The Duquesne Whistle Blows That Love Is Not All In Vain


BY Larry Fyffe

A Christian theme is readily detected in the song lyrics of ‘Duquesne Whistle” by Bob Dylan:

I can hear a sweet voice steadily calling
Must be the mother of our Lord
(Bob Dylan: Duquesne Whistle)

Dylanologist Kees de Graaf detects the religious bent which is all well and good: it means, he says, that Dylan is ready to meet God (See: Bob Dylan’s ‘Duquesne Whistle’, a lyric analysis by Kees De Graaf ).

It would appear that Kees does not have ears that let him hear the double-tinged content within the lyrics of singer/songwriter Bob Dylan. Being an artist, Dylan does not merely repeat Biblical scripture, but draws upon his own creative talent. He adds a Gnostic-like tension between heavenly light and worldly darkness:

Listen to that Duquesne whistle blowing
Blowing like she never blowed before
Blue light blinking, red light glowing
Blowing like she’s at my chamber door
(Bob Dylan: Duquesne Whistle).

In the song above, the ‘blue light’ of toil is ‘blinking’ while the ‘red light’ of pleasure is ‘glowing’. As if to say, “What are you going to do when the devil comes knocking at your door in the guise of a sexy female?”

Priests in long black coats consider the sexual urge to be the work of the devil, writes William Blake, but the preRomantic poet notes that earthly sex and spiritual love are entangled.

The bust of a Gothic Romantic writer with a book of surrealistic poetry under his arm – a book containing poems about lost love – rests above Bob Dylan’s chamber door:

But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door ….
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, ‘Lenore?’
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, ‘Lenore’
Merely this an nothing more
(Edgar Allan Poe: The Raven)

Broken-hearted men come and go:

And the stars never rise, but I see the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee
And so, all the night-tide, I lay down by the side
Of my darling, my darling, my life and my bride
In her sepulchre there by the sea
In her tomb by the sounding sea
(Edgar Allan Poe: Annabel Lee)

And broken-hearted women too.

Mary in the Bible – Mary Magdalene – who, like a bird with a broken wing, enters the tomb of Jesus:

And as she wept, she stooped down
And looked down into the sepulcher ….
She turned back, and saw Jesus standing
And knew not that it was Jesus ….
Jesus saith unto her ‘Mary’
She turned herself, and saith unto Him ….’Master’
(John 11,14,16)

Poet Edgar Allan Poe draws from the creative well of the Bible, and songster Dylan draws from Poe:

The wind howls like a hammer
The night blows cold and rainy
My love’s like some raven
At my window with a broken wing
(Bob Dylan: Love Minus Zero)

The singer/songwriter does so again in the somewhat hopeful song below:

Beneath the thunder-blasted trees
The words are ringin’ off your tongue
((Bob Dylan: Tell Ol’ Bill)

A variation on the gloomy Gothic’s “dream too bright to last”:

No more – no more – no more ….
Shall bloom the thunder-blasted tree
(Edgar Allan Poe: To One In Paradise)

In the song following, Dylan draws from the poetry of mentioned William Blake. He who has ears, let him listen:

I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn there’s someone there
Other times it’s only me
(Bob Dylan: Every Grain Of Sand)

As in:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green
(William Blake: Jerusalem)

For one, Dylan hears the footsteps of a singer/songwriter of the blues:

When the train rolled up to the station
I looked her in the eye
Well, I was lonesome, I felt so lonesome
And I could not help but cry ….
When the train left the station
With two lights on behind
Well, the blue light was my blues
And the red light was my mind
All my love’s in vain
(Robert Johnson: Love In Vain)

Sure there is a Christian theme within Bob Dylan’s song, but there be also
lots of surrealistic Freudian imagery, of spiritualism and sexualism intertwined:

Listen to that Duquesne whistle blowing
Blowin’ like she never blowed before …..
Listen to that Duquesne whistle blowing
Blowin’ like my woman’s on board
(Bob Dylan: Duquesne Whistle)

In many folk tunes, wishful spiritualism and physical mortality get mixed in together with a heaping spoonful of skepticism, and a good dose of ambiguity.

