Bob Dylan And Mark Twain (Part II)

By Larry Fyffe

Though he composes a number of gospel songs that have an aura of seriousness, Bob Dylan is not beyond burlesquing sacred writings that are taken literally, rather than figuratively, by religious leaders – an admirer of Mark Twain he be. Along with classical mythologies and folk tales, the holy scriptures of Judaism and Christianity escape not the acid tongue of Bob Dylan.

Given quite a licking is the biblical story of a dangerous God who gets upset at Adam and Eve due to their involvement in the Eden debacle; God commands Adam to multiply the human race by becoming the Father of the Shady Bunch; turns out God likes roaming meat eaters more than He likes stay-at-home vegetable growers – the First Man’s one-and-only Eve gives birth to Cain, and then to Abel, but sheep herder Abel is killed by his jealous brother; a lot later Eve produces Seth to replace the murdered son; in the meantime, back at the farm, Cain gets married (who else can it possibly be to but a sister?):

And Adam knew Eve his wife
And she conceived, and bare Cain
And said, ‘I have gotten a man from the Lord’
And she again bare his brother Abel
And Abel was a keeper of sheep
But Cain was a tiller of the ground ….
And Cain talked with Abel his brother
And it came to pass, when they were in the field
That Cain rose up against his brother, and slew him

(Genesis 4: 1,2, 8)

Taking on the persona of Cain, Dylan sings a sorrowful song to his sister, straight faced while I cried:

Oh, sister, when I come to lie in your arms
You should not treat me as a stranger
Our Father would not like the way that you act 
And you must realize the danger
Oh, sister, am I not a brother to you
And deserving of affection?
And is our purpose not the same on this earth
To love and follow his direction?

(Bob Dylan et al: Oh Sister)

The Gnostics solve the incest problem to their satisfaction by positing the existence of tiers of Spirits above the material Earth.

A Marksist for sure, Dylan draws from the artistc well of yore. There be imps from fairy tales; naughty characters from the Bible; outlaws from the Old West – the apostle Judas who betrays Jesus for pieces of silver; the apostle Thomas who doubts everything unless he sees it; Tom-Tit-Tot, a hairy fairy similar to Rumpelsiltskin, the spinner of straw into gold; the French Tom Thumb who makes a fortune from the magic boots he steals off an ogre whilst the monster’s numb with sleep; Buffalo Bill, the ‘Indian killer’ who befriends the native American Chief Sitting Bull:

Buffalo Bill wouldn’t know what to do
If he just got one look, just one good look at you
And I don’t know what to do either 
Just want to tell you it’s neither
Tom said, “Don’t take’er”
Judas said, “Leave’er”

(Bob Dylan, et al: Golden Tom And Silver Judas)

As a number of the French Symbolists do in their poems, Dylan consults folk tales to create merry melodies of morality – for instance, below, he confronts the confusion that will be unleased by nuclear fusion:
Let the wind blow low, let the wind low high
One day the little boy, and the little girl
Were both baked in a pie

(Bob Dylan: Under The Red Sky)

The nursury rhyme referred to:

Sing a song of sixpence
A pocket full of rye
Four and twenty naughty boys
Baked in a pie

(Sing A Song Of Sixpence)

No doubt about the Dylanesque ‘rhyme twist’ here: high/pie; rye/pie.

In another song, the murdered singer/songwriter John Lennon, Dylan compares to John the Baptist:

Shine your light
Move it on
You burned so bright
Roll on John
The biblical reference:
He was a burning and a shining light
And ye were willing for a season to rejoice in his light
But I have greater witness than that of John
For the works which the Father hath given me to finish
The same works that I do, bear witness of me
That the Father hath sent me
(John 5: 35,36)

Bob Dylan’s song lyics show the influence of Mark Twain’s satirical ‘Letters From Earth” as well as the influence of what the singer/songwriter considers the figurative writings found in the Holy Bible. 

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