In 1997 Bob Dylan was quoted in Newsweek, regarding his spiritual search, “Here’s the thing with me and the religious thing . . . I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music.” Dylan has always defied any attempt to label him but much of his quest for a spiritual meaning in life comes out in his music.
Dylan has been one of the most influential musicians of the last 60 years. He has explored belief, spiritual commitment and ancient texts in the songs that he writes. Dylan’s music is complexity and contradictory which skirts the border between reality and mythology, raising questions about just exactly what Dylan believes. Dylan himself doesn’t seem anxious to answer anyone’s questions. He seems comfortable with his stance as someone who can’t be boxed into a corner and that includes explanations about his belief system.
Bob Dylan was raised in a religious Jewish home in Duluth and Hibbing, Minnesota. His musical talents brought him into the early years of rock-and roll music where he expressed much of his soul through song. One of his folk-heroes was Woody Guthrie who kept his personal life private. Dylan followed suit – from the beginning of his folk music career he went out of his way to make sure that the public would know as little about his true self as possible.
Dylan’s lyrics, especially those form his ’60s heyday, often tap into his Jewish traditions. His inaugural “Talkin’ Hava Nageila Blues” featured the famous Jewish folksong “Hava Nageila”. Yet even there, Dylan couldn’t be straight – he introduced it at a Village gig as “a foreign song I learned out of Utah”.
Interestingly enough though, Biblical references popped up frequently in his work. In notable tracks from the first decade in which Dylan wrote and performed he presented several Biblical-themed songs – the story of the Binding of Isaac in his Highway 61 Revisited and a section of the Old Testament from Isaiah 21:1-10 in All Along the Watchtower that tells of the fall of Babylon.
Perhaps the most poignant and telling is Dylan’s Forever Young in which he highlights Jewish prayer and on-point Biblical imagery in a adaptation of the blessing that Jewish parents give to their children at the Friday night Sabbath meal. Dylan wrote Forever Young for Jacob, his son, and features a line from the ancient Priestly Blessing: “May God bless and keep you always.” The story includes a reference to the story of Jacob’s dream “May you build a ladder to the stars and climb on every rung,” that references the Patriarch Jacob as well as Dylan’s son Jacob.
All in all, in the period from 1961 through 1978, the singer referenced Bible verses 89 times.
In the late ’70s and early ’80s Dylan became interested in Christianity. His music from that era reflects this flirtation – interestingly, this era’s music generally received poor reviews, raising the possibility, as some observers have noted, that Dylan was ambivalent about this new-found belief system.
It’s assumed that the “Christian period” was a result of Dylan’s relationship with a born-again Christian woman. Dylan was upfront about his conversion, saying “there’s only two kinds of people — there’s saved people and there’s lost people. Jesus is the lord. Every knee shall bow to him.” His recording and concerts of that era focused on his new-found faith, including the Slow Train Coming album and concert tour. Some critics, however, have noted that if one really listens to Dylan’s music from his Christian period, what comes through is his yearning more than any real preaching. In short, he is still searching for his “truth.”
In terms of the records that Dylan produced during that era, they weren’t well received. Some felt that the music was akin to an online casino game – exciting for a few minutes but no long-lasting impact. Jann Werner of Rolling Stone Magazine was one of the only critics that was impressed.
By the mid-’80s Dylan had begun to move away from Christianity as he became closer to the religion of his youth. The Jewish Chabad movement reached out to him and Dylan responded, traveling to Israel with them and conducting a Bar Mitzva ceremony for his son Jacob at the Western Wall. In 1983 he also released a strong statement, through the song Neighborhood Bully about his view of the way that the State of Israel was vilified for actions that other nations undertake with impunity.
Dylan continues to insist that he doesn’t have any time for organized religion but he maintains strong ties to the Hassidic Chabad outreach group. He takes part in their telethons and attends services at their synagogue.
Dylan’s lifelong search for spirituality continues but for now, it seems to be a search that is conducted within the realm of the Jewish world. He has noted that he is influenced by Jewish theologians, including mystics. He was impressed with one rabbi’s hospitality in particular, saying of the rabbi’s home, “It may be dark and snowy outside, but inside that house, it’s so light.”
Many people assume that Dylan’s son-in-law, Peter Himmelman, has influenced his father-in-law. Himmelman is a Grammy and Emmy nominated singer-songwriter, and the originator of Big Muse, a highly regarded methodology for developing deeper levels of communication and creative thinking. He is also an Orthodox Jew who imbues his Judaism into every aspect of his work and his life.
Dylan’s spiritual identity is complex. He is, however, still composing songs so it’s likely that his search will continue to be presented to the world through his lyrics.