I thought I heard that steamboat whistle blowin’
I thought I heard that steamboat whistle blowin’
And she blowed like she never blowed before

I’m afraid my little lover’s on that boat
I’m afraid my little lover’s on that boat
And it will take her to the Lord knows where

I’m gonna have a dollar some ol’ day
I’m gonna have a dollar some ol’ day
And I’ m going to the Lord knows where

I’m gonna where I won’t have to work no more
I’m gonna where I won’t have to work no more
And I’m going to the Lord knows where

I hate see that evening sun go down
I hate see that evening sun go down
For I know I’m on my last go-round

(Shirkey and Harper: Steamboat Man)

Bob Dylan doesn’t saddle up a one-trick pony.


  1. Thank you very much for this enlightening analysis. One can find the story of Mary meeting the resurrected Jesus in the Garden not in John 11 as you write, but in John 20.
    You write:”t would appear that Kees does not have ears that let him hear the double-tinged content within the lyrics of singer/songwriter Bob Dylan. Being an artist, Dylan does not merely repeat Biblical scripture, but draws upon his own creative talent. He adds a Gnostic-like tension between heavenly light and worldly darkness”. I don’t think you do justice to me. When I try and analyse a Dylan song I always try to trace the resonance in the works of other poets like Blake or Ovid or in any other poet or literary work but frankly speaking, it never helped me much to understand a song. Dylan’s religious conviction is not based on poets like Blake or any other literary work but is based on the Judeo Christian Bible and it is this conviction which shines through in almost all his major work. He does not do this by repeating the Scriptures literally but he uses Scripture as a basis for brilliant poetical parodies. His favourite apostle is no doubt John to which you also refer. As I outlined in my analysis of “Roll on John” John is called the apostle of light. Roll on John: “Shine your light, Moving’ on,You burned so bright”. It is ironic that it was the apostle John who opposed the Gnostic doctrines in his letters, and that is you who sees all sorts of gnostic influences in Dylan’s work. It reminds me of a line in Dylan’s “Angelina”: Your best friend and my worst enemy is one and the same”.

  2. Dylan refers to Bible-influenced William Blake directly more than once- ‘With a neon burning bright'(Simple Twist Of Fate); ‘You burned so bright (Roll On John).

    Dylan does not make it clear that he intends to reference only the Apostle …deliberately so, one might add.

    You neglect that the Bible was disconnected to a large extent from early ‘Gnostic (not so-named at the time)’ ideas when it was compiled.

    The fact that other influences than the canonized Bible do not help you, does not mean they do not help others understand Dylan’s lyrics.

    Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize In Literature, not exclusively in Christian Biblical Studies.

    In any event, there is a strong influence of both Christian and Jewish beliefs in his work.

  3. ‘the ‘blue light’ of labour is ‘blinking’:

    Your thesis is what shows signs of labour. You also don’t know what Gnosticism is. It is a philosophy that considers everything in the world as evil, including sex and reproduction. For example, the Cathars, a Gnostic sect, banned marriage. Christianity always opposed this anti-life philosophy. It is not unChristian to consider this world sinful, but a statement of the obvious. “Priests in long black coats consider the sexual urge to be the work of the devil” is an adolescent-level accusation. The sexual urge is considered to be a gift from God, it is its misuse that is considered sinful, a sin which has real-world consequences-witness the democratic collapse of Europe which has embraced abortion, contraception, fornication and barren sexual ‘lifestyles’ for the last half-century. Europeans are going to be replaced by those who still accept that sex is primarily for having children-the pleasure is merely a biological stimulus for the encouragement of what requires personal sacrifice.

    As Dylan realises, the main question for everyone, either at the final end or their own private one is “I wonder if they’ll know me next time ’round” and when we’ll all be asked did we join Him on “That old oak tree, the one we used to climb…”. ‘Earthly sex’ won’t be much use at that point. It may well have all been in vain.

  4. “In any event, there is a strong influence of both Christian and Jewish beliefs in his work.”

