How can a non Christian relate to Dylan’s Gospel songs?


By Michael Johnson

I’m not the first to approach this question. Ever since Dylan’s Christian period (1979 – 81) that question has been asked, and was raised again by the box set compilation of live and studio recordings, Trouble no More, released a couple of years ago.

My answer to the question is a qualified yes, non-Christians can relate to the Christian period, but to begin with, let’s look at the opposing case. At the time, John Lennon reacted with sarcasm to Dylan’s ‘You Gotta Serve Somebody.’ Was this black or white, good or bad message really coming from the master of nauance and shades of irony, creater of such subtle works of genius as Visions of Johanna, rock’s cynic in chief? Lennon lampooned the song with a riposte of his own, ‘Serve Yourself’ – hardly Lennon’s greatest work and a bit of flop as far as being a take-off goes, but judge for yourself


This either-or message is stated strongly in ‘Precious Angel’, the second track on Slow Train Coming:

‘Now there's spiritual warfare and flesh and blood breaking down
Ya either got faith or ya got unbelief and there ain't no neutral ground.’

Dylan’s other great peer, Leonard Cohen, also had problems. ‘When Dylan converted to Christianity in the late ’70s Cohen was taken aback, to put it mildly. According to Leonard Cohen biographer Sylvie Simmons, he saw Dylan’s decision as a betrayal of Judaism and it seriously rocked his world. He would hopelessly wander around his house saying “I don’t get it. I just don’t get this. Why would he go for Jesus at a late time like this? I don’t get the Jesus part”. (Marco Zoppas, see

This apparent retreat into the simplistic universe of Pentecostal Christianity quickly alienated those who loved the personal and exploratory songs of the seventies, Planet Waves, Blood on the Tracks, Desire, Street Legal – mature and sophisticated songs, if pretty world weary by the time we get to Street Legal in 1978. Hindsight doesn’t help much. These lyrics from ‘Slow Train Coming’ the flagship song of the era, must be the most cringeworthy the Master ever penned. (And please don’t tell me about ‘Neighborhood Bully.’)

‘All that foreign oil controlling American soil
Look around you, it's just bound to make you embarrassed
Sheiks walkin' around like kings, wearing fancy jewels and nose rings
Deciding America's future from Amsterdam and to Paris’

Not only is this a distorted view of the world (foreign oil never controlled American soil) but is racist (those nose rings which sheiks don’t wear, is clearly a slur), and in these sentiments we can find the origins of what, in Trump’s America, we can call Christain Nationalism. A particulary nasty varient of the religion in which Trump is seen as appointed by God to lead America back into fossil fuel dominance of the world. See scary essay on Mike Pense and the dominionists:

And yet, in fairness, other lyrics in that same song seem to hark back to the Dylan who speaks out fearlessly against social injustices:

‘People starving and thirsting, grain elevators are bursting
Oh, you know it costs more to store the food than it does to give it.’

The song pumps along like a real Dylan classic, but what’s the message?

‘I don't care about economy, I don't care about astronomy
But it sure do bother me to see my loved ones turning into puppets…’

Isn’t it you, Bob, turning into a puppet? That do bother me. Who are the real men-stealers?

To make matters worse, Dylan didn’t appear to grasp Christianity’s golden rule: do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Dylan reverses the message:

‘If you do right to me, baby
I’ll do right to you too…’

(Do Right To Me)

No Bob, respectfully, doing right to her is not conditional on her doing right to you.

So what can be salvaged? As it turns out, quite a lot. To start with, most of these songs are great rockers in the gospel tradition, and Dylan is in wonderful voice. We could have a lot of arguments about this, but for my money, Dylan’s peak performance years were 1980 -81, and a lot of these songs are solid tub-thumpers. Unless you’re a real wet blanket, it’s hard to not get up and dance to songs like ‘Cover Down’. Watch it, next you’ll be clapping your hands and shouting halleluiah!


