Bob Dylan: The Angels Turned Aside

by Larry Fyffe

The lyrics of Bob Dylan’s gospels, according to Kees de Graaf, ultimately demonstrate that singer/songwriter Bob Dylan personally holds ‘The conviction that there’s only one road to salvation’ (de Graaf: Trouble No More). Bob Dylan, from a Jewish background, gives due respect to many of the teachings of Jesus, but it is folly to assert that, at the same time, he puts down the individualistic and goodly spiritual beliefs of others.

Whatever Dylan’s spiritual beliefs may be (who knows for sure?), the ‘one road’ assertion on the part of de Graaf is sheer conjecture. The oft double-edged meanings in so many of Dylan’s gospel lyrics de Graaf dismisses as nothing more than subterfuge used by the songwriter in order not to alienate fans who are not hard core Christian believers – that is to say, those in the know, the true Christian ones, are not fooled as to what Dylan’s really means.

According to de Graaf it would seem, Bob Dylan does not really intend to leave a message that is open to interpretation as regards to the extent of the unconditional love of Jesus:

The ship was going under
The universe opened wide
The roll was called up yonder
The angels turned aside

(Bob Dylan: Tempest)

The lyrics above, apparently, do not present God as an Existentialist who lets the cards fall where they may. Nevertheless, this is a theme that appears in others work of Dylan as well – there’s a ‘God’, but He’s mysterious and dark, quite unknowable.  Where’s God when you need Him? Why did He forsake the passengers aboard the sinking Titanic? Where’s water-walking Jesus? Which side is He on?

Though there be widespread disagreement about the historical facts of Jesus’ life, Dylan represents Him in the lyrics of a number of gospel songs as a holy man, among holy men, who tries to bridge the Great Divide. However, the degradation by dogmatic church leaders of, say, the Inuit spiritual way of life by fur traders and by Christian missionaries, Dylan does not let go by the board unquestioned:

Gonna raise me an army, some tough sons of bitches
I been to St. Herman’s church, and I’ve said my religious vows
I’ve sucked the milk from a thousand cows


Behold, I will rise them out of the place
Whither ye have sold them
And we will return your recompense upon your head

(Joel 3:7)

That religions pass out milk while they practice cultural genocide, and indeed worse, raises the numbered hairs on the back of Dylan’s head:

Don’t want to burn nobody, don’t want to be burned
Don’t want to learn from nobody what I gotta unlearn
Don’t want to cheat nobody, don’t want to be cheated
Don’t want to defeat nobody if they already been defeated


There are too many questionable things that are done for the benefit of organizations based on religion. In the name of religion, things are undertaken to accommodate the selfish wants of its leaders and followers – doings that actually oppose Christ’s teachings, that scare Dylan off:

How I made it back home, no body knows
Or how I survived so many blows
I’ve been through Hell, what good did it do
My conscience is clear, what about you?

(Bob Dylan: Pay In Blood)

Artistically compelled, Dylan is both dark and light in creative energy, filled with irony, antihypocrisy disdain, satire, and humour;  metaphorical, allegorical, and alliterative in style:

Well, I’m moving after midnight
Down boulevards of broken cars
Don’t know what I’d do without it
Without this love that we call ours
Beyond here lies nothing
Nothing but the moon and stars

(Bob Dylan: Beyond Here Lies Nothing)

Going by his song lyrics, Bob Dylan or his persona is anything but a religious zealot; and an apocalyptic one, in the literal sense, he shows himself not to be.

There’s always a bit of light glowing somewhere.

Greedy capitalists too, but it’s self-serving religious leaders and opportunistic followers that Bob Dylan especially criticizes:

Politician got on his jogging shoes
He must be running for office, got no time to lose
He’s suckin’ the blood out of the genius of generosity
You been rolling your eyes, you been teasing me

(Bob Dylan: Summer Days)

What else is on the site

1: 500+ 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 wicked know no peace and you just can’t fake it

    There’s only one road and it leads to Calvary

    It gets discouraging at times, but I know I’ll make it

    By the saving grace that’s over me

  2. Dylan in ‘Saving Grace’: “There’s only one road and it leads to Cavalry”. Is this conjecture from my side or is this a Dylan quote? Don’t you think it is high time Dylan denounces this statement (and so many others for that matter) as ‘dogmatic’? Well, it looks as if he is not willing to do so. On the contrary, he has released “Trouble no More”- which on itself is a statement reaffirming his position on Jesus. You see it as your duty to weaken this position by throwing in as much doubt as you possibly can. But again and again it proves that it simply does not work. The fact are just too strong for that. It has to do with ‘the destiny thing……a bargain he made a long time ago….”

  3. One is entitled to think what they might, but that Dylan produces tracks about Christianity does not mean you are entitled to burn everything else ihich that he has written down by tossing them into the flames of a furance.

    His de facto personal beliefs I do not know, but his lyrics are there for everybody to hear and consider; he presents many points of view in his lyrics including those that can be construed as orthodox religion, but there’s also skeptcism there as well.

    I do not dismiss that he may be what you say, but devout Christians dismiss the possibility of Dylan being an open-minded creative artist who looks at differing points of views rather than being a single-minded messiah of one message who writes things down in pieces of concrete that cannot be reworked.

    His art speaks for itself.

  4. Dylan says destiny is a feeling about yourself that will indeed come to happen, but best kept to oneself lest someone tries to kill it.

    Dylan’s the artist is not about to let himself be crucified on the cross by anybody, especially by single-minded fundamentalist preachers, nor by Big Churches.

  5. You seem to forget that the ‘wisdom (sofia) of God is manifold’ (Eph. 3:10). The only gateway to enter into this wisdom is Jesus Christ (Eph. 3:11). And it is just because Dylan walked through that gate that his poetry has become so manifold and so rich and is therefore quite the opposite of what you think it is when you do NOT go through this gateway. The journey through this gateway may be hard and difficult: “I’m walking that lonesome valley, trying to get to heaven before they close the door” but the outcome is by no means uncertain. “”Pieces of concrete that cannot be reworked”? Oh come on, that’s a far cry from what I intended to say.

  6. Dylan sings “In the hills of mystery/In the foggy web of destiny/You can have what’s left of me” –
    these words come not from a voice of certainty that contains only one meaning for all listeners.

    There’s lots of room left for interpretations beyond those held by a true-believer who without much trouble can make it match his/her beliefs as well.

    ‘Fog’ is used as a symbol in many of Dylan’s works to indicate he (or at least his persona)is not absolutely sure about what the future holds for anybody.

    Nothing’s wrong with that as far as I am concerned. The listener can render his own decision on meaning if he backs it up with lyrics – in words chosen by Dylan which are seldom left precise – and deliberately so, given Dylan’s knowledge of language, I would add.

  7. The fact that the canonized Holy Bible is full of figurative language, allegories, symbols, and parables from writers of yore leave it open to debate as to meaning as well, and explains its appeal to artists of all kinds – whether Metaphysic, Romantic, Gothic, Symbolist, Existentialist, Beats, Christian, Judaic, Protestant, Catholic, nonbelievers, gamblers, tight-rope walkers, or what have you.

  8. Sophia is the Gnostic ‘bride’ of Jesus in some of its formulations; Jesus is never mentioned by name in the Old Testament; He’s retroactively placed there by Christian reformers.
    Indeed, one can walk through a gate and exit just as easily through the back door. Seeing Christ’s face in every slick of oil on a window pane is fine for true believers, but it does not mean Dylan places Him in nearly every song he writes – very few in fact by name. Judaism has a big influence on his lyrics as does Gnosticism and ancient mythologies.

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