord bloweth upon it; surely the people is grass
The grass withereth, the flower fadeth, but the Word
of our God shall stand forever”
(Isaiah 40: 6,7,8)

Responds an American neo-Romantic poet, at times skeptical:

A child said, ‘What is grass?”, fetching it to me with full hands
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is
anymore than he
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful
green stuff woven
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord
A scented gift and remembrancer designatedly dropped
Bearing the owner’s name somewhere in the corners, that we
may see and remark, and say, “Whose?”
(Walt Whitman: Song Of Myself)

Sings re-incarnated Isaiah to William Shakespeare in these post-Tennysonian times:

Tell ol’ Bill when he comes home
Anything is worth a try
Tell him that I’m not alone
That the hour has come to do or die
(Bob Dylan: Tell Ol’ Bill)

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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