You may be a rock’n’roll addict prancing on an adage but…

You May Be A Rock’n’Roll Addict Prancing On An Adage
But You Gonna Have To Serve Somebody

By Larry Fyffe

The way that Bob Dylan views earthly existence, at least as expressed through his song lyrics, is a rather consistent one:

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the Devil, or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
(Bob Dylan: Gotta Serve Somebody)

The verse above declares that at present mankind has basically two sides – one physical, and the other spiritual – both of which need attending to. As the pre-Romantic poet William Blake notes, the trick is to get the sides in balance, to make them whole again, to make them One.

So says the American Romantic Tanscendentalist poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

Wishing her joy of her wedding and louding lauding
her husband
Then he said with a smile, “I should have
remembered the adage
‘If you will be well served, you must serve yourself’ ”
(Henry Longfellow: The Courtship Of Miles Standish)

That is to say, mankind being a social animal, the feelings of others must be taken into account along with one’s own – ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’, as the adage goes . It’s not easy advice to follow when no-one knows for sure what another individual really wants.

Singer/songwriter Bob Dylan is well versed in the history of America and the accompanying Romantic myths of that country as the new Promised Land.   Its adages be why wandering pilgrims sail to the shores of the New World. Though death awaits all mortals, a new way of life be promised there:

The call of my master compelled me from home
No kindred or relative nigh
I met the contagion and sank to the tomb
My soul flew to mansions high
Go tell my companion and children most dear
To weep not for me now that I’m gone
The same hand that led me through the sea most severe
Has kindly assisted me home
(Bob Dylan: traditional -The Lone Pilgrim)

Those words of a Calvinist God are akin to those of an American poet of the Civil War:

We know not the temple of the Fates
God has inscribed her doom
And all untroubled in her faith, she waits
The triumph or the tomb
(Henry Timrod: Charleston)

The master of language as well as its servant, the innovative use of words by Bob Dylan defy any assertion that a simple, dogmatic religious message lies within his song lyrics.

The artistically creative songwriter (or at least his persona as the lone existentialist pilgrim) is self-reliant; he finds in his art solace from the storm, a shelter from the mystery of a creation whose source is unknown, imprisoned forever and a day behind the gates of Eden:

And high and hushed arose the stately trees
Yet shut within themselves, like dungeons, where
Lay fetter all the secrets of the breeze
(Henry Timrod: Visions Of Poesy)

For whatever reason, overly-religious Dylanologists cannot hear the Nuances, the ironic voices of the mermaids, singing along side the carefully crafted ship of Dylan’s lyrics:

Tweedle-Dee And Tweedle-Dum
All that and and more and then some
They walk among the stately trees
They know the secrets of the breeze
(Bob Dylan: Tweedle-Dee And Tweedle-Dum)

In regards to Timrod, a poet skeptical of authority, comes to mind:

Because I could not stop for Death
He kindly stopped for me
The carriage held but just ourselves
And immortality
(Emily Dickinson: Because I Could Not Stop For Death)

As a master thief, guitar picker Dylan breaks into the shop of the English language and carries off the words he finds there, even as the technology that stores and reproduces the human voice becomes the Messiah of the music world:

Neither one gonna turn and run
They’re making a voyage to the sun
‘His Master’s Voice’ is calling me’
Says Tweedle-dee Dum to Tweedle-dee Dee
(Bob Dylan: Tweedle-Dee And Tweedle-Dum)

A self-reliant man, with talent and a little timely luck, becomes a self-made man, an Apollian ‘god’ – with many a Nipper at his feet:

They run a brick-and-tile company
Tweedle-dee Dum and Tweedle-dee Dee ….
Well, a noble truth is a sacred creed
My pretty baby, she’s lookin’ around
She wearin’ a multi-thousand dollar gown
(Bob Dylan: Tweedle-Dee And Tweedle-Dum)

A well-thought out plan can’t hurt the situation:

Thou also, Son of Man, take a tile
And lay it before thee
And portray upon it the city, even Jerusalem
(Ezekiel 4:1)

The would-be achiever works hard; learns from what others have to offer. He’s smart enough to steal the secrets of the trade without falling into the pit of pride.

So if one yearns to be an artist, there’s nothing like learning how to create an eye-catching image from a painting by Vincent Van Vogh or an ear-catching alliterative adage from a poem by Henry Timrod:

A childish dream is now a deathless need
Which drives him to far hills and distant wilds
The solemn faith and fevour of his creed
Bold as a martyr’s, simple as a child’s
The eagle knew him as she knew the blast
And the deer did not flee him as he passed
(Henry Timrod: A Vision Of Poetry)

Indeed, it is astonishing to observe that Dylan is critized for taking lines from the works of the writers of yesteryear. Like all good writers do when they are lost at sea, poet Henry Timrod borrows from such poets as Edgar Allan Poe and Robert Burns; singer/songwriter Bob Dylan takes from all three:

No more, no more, no more ….
Shall bloom the thunder-blasted tree
Or the stricken eagle soar
(Edgar Allan Poe: To One In Paradise)

And another by the same Gothic Romantic poet:

Take this kiss upon the brow
And, in parting from you now
Thus much let me avow
(Edgar Allan Poe: A Dream Within A Dream)

Below, Dylan alludes to both the Poe and Timrod verses quoted above:

You trampled on me as you passed
Left the coldest kiss upon my brow ….
Beneath the thunder-blasted tree
The words ringin’ off your tongue
(Bob Dylan: Tell Ol’ Bill)

Alluding to poet Poe once again, Dylan points out that stealing is a traditional part of art. However, professional artists polish the stolen goods so that they once again appear as good as new:

Well, the nature of man is to beg and to steal
I do it my self, it’s not so unreal
The call of the wild is forever at my door
Wants me to fly like an eagle
While being chained to the floor
(Bob Dylan: You Changed My Life)

The old Romantic literary theme of lamenting the replacement of rural life with that of the city, Dylan unveils from a country-cabin constructed by a TV studio in the heart of Toronto:

Well, my heart’s In the highlands with the horses and hounds
Way up in the border country far from the towns
(Bob Dylan: Highlands)

Paying tribute to a Romantic poet of times gone by:

My heart’s In the highlands, my heart is not here
My heart’s In the highlands a-chasing the deer
Chasing the wild deer, and following the roe
My heart’s In the highlands wherever I go
(Robert Burns: My Heart’s In The Highlands)

What a lot of gall some religious zealots and some music critics must possess to think that they could ever destroy you.

What else is on the site

1: Over 480 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


  1. “The verse above declares that at present mankind has basically two sides – one physical, and the other spiritual – both of which need attending to.”

    Well, no. The marriage of the physical and the spiritual is certainly an important theme in Dylan’s gospel songs (and others). But that’s not what this particular song is about at all. The Devil here isn’t just our physical nature; he’s literally the Devil, Satan, and you can serve–attend to–him or you can serve the Lord, but you can’t serve both. I don’t know how he could make it any more explicit. If you want a better example, how about “You’re the lamp of my soul, girl, you torch up the night.”

  2. I appreciate your response that the words are to be taken literally ….by you they surely are — but for others the answer is well no they are not…..the Devil being a symbol for Evil; God for Good.
    Putting the song in the context of Dylan’song work as a whole, ‘torch up the night’ is explicitly figurative language of both the spiritual and the physical being entangled ((Blake), orthodox religion tending to condemn the latter as ‘sinful’.

    Surely, the girl has enough sense not to put an actual burning torch under the bed clothes (lol).

  3. In ‘Serve Somebody’, Dylan uses the word ‘or’ which may be taken as an exclusive or nonexclusive conjuction – depending on the context in which it is used.

  4. The darn autocorrect thinks it ‘corrects’ when an ‘ is used (Dylan’song ), but not when you want it to – ‘conjunction.’

  5. Note also, , that Dylan sings ‘it may be’ -‘possibly be’- one and/or other…so the meaning of the line is clearly not as clear as you suggest it is, leaving it open to the interpretation, for instance, that one doesn’t realy know, is not sure, if he’s following the right path or not.

  6. Yes, “may be” leaves the question open. But it doesn’t mean “both.” You may not know right now whether you’re serving the Devil or the Lord; you may not even know there’s a choice. But in the end you have to make that choice. An analogy (for grammatical purposes only): If you’re driving north out of Birmingham on the M6, you may be heading to Liverpool, or you may be heading to Manchester. You may not have decided yet. But when you reach the M62, you’re going to have to turn one way or the other. It can’t be both. Now of course you could go to Liverpool and then Manchester, or vice versa, just as you could serve the Devil at one time and the Lord at another (as almost everyone does). But Dylan is most definitely not saying that you ought to serve them both. He would agree, I think, that the carnal and the spiritual need to be kept in balance–that was my point in mentioning the line from “Precious Angel.” But as he made clear again and again, in his songs from that time and his rants from the stage, the Devil was not simply another name for the fleshly part of our nature. The Devil was Satan, and choosing to serve him meant choosing to go to hell.

  7. Of course you’re assuming the sign isn’t turned around and you’re just believe you’re going down the correct road.

    The Devil and God might well be be one and the same ‘person’ or at least working together. There can be no ‘good’ without ‘bad’.

    See: Untold: Tale of the wicked Messenger.

  8. On his latest album- an incredible nasty set of violent proposals are offered: ‘I’ll drag your corpse through the mud’ sums up the tone of much of it. But if Dylan ‘is sworn to uphold the laws of God’ then this stance is murderous (a breach of the Ten Commandments), undignified, and full of the sin of Anger. So what kind of spiritual vision is it? It’s actually incoherent, distasteful and unpleasant. Try to follow through the thinking in ‘Pay in Blood’ and you find it leaps from one context to another with no sense being established. How can you pay in blood that is not your own? That is just murder without any personal sacrifice- an utter desecration of the message of ‘God’, which is that we should bear our suffering in imitatio Christi as the price of our own sins. When Dylan says his ‘plagiarism’ accusers can ‘rot in hell,’ he commits the sin of Presumption, which is that he thinks he will not be rotting in hell. The first law of wisdom is the fear of the Lord. This wisdom says we are all sinners- you cannot condemn others (this is contrary to the law of Christ) without being condemned yourself. We all deserve hell in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. So if Bob doesn’t believe this any more then why does he go on about ‘those who condemned Our Lord’ and ‘the voice of the mother of Our Lord’? (‘Duquesne Whistle’).

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