    Christians are, in reality, all Jews. They revere the Old Testament, also. Dylan, like any messianic Jew, would have had little difficulty integrating his Jewish beliefs with his belief in Christ. The first few thousand disciples were almost all Jews. The old Temple sacrifice segued, so to speak, into the Eucharistic one. There is independent evidence of this in the Talmud. In the Temple sacrifice, the remission of the sins of the Jews was shown by a change of colour of a sacred thread from red to white. The Talmud complains that, at the time of the destruction of the Temple in 70AD, this sign of colour-change had failed for the previous forty years, a period of time which takes one right back to another sacrifice…

  5. It be you mickvet who does not know what Gnosticism is …. like Christianity, the belief has many branches, ie, Cathars…..some with an asexual God; some with a unisexual Giod; others with a bisexual God; others that say since you’re trapped in a physical form on earth, you might as well derive pleasure from it.

    Had you read my other articles on Gnosticism, you’d know theses points have been addressed.

    And indeed if you read William Blake’s poetry you’d know that he admonishes Christian leaders for demonizing sexuality – ie, Adam and Eve cover themselves up – so preach church leaders, who then abstain (or are supposed to) from sex.

    Also, Christianity has been described by some critics as a religion celebrating death(of Jesus), and, with it, the afterlife in heaven, rather than celebrating life on earth.

    And women are demeaned by many religions as mere reproduction units, not to mention the Nazis who forbade abortion for so-called ‘superior race’ women who had the duty to procreate the Fatherland.

    In reverse, lots of Hebrews, being monotheists, would not consider themselves as Christians, now would they? Jesus they respect, but not as a Messiah.

    Though he has a Jewish family background, the different levels of possible meanings put forth by Dylan (or his persona) – not his personal spiritual beliefs, whatever they currently be – is my primary focus.

  6. You’re full of modern, and not so modern, anti-Christian myth, Larry. You’ve made your choices. However, you don’t have the right to claim Dylan as a follower of what you believe without far more convincing arguments than you have produced. In fact, you must have nothing but contempt for Dylan, claiming that he sings out of both sides of his mouth. We both know he also sang Serve Somebody (and just released a lot of new versions) and it’s only One or the other.

    “…lots of Hebrews, being monotheists, would not consider themselves as Christians, now would they? Jesus they respect, but not as a Messiah.” What point are you addressing with this? I never said otherwise. What I did say was that Christians are all Jews. If you read the relevant passages from the Talmud, it is obvious that many Jews do not respect Jesus.

    Additionally, you’ve proven Godwin’s Law and you know a lot less about Gnosticism than you like to think.

  7. Witness the democratic collapse of Europe???!….What (American??)religious crap pamplet is that??

    I was giving you some serious creditability up to that statement.

  8. I’m not American. And the figures are freely available from the reputedly liberal Pew organisation. The numbers in Europe are holding up merely because of replacement, but what I have said about the wholesale practice of abortion, contraception and non-reproductive sexual practices is a demonstrable fact. In purely Darwinian terms, these represent a demographic catastrophe in the face of natural selection. Is it not naive to believe that killing their children or not having them in the first place will not effect the demographics of a population? If you can’t accept what’s in front of your nose, it’s you who are showing the credibility problem.

    The EU itself had statistics, before the most recent influx of refugees, that predicted that Sweden, the front-line paradigm of replacement, would be 40% Islamic by 2030, at contemporaneous rates of reproduction and replacement. Now, I know that it might be difficult for someone who thinks that every reference to the word ‘blow’ means oral sex (is that how you interpret Blowin’ in the Wind, maybe even Shelter From the Storm?), but when these kinds of population change occur, there will be a radical change in the amount of ‘spiritualism and sexualism intertwined’ about the place.

  9. Your religio-political views that are far beyond any evidence of support given in song lyrics by Bob Dylan are of little interest to me in so far as this particular site is concerned.

    Folk songs, Bible scriptures, and the poetry of Blake, Shelley, Frost, Eliot, Poe, and Whitman (and others)are all easily detected as influences on Dylan lyrics in style and/or content.

