Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking: Dylan’s different set of rules

by Jochen Markhorst

Music is not a small thing, in religious circles. Christians have been debating for centuries about the edifying quality, or the diabolical nature of music as such, and since the nineteenth century the many Christian divisions have been deliberating over which music does, and which music does not please the ears of the Lord. In the Bible there is music throughout, the Psalms have their own book, just like Canticles, the Song of Songs, that is not the point. But the hair-splitters point to Ezekiel 27 and 28, where it is claimed that the king of Tyrus is actually Satan in human form. Significant in the music discussion is 28:13, the verse that describes what a wonderful, beautiful, beautiful angel Satan used to be in the beginning, before his pride causes God to cast off his favourite angel and to condemn him for all eternity to the pool of sulfur and fire, to hell:

Thou hast been in Eden the garden of God; every precious stone was thy covering, the sardius, topaz, and the diamond, the beryl, the onyx, and the jasper, the sapphire, the emerald, and the carbuncle, and gold: the workmanship of thy tabrets and of thy pipes was prepared in thee in the day that thou wast created.

There it is: already with his creation Satan receives ‘tabrets’ (tambourines supposedly) and ‘pipes’ (flutes). That creates a wonderful dilemma for the theologians. Music is indeed satanic, but it is created by God and played by Satan before his fall, when he still is a high placed, holy Angel Of Yahweh in the Garden of Eden.

The parents of Josh Tillman, the drummer of Fleet Foxes who has been soloing since 2012 as Father John Misty, solve it like most less stringent Christians: Josh is allowed to listen to ‘Christian music’. And pop music is Not Christian. But at the end of the 90s, around the age of seventeen, the parents surprise the musical Josh (he has been playing drums and guitar for years) with a legislative amendment: he may listen to secular music, provided it is ‘spiritual’. One of the purchases that Josh does right away is Dylan’s Slow Train Coming, because he can prove that Dylan is a Christian artist, and to his relief the album does indeed pass parental censorship. It is a discovery. He buys New Morning, Nashville Skyline, Oh Mercy, ‘all these other weird Dylan records,’ until he reaches the monuments like The Times They Are A-Changin’. “My life just totally changed and I know everybody says that about their Dylan experience, but it is really true for me, it inspired me to go and do what I do now,” says Tillman looking back (interview with TLOBF, March 2009). In the following months, however, the fundamentalism continues to crumble and he even can buy U2’s The Joshua Tree and Peter Gabriels So.

It leaves its mark, both the oppressive upbringing and the introduction to Dylan. On his breakthrough album I Love You, Honeybear (2015), according to his own words an autobiographical concept album, he paints a reverberant life full of ferocious sex, adultery, alcohol and drugs, and, like most renegades, he needs disproportionately many fucks and goddamns to tell so. It tempts the reviewers to promote the album as ‘Father John’s own Blood On The Tracks‘. But the kicker “Holy Shit” is a Dylanesque word procession à la “No Time To Think” with the consumer criticism from “Slow Train”, as Tillman also copies in the title song Dylan’s stylistic approach to contrast small, private concerns with self-transcending human issues. And in between each time Slow Train Coming idiom pops up, like in the bizarre “Nothing Good Ever Happens In The Goddamn Thirsty Cow”:

I have it all
To pull more women than any two men or a train can haul
But my baby she does something way more impressive than the Georgia crawl

In the first version of Dylan’s “Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking” the Georgia Crawl also is an alienating odd duck out:

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

The expression refers to a dance and is coined in 1928 by Henry Williams’ and Eddie Anthony’s hit single. Back then it really is a dance. A ferocious, suggestive, sensual dance, but still: a dance.

Come here papa, look at sis
Out in the backyard just shaking like this
Doin’ the Georgia Crawl, oh Georgia Crawl
You don’t need to buy a thing, do the Georgia Crawl

I can shake it east, shake it west
Way down south I can shake it the best
Doin’ the Georgia Crawl, oh Georgia Crawl
You don’t need to buy a thing, do the Georgia Crawl

Of course it does not take long before the Georgia Crawl becomes a metaphor for sexual intercourse, thanks mainly to Blind Willie McTell. Early on, he records two songs in which the notion gets that explicit charge: “East St. Louis Blues” in 1933 and especially the first version of “Broke Down Engine Blues” (1931), the song Dylan takes up in ’93 for World Gone Wrong and honours as a ‘masterpiece’ in the liner notes. There, among all those blues classics, the Georgia Crawl is not out of tune, but on Slow Train Coming it is a bit less well-embedded – it is a rare erotic reference on that otherwise quite evangelical record.

It is not the only remarkable thing about “Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking”. The last verse, for example, where a ‘kingdom called Heaven’, the Heavenly Kingdom is described as ‘a place where there is no pain of birth’. That is a strange description. In the Bible, Heaven is the abode of God and we do not know much more about it than there is a throne and presumably a bookshelf (John sees in Revelation 20:11 that there are “books”, hence).

Dylan’s description, “a place without pain of birth,” seems more applicable to the Kingdom of God, the paradise that will come down on the renewed and beautified earth when Jesus comes back, When He Returns. But in that case it is rather alienating to use the words with which Buddhists describe Nirvana. In addition, Dylan reveals that the place in question was created “about the same time” when He made the earth. So that really must be the Heaven in Genesis 1:1 (“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”), the abode of the Lord Himself. The expression is not Christian anyway, and it does not have any expressive power either. God’s abode has no birth and no pain, obviously. Neither puberty, employment protection nor remittance of pension contributions – but why should be listed what is not there? No, it really seems that the poet did not pay close attention during catechism and a bit dimly confuses the Kingdom in Heaven, God’s throne, with the future Kingdom of Heaven, here on earth. In the descriptions thereof indeed denials are used (there will be no disease, there will be no sin, there will be no war), but that Buddhist ‘no pain of birth’, probably inspired by Genesis 3;16 (‘In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children’), remains strange.

Nevertheless, or perhaps because of this, the appeal of the song on a budding mind like that of the culturally oppressed Josh Tillman can be felt. The song thrives on a concrete riff, something between “You Really Got Me” and “Sunshine Of Your Love”, stays between the tight boundaries of an ordinary blues progression and there is great ensemble playing by world-class musicians – foremost guitarist Mark Knopfler of course, but organ and horns are quite heavenly, too.

And lyrically there are enough edifying marks to keep the young Josh from dropping out (the Matthew references, in particular) and mysterious expressions to stay fascinated (like the Georgia Crawl), but above all: the adolescent Tillman will experience great affirmation and liberating recognition with the title and the opening verses. “My thinking is going to change”, “so much oppression” and especially: “a different set of rules”!

Like most songs from Dylan’s Christian days of creation, “Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking” is hardly covered by serious artists. Josh Tillman sometimes ventures into a Dylansong (his “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” for the compilation Subterranean Homesick Blues: A Tribute to Bob Dylan’s ‘Bringing It All Back Home’ is beautiful), but he steers clear of the Slow Train Coming songs.

The only really great adaptation is done by the master himself, together with Mavis Staples for the very successful tribute album Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs Or Bob Dylan (2003). The album closes with an exciting, steamy recording of an almost completely rewritten version. The Georgia Crawl has been deleted, the clumsy reference to the Kingdom of Heaven as well, and even the Matthew references to Jesus Dylan omits, a quarter of a century later. Almost, anyway; in the very last line, Staples and Dylan paraphrase Matthew 26:49, “And forthwith he came to Jesus, and said, Hail, master; and kissed him“, the kiss with which Judas betrays Jesus and kills Him – indirectly.

And that surely is devilish again.


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