Some vocal performances during this period are Dylan’s greatest. ‘I Believe In You’, an almost hysterical assertion of faith, puts Dylan up there with the greatest male vocalists of all time, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, take your pick. An extra bonus for the non-believer here is that this song could be heard as a love song to a woman. Just quietly put Jesus aside for a moment and we have one of Dylan’s greatest love songs:

‘I believe in you even through the tears and the laughter
I believe in you even though we be apart
I believe in you even on the morning after
Oh, when the dawn is nearing
Oh, when the night is disappearing
Oh, this feeling is still here in my heart’

We seem to know that ‘morning after’; we catch it in songs as diverse as ‘One Too Many Mornings’ and ‘A Simple Twist of Fate’, and the disappearing night haunts the last verse of Visions of Johanna.

( I believe in you)

‘If you’ve ever felt the pain of time and the loss of years this song is for you,’ writes Noah Joel, one of comments following the You Tube clip of the 1980 Toronto concert. Yes sir!

Let’s take a step back and think about Ray Charles again for a moment. Charles is credited with bringing the rhythms, cadences and chord changes of church music into the profane world of jazz and rock, and was attacked by Christians for doing so. Charles sexualizes church music by stripping it of God and Jesus and getting down to the nitty-gritty – hot orgasmic love. You can hear it in this rocking version of ‘I Got a Woman’. In the middle of the song he breaks into a remarkable series of chants, shouts, yelps, screams and scat-singing that comes right out of the Southern Baptist churches of his childhood. In songs like this we find the origins of modern ecstatic music in jazz and rock.

Ray Charles, I got a woman Newport 1958.

For those who want to take this further, try ‘What I Say’ and listen how the singer works with the back-up singers, the Raylets, to create the chant and response effect that again, comes right out of a foot stomping, tub-thumping, Pentecostal Christianity, but in this case it’s the sexual act that is being celebrated. Religious ecstasy becomes the ecstasy of the flesh. We tend to forget what a furore this music caused. Elvis wriggling his hips was nothing compared to Charles’ reenactment of sex in such songs.

Odd, isn’t it, how this exuberant, blatant celebration of sexuality seems, from this distance quite… well, innocent. Sin is nowhere in sight.  Rumour has it that gospel singer Mahalia Jackson turned down big offers to do just what Charles’ did and go over to the dark side; the staunch Mahalia of course refused.

After twenty-five years of thoroughly sexualized rock music, which did little else but celebrate the profane and the sex and drugs and rock and roll culture, along comes a born again Bob Dylan, who reverses Charles by bringing the profane back to the religious. Earthly love gives way to heavenly love, and we’re back in church again. Earthly love becomes a metaphor for heavenly love, but the carnal gets the short shrift. You can hear the tension between the carnal and the divine in songs like the unfinished ‘Yonder comes Sin’, which, while the lyrics are attacking carnality, the music is just too damned sexy for its own good.

My argument here is that unbelievers and men stealers can’t be too precious when it comes religion in the blues/folk/jazz traditions that gave rise to modern rock and the songs of Bob Dylan. All those ‘lordy lords,’ and ‘lord have mercy’ were for real, the Devil might well have been waiting for Robert Johnson at the crossroads, and Saint Peter may well have had some whisky stashed away for Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee – Bob’s Heaven’s Door brew for sure! In other words there is a thorough going interpenetration (ahem!) between the sacred and the profane in modern music. I can enjoy the god inspired gospel songs of Mahalia Jackson as universal expressions of devotion and love, just as I can bliss out with John Coltrane’s suite A Love Supreme without freaking at the god-driven linear notes. No religion can own passion like this. The same applies to the few great Dylan songs that came out of this period.

