Why me, Lord? Bob Dylan and the spiritual, musical ties that bind

After decades of listening to his critics, Bob Dylan has learned to shrug, look to the heavens and keep on going.

"Critics have always been on my tail since day one," he said, at the gala saluting him as 2015 MusiCares Person of the Year. "Some of the music critics say I can't sing. I croak. Sound like a
frog. … Why me, Lord?"

Critics insist that the problem is that he keeps "confounding expectations," he said. "I don't even know what that means. … Why me, Lord? My work confounds them obviously, but I really don't know how I do it."

Maybe its time, he said, for another Gospel album, perhaps with the legendary Blackwood Brothers, including the hymn "Stand By Me." Dylan quoted the lyrics, ending with: "In the midst of faults and failures, stand by me. In the midst of faults and failures, stand by me. When I do the best I can, and my friends don't understand, Thou who knowest all about me, stand by me."

For decades, armies of experts have pondered the contents of Dylan's mind. Secular critics and religious scribes of various stripes can quote chapter and verse while debating whether the alleged voice of his generation, now 73 years old, is a true believer in their various causes.

Now, in two revelatory blasts -- his MusiCares speech and a lengthy AARP the Magazine interview -- Dylan has gone out of his way to stress that there is no great mystery. The bottom line: He is an American songwriter and artist, one with roots deep into America's spiritual and musical soil.

"Dylan has made it absolutely clear that he is a serious student of country, folk, blues, rock, Gospel and every other kind of American music. That's just a fact," said movie director Scott
Derrickson, a lifelong Dylan fanatic who wrote the forward for the book, "Restless Pilgrim: The Spiritual Journey of Bob Dylan."

"It's clear that he is fluent in the language and symbolism of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. … It's hard to dip your toe into his music without sensing the deep respect he has for the role that faith has played in the music of our culture. There has always been a sense of transcendence in his songs."

The AARP interview focused on Dylan's new "Shadows in the Night," a set of 10 classic songs often connected with Frank Sinatra. Still, the discussion kept returning to matters of faith and music.

* Asked if these songs will strike young listeners as "corny," Dylan launched into a discourse on virtue. "People's lives today are filled on so many levels with vice and the trappings of it. Sooner of later, you have to see through it or you don't survive. We don't see the people that vice destroys. We just see the glamour of it on a daily basis, everywhere we look, from billboard signs to movies, to newspapers, to magazines. We see the destruction of human life and the mockery of it, everywhere we look."

* Discussing key early influences, Dylan called the Rev. Billy Graham a "hellfire rock 'n' roller," adding, "I went to two or three of his rallies in the '50s or '60s. This guy was like rock 'n' roll personified -- volatile, explosive. He had the hair, the tone, the elocution. When he spoke, he brought the storm down. Clouds parted. Souls got saved, sometimes 30- or 40,000 of them. If you ever went to a Billy Graham rally back then, you were changed forever. … I saw Billy Graham in the flesh and heard him loud and clear."

* On economic justice, Dylan said the rich should strive to help others, "because there are a lot of things that are wrong in America and especially in the inner cities that they could solve. Those are dangerous grounds and they don't have to be. There are good people there, but they've been oppressed by lack of work. …These multibillionaires, and there seem to be more of them every day, can create industries right here in the inner cities of America. But no one can tell them what to do. God's got to lead them."

* What if he lived his life over? "I'd be a schoolteacher," he said. "Probably Roman History or theology."