  10. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary says of ‘Gnosticists’ :

    “They contrasted the supreme remote divine being with the
    ‘demiurge’ or creator God, who controlled the world and was antagonistic to all that was purely spiritual”.

    That too is my understanding of the general term ‘Gnosticism’ – under which are a number of subcategories thereof, one might add.

  11. Equating the evolutionary environmental-adaptation of Darwinism to present day human socio-economic conditions is really stupid – see articles on Social Darwinism, Spenser, WC Williams, etc – Humans under good economic and health conditions usually decide not to produce large families.

    Micvet would do well not to pretend to know about such matters when he goes on to demonstrate through his postings his obvious ignorance thereof.

  12. Guys, we all appreciate Dylan for what he brings to our own understanding. But I’m confident the songwriter, if he indeed reads these discussions, must be really blown away by all the little theories we foist upon him. I’m sure he appreciates being compared to Blake and Keats and all. And maybe he’s read the Gospel of Thomas – who knows? We can only wonder at the depth of his study. But heck, he’s a rock musician who’s thoroughly immersed in traditional roots music. Briefly he focused on straight-ahead Christianity and he obviously did not stay there. I know better than to try to pin him down. I’m sure you do too. Sorry, I’m rambling too.

  13. Yes, indeed, but close to a direct quote like ‘she’s at my chamber door”-ie, ‘The Raven” – ‘rapping at my chamber door” – indicates at least some familiarity with poetry as well as his having lots of familiarity with traditional music.

    Dylan does quote quite a bit from poetry if one keeps a sharp ear open.

  14. Probably should mention that “Duquesne Whistle” was co-written by Dylan and Robert Hunter

  15. Thank you Ed for bringing a lighter view to Bob’s work, not projecting our life experience with insistence upon the meaning of his lyrics. I’m impressed by the intellectual/ Biblical knowledge of a couple of you, but really can’t you leave a little room for the lyrics to open us up to our own imagination, experience & theories. Bob has pointed out how autobiographical so many of his lyrics are. As he says “ It’s all there in the songs” His Nobel speech once again has a wearied explanation of the power of not making the meanings specific, but fluid- coming from that wellspring of creativity, rather than mainly obscure Biblical references or ancient poets reworked lines. I’m sure all of that is in there, he’s very well read, and seems to pull bits of past artists work making it his own.
    “ Nothing new under the sun.” in the Nobel lecture towards the end he writes two lines from a poet from Shakespeare’s time, they make no sense but have the power to light up ones imagination rendering visions of the Female energy sensual, mystic, magically moving in so many ways. Then he says “ I don’t know what it means either!” “Why must I always be the thief” from his earliest days in NY he’s been called a thief, taking records from friends without permission later claiming he was a musical visionary and was entitled to them.
    Isn’t he always the Joker and the thief in so many ways & lyrics. The Nobel lecture seemed to try once again to encourage us to allow ourselves & others to be moved in different ways at different times by different work without having to nail it down to some literal specific meaning & in doing so killing the words, not allowing them to expand & contract, encouraging our own simple or complex messages to come through.
    How many times have you read or heard Bob define his lyrics? I’ve heard him do it… always tongue in cheek, sarcastic, or satirical. If he won’t give definitive meaning to his work, isn’t there a clue in there for us? Go check out the movie “Renaldo & Clara then give specific meaning to that, I’m pretty sure Bob won’t.
    Cheers, Lufton

  16. John the Apostle is not considered a dogmatic Christian by many theologians and biblical scholars in that his writings, though undoubtedly tampered with by others, reveal a heavy influence of ‘knowledge’ garnered from those later called Gnostics….that is, Jesus be an emanation from the Spiritual Realm of the Absolute Monad to which He returns (ie, He’s not the physical ‘Son’ of the orthodox Hebrew God as stated in the other Gospels).

    Dylan’s song lyrics indeed express thoughts akin to John the Apostle (as well as of John Lennon and William Blake).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *