Bob Dylan

Wrestling with the complex Gospel according to Bob Dylan, once again

Wrestling with the complex Gospel according to Bob Dylan, once again

When Bob Dylan tells the story of Bob Dylan, he often starts at a concert by rock 'n' roll pioneer Buddy Holly in the winter of 1959.

At least, that's where he started in his recent Nobel Prize for Literature lecture.

Something mysterious about Holly "filled me with conviction," said Dylan. "He looked me right straight dead in the eye and he transmitted something. Something, I didn't know what. And it gave me the chills."

Days later, Holly died in a plane crash. Right after that, someone gave Dylan a recording of "Cotton Fields" by folk legend Leadbelly. It was "like I'd been walking in darkness and all of the sudden the darkness was illuminated. It was like somebody laid hands on me," said Dylan.

That story probably sounded "rather strange to lots of people," said Scott Marshall, author of the new book "Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life."

"What happens when somebody lays hands on you? If people don't know the Bible, then who knows what they'll think that means? … Dylan is saying he felt called to some new work, like he was being ordained. That's just the way Dylan talks. That's who he is."

For millions of true believers, Dylan was a prophetic voice of the 1960s and all that followed. Then his intense embrace of Christianity in the late 1970s infuriated many fans and critics. Ever since, Dylan has been surrounded by arguments -- often heated -- about the state of his soul.

The facts reveal that Dylan had God on his mind long before his gospel-rock trilogy, "Slow Train Coming," "Saved" and "Shot of Love."

One civil rights activist, the Rev. Bert Cartwright, catalogued all the religious references in Dylan's 1961-78 works, before the "born-again" years. In all, 89 out of 246 Dylan songs or liner notes -- 36 percent -- contained Bible references. Cartwright found 190 Hebrew Bible allusions and 197 to Christian scriptures.

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 does his Dylan thing in China

The drama that unfolded in Beijing began when police evicted the unregistered Shouwang "house church" from its usual meeting place. The police arrived again when this same flock tried to gather in a public place last Sunday. A church member who escaped told the Associated Press that about 200 were arrested.

This kind of persecution is old news for those concerned about the 60 million or so Christians in China's "underground" churches. The crackdowns have become so common that they rarely inspire protests from human-rights activists.

Bob Dylan, however, is another matter. His first-even concert in China opened with an edgy gospel rocker that slipped past the Ministry of Culture officials who allegedly screened the April 6th set list to make sure it was safe.

"Change my way of thinking, make myself a different set of rules. … Gonna put my best foot forward, stop being influenced by fools," sang Bob Dylan, performing a classic from the "Slow Train Coming" album that opened his "born again" era.

So who might the "fools" be in this context?

Seconds later, Dylan veered into alternative lyrics for "Gonna Change My Way of Thinkin'," written for a duet with gospel star Mavis Staples. These lyrics added a clear reference to "end times" doctrines and the second coming of Jesus -- subjects Chinese authorities have tried to curb in sermons, music and religious education.

"Jesus is calling," he sang. "He's coming back to gather his jewels. ... Well, we live by the golden rule, whoever's got the gold rules."

Many critics, however, noted that the set list omitted Dylan's most famous anthems of political protest, such as "The Times They Are A-Changin' " or "Blowin' in the Wind." The Washington Post coverage claimed that the set was "devoid of any numbers that might carry even the whiff of anti-government overtones."

Then again, maybe the mainstream writers who voiced similar sentiments about this historic concert in the Worker's Gymnasium in Beijing were only listening for messages about politics, as opposed to messages about religious freedom.

Many years ago, commentator Bill Moyers told me that the reason so many journalists struggle to cover religion news is that they are "tone deaf" to the music of faith in public life. That image still rings true for me, after 23 years of writing this column for the Scripps Howard News Service and more than three decades of research into life on the religion beat.

For me, the coverage of the Beijing concert was a classic example of this "tone deaf" syndrome. It certainly seems that many reporters attended, but they didn't hear what they wanted to hear. They decided that Dylan had copped out, since he didn't sing the songs that they knew and respected.

In a column called "Blowin' in the Idiot Wind," Maureen Dowd of the New York Times proclaimed -- with a bitter snap -- that Dylan "may have done the impossible: broken creative new ground in selling out." His sins, she added, were even "worse than Beyoncé, Mariah and Usher collecting millions to croon to Qaddafi's family, or Elton John raking in a fortune to serenade gay-bashers at Rush Limbaugh's fourth wedding."

This was a rather typical comment in this mini-firestorm.

It's hard to believe that scribes who were familiar with the wide spectrum of the Dylan canon could miss the point of that opening number, said Jeffrey Gaskill, who produced "Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan," the 2003 album that included the Dylan-Staples duet.

"It is absolutely safe to assume that he's going to make a statement with his first song in a concert as symbolic as that one," said Gaskill. "That's Dylan history, right there. That's what he is going to do."

Truth is, Dylan's music has always contained a stream of religious images, he added. This was true long before he began mixing his Jewish beliefs with an apocalyptic brand of Christianity -- influences that continue to shape his music to this day.

This faith-driven worldview, added Gaskill, is "the most important aspect of his career -- hands down. It has lasted longer than his so-called political protest period, an era in which his work already contained religious themes. ...

"Some people simply refuse to come to terms with this side of Bob Dylan. They just can't handle it."