Every Dylan phase has seen its works of genius, ‘A Hard Rain’ and ‘It’s all Right Ma’ from the protest period; ‘Desolation Row’ and ‘Visions of Johanna’ from his surrealist period; ‘Tangled up in Blue’ and ‘Isis’ from his personal period in the seventies. When it comes to the gospel songs there may be no clear winner, but a cluster of fine creations, among which I would include ‘Every Grain of Sand’, ‘What Can I Do For You’, ‘I believe In You’, ‘Heart of Mine’, and ‘In The Garden’. Not to mention the great unreleased songs of the era, ‘Angelina’, ‘Yonder Comes Sin,’ ‘Let’s Keep It Between Us,’ and the magnificent ‘Making A Liar Out of Me’.

Just, as a non-believer, I can marvel at a creation like Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, so I can marvel at some of great cathedrals and churches that Christianity has inspired. They were built to inspire awe and you’d need a heart of stone not to be touched by them. When I think of cathedrals like Chartres, with their vaulted spaces, I think of Dylan’s ‘In The Garden’ and the cathedral-like spaces the music produces. Before continuing, and launching into this fanciful analogy, I strongly recommend the reader consult Tony Atwood’s excellent account of this song. Not only does he have the musical knowledge to describe the chord sequence which I can only waffle at, but also his sober assessment of the song is at variance with my admiration for it. I think he’s right from his side and I’m right from mine, but everyone has their own Dylan!

It’s best to start with this early performance of the song in 1979. In this slow version you can hear Dylan carefully building his cathedral of sound, an ascending movement, rising action, a plateau, then a descending movement, falling action, before the next rise, with the sequence repeated.  Note that the track breaks about 4 mins into the song. All the verses are there, however.

[insert MP3 In The Garden 1979]

This makes me think of the rank of arches holding up the roof of the Chartres Cathedral.

Like this Gothic Architecture, the music creates airy, vaulted spaces upon which the lyrics can create frescos beginning with one of the dramatic moments in the Jesus story, when he is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. To get the ‘fresco’ effect, we need to change cathedrals, to the Sistine Chapel in Rome, and have good look at the ceiling.

As an unbeliever, I can be moved by this a stupendous representation of a culture’s mythology; art has it’s own power, almost independent of the beliefs that inspire it.

In more modest way, Dylan attempts a similar feat, using his words to paint his scenes upon the architecture of the music. We are presented with five frescos, highlighting different events in Jesus’ life.  Here’s a more confident, sonically richer version.

In the garden, Toronto 1980

By 1988 the song had turned in a tearing rocker. The questions being asked throughout the song turn from an invitation to reflect into a pounding denunciation of all who can’t see and hear and get with the message.


The Jesus that emerges from this song, and others of the period, is perhaps Dylan’s fullest realization of the Outlaw Hero archetype, the despised one, the loner, the criminal. This Outlaw Hero appears as a persona, the narrative ‘I’ in songs like ‘Don’t Think Twice’ – ‘I’m on the dark side of the road’ or as characters presented for our admiration and sympathy. We have Rubin Carter, John Wesley Harding, Joey… space prevent a full account of this, but these heroes culminate in the one who came ‘to die a criminals death.’ It is Jesus as the Outsider that seems to attract Dylan. This is from Precious Angel (my line arrangement, as I hear it):

‘You were telling him about Buddha

you were telling him about Mohammed in the same breath
You never mentioned one time the Man who came

and died a criminal's death.

We have to conclude that what gives Jesus the edge is his criminal status. We begin to see that, just like we all have our own Dylan, Dylan has his own Jesus, a Dylanized Jesus, if you like, and Leonard Cohen’s fretting can be put in context. Dylan’s Outlaw Jesus has a number of qualities, chief among them, and what lies behind the Garden of Gethsemane incident, is the capacity for self-sacrifice, the Noble Crook. Christianity doesn’t have a patent for this strange capacity humans have to act selflessly.

The character Sydney Carton in Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities is an almost perfect Dylan character. Cynic and Nihilist with shady connections, moody and depressive, he is finally prepared to go to the scaffold to save his friends’ lives, and thus have a noble end. The Christians might see Carton as a Jesus figure, and try to monopolize such human traits; as unbelievers, however, we are just as free to secularize Jesus as a representative of a much broader human type. Sacrifice is a motif that appears in number of Dylan songs; the immediately pre-Christian Where are you Tonight is quite explicit:

‘The truth was obscure, too profound and too pure,

to live it you had to explode.
In that last hour of need, we entirely agreed,

sacrifice was the code of the road.’

The Code of the Road, not the code of Jesus or the Bible. When I begin to see Dylan’s Outlaw Jesus within the context of his developing motifs and themes, I don’t feel so intimidated or put off by his tub-thumping assertions, because he’s really mythmaking, just like so many times before, constructing a Jesus out of pre-existing materials. Remember too, he was knocking on heavens door, and using Jesus to castigate the masters of war long before he was converted.

Finally, returning to that simplistic either-or issue with which we began this enquiry, I am beginning to wonder if the liberal insistence that there has to be middle ground, neutral ground, isn’t something of an illusion. Back in the sixties, Dylan would have been well aware of the radical Black Power movement and the pronouncements of another outlaw, Eldridge Cleaver: ‘There is no more neutrality in the world. You either have to be part of the solution, or you’re going to be part of the problem.’

In other words, ‘you gotta serve somebody.’

Kia Ora!

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  1. Though he seldom refers to the name ‘Jesus’ in his songs, it does seem that many ‘true believers’ assert that Dylan presents a church ‘dogmatized ‘, if not an outright hard-line, literalist, fundamentalist view of Christianity in most of his gospel songs.

    In contrast, many ‘nonbelievers’ hold to exactly the same view.

  2. … and there were times when Dylan seemed to hold the same view.

    But perhaps the real curiosity here are the non-Christian songs written during the period: Need A Woman, Caribbean Wind, Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar, Let’s keep it Between Us, Making a liar Out of Me, Angelina… none of these songs made it onto the albums but form a fascinating background to the gospel period.

  3. Perhaps the albums were directed at the ‘believer’ market and the counter-songs were omitted due to this .

    Widening their appeal in the so-called ‘nonbeliever’ market by including these other songs as well would narrow it in the other.

    But I don’t really know why – your guess is as good as mine.

  4. Dylan was being true to himself in writing and performing these songs…this is one of the qualities people admire in Dylan: following his own path and writing songs which reflect his life experience ( in this case a major life changing event ), songs which are very personal but become universal because people from all cultures can relate to them. Dylan had a sound in his mind which he believed Jerry Wexler could assist him in realising in the confines of a studio. The songs sound great with some of the finest performances he has ever done in the studio. The songs capture in words, music and his vocals the personal impact of his conversion. These songs surely made people think about life and death in the same way he made people think about issues surrounding race, poverty and personal freedom. I do not think though that Dylan was that interested in speaking to the converted. These songs are also critical of organised religion. Intolerance impacts on the liberal elite in the same way it impacts on the conservative elite as is clearly demonstrated today in the USA.

  5. It’s a bit problematic, however, when Dylan’s work is linked and locked into, by some song analysts, to a specific spiritual belief when what that is or was is not really known for certain; Dylan does not appear to solidly pin himself down to a permanent, nonflexible point of view.

    I am always perplexed when people express that they know what Dylan’s personal motivations are – though, admittably, some of his lyrics, without much difficulty, can be construed to be of the ‘confessional’ type.

  6. Great piece Mike. I like the ‘Outlaw Hero Jesus’ observation. Really fits. And I do share your admiration for sound & songs from this particular period.
    As for the bringing the profane back to the religious-hypothesis: there is indeed quite some support for that thought to be found. Working on an article on Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking I was struck by:

    I got a God-fearing woman
    One I can easily afford
    She can do the Georgia crawl
    She can walk in the spirit of the Lord

    Groeten uit Utrecht,

  7. Looking forward to your post, Jochen.
    I got into Gonna Change My Way of Thinking when I heard the extended 2011 version. There’s a wonderful line about jumping on the monkey’s back which made me laugh. It’s either jump or be jumped!

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