Rough and Rowdy Ways: Bob Dylan’s Gospel and the Excavation of American Music

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A 79-year-old Bob Dylan released his latest album Rough and Rowdy Ways on 19 June, and it’s been widely hailed as a late-career masterpiece. The title is drawn from the 1929 Jimmie Rodgers song ‘My Rough and Rowdy Ways’, and this is only one of the numerous cultural byways that the album takes us down. Indiana Jones and Edgar Allen Poe sit comfortably alongside each other as Dylan says hello to Mary Lou, and goodbye to Jimmy Reed. In the remarkable slice of American gothic that is ‘My Own Version of You’, he plays the role of Dr Frankenstein, stitching ‘the Scarface Pacino’ and ‘the Godfather Brando’ into a ‘robot commando’ of his own making, ‘at the Black Horse Tavern on Armageddon Street’. All while ‘Mr. Freud with his dreams’ and ‘Mr. Marx with his axe’ are having the flesh torn off their backs by ‘a rawhide lash’ in a burning hell. In its own way, it’s all as stunning as the literary masterpieces that appeared on his mid-60s albums. It’s also profoundly Christian in the worldliest and most humanly-grounded kind of way. After first gaining inspiration from the elder statesmen and stateswomen of the blues, he has become one of them himself, with the same mix of worldly impulses and spiritual longing that characterised their art.

People talk about Dylan’s ‘Christian period’ or his ‘Gospel years’ (c. 1979–81) as if they ended at some point, as if the rest of his body of work were not also littered with sermonic rants, biblical allusions, prophetic denunciations, and a deeply-held personal faith. Even the material in the earlier part of his career is filled with Christian material. On his debut self-titled 1962 album, he drove the Gospel plough asking Jesus to make up his dying bed and meet him in the middle of the air. Sure, he drew much of this from the unmistakeable presence of Gospel music in the American roots music that has always been his inspiration. At the same time, there’s an unmistakeable personal conviction in his entire body of work that draws on a range of Christian ideas. When his faith became explicit in 1979 on the Slow Train Coming album, it was in some respects only a continuation of the fierce, finger-pointing, apocalypticism that had always pervaded his work. Yes, Dylan had become a Bible-bashing fundamentalist. But should this have taken us so much by surprise? After all, the guy who told the ‘masters of war’ that he would stand over their grave until he was sure they were dead was never going to become an Episcopalian.

Dylan is often seen as someone who wears masks and plays with multiple identities, refusing to be defined by anyone but himself. Early in his career, he told all kinds of lies, including that he had run away from home and joined the circus. He’s been telling tall tales ever since and baffling all attempts to quantify and commodify his art. He enraged the folk purists in 1965 by plugging in at the Newport Folk Festival and playing a very loud rock set. Two years later, on the cusp of the psychedelic era and in the wake of The Beatles’ Sgt Peppers, Dylan released John Wesley Harding (1967) an album of stripped-back mystic Americana that opened up his country gentleman period. No one saw that coming. No more than they saw his Christian conversion, or that he would one day release a Christmas album, or five discs of Frank Sinatra covers (!). On the Rolling Thunder Revue tour (brilliantly documented in Martin Scorsese’s 2019 semi-fictional film), he literally wore masks and at times switched identities with other band members. These various renditions of himself are usually seen as the expression of an artist’s unwillingness to reveal his true self to a watching world. Let the songs speak for themselves. The music recorded in the Gospel Years, on the other hand, was Dylan without masks. Listen to the deeply-personal and public songs of gratitude, faith, temptation (and yes, self-righteous piety) that are found on Trouble No More, 1979–1981: The Bootleg Series vol. 13 (2017) and you hear Dylan with the masks stripped away, achingly vulnerable to a world that either hated or loved his message of repentance, faith, and holiness.

Now in old age, Dylan’s music remains uncompromisingly personal and authentically Christian. He’s teetering on the edge of eternity and he knows it. He’s standing ‘three miles north of purgatory, one step from the great beyond’, ready to pray to the cross, kiss the girls, and cross the Rubicon. But there has never been anything polite or harmless about Dylan’s form of Christianity. He has never suffered fools gladly and his famous venom remains intact, though it sits right alongside a remarkable tenderness. On the opening track, ‘I Contain Multitudes’ (a line borrowed from William Blake), he barks:

 

You greedy old wolf, I’ll show you my heart

But not all of it, only the hateful part

I’ll sell you down the river, I’ll put a price on your head

What more can I tell you?

I sleep with life and death in the same bed.

 

A few songs later, we have the contrast of these lines from ‘I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself To You’:

 

If I had the wings of a snow-white dove

I’d preach the gospel, the gospel of love

A love so real, a love so true

I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you.

 

Is this a love song or a hymn? Is the singer giving his heart to a woman or to his Lord? A line from the following stanza suggests the latter: ‘Take me out traveling, you’re a traveling man / Show me something I don’t understand’. Dylan may be a Christian, but his Gospel is definitely in inter-faith mode here. He tells us, in ‘On Key West (Philosopher Pirate)’, that he knows ‘all the Hindu rituals’, and, in ‘My Own Version of You’, that he’s studying Sanskrit and Arabic to improve his mind. On ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’, he lives on ‘a street named after a saint’ where ‘women in the churches wear powder and paint’ and ‘where the Jews and Catholics, and the Muslims all pray, I can tell a Proddie [Protestant] from a mile away’. And then comes the farewell to the beloved black blues man, ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed, Jimmy Reed indeed. Give me that old time religion, it’s just what I need’:

 

For thine is kingdom, the power, the glory

Go tell it on the mountain, go tell the real story

Tell it in that straightforward, puritanical tone

In the mystic hours when a person’s alone

Goodbye Jimmy Reed, Godspeed

Thump on the Bible, proclaim the Creed.

 

‘I feel the Holy Spirit inside’, he testifies on ‘Crossing the Rubicon’, and yet he also warns us to ‘keep as far away as possible’ because ‘it’s darkest ‘fore the dawn’. The seemingly spontaneous aside ‘Oh Lord’ before admitting ‘I turned the key and broke it off’, is a groan that reminds us that the Spirt-filled person remains a flawed sinner in need of grace still at times uncertain of his or her entry to the kingdom.

In a strange way, Rough and Rowdy Ways blends the particular with the universal. It’s a quintessentially American record in its name dropping and cultural references. At the same time, it highlights the human condition from a time ‘long before the first Crusade, way back ‘fore England or America were made’. Set against the touching folk song arrangement of ‘Mother of Muses’, Dylan urges his feminine muse to take him back to more ancient times and places, to ‘sing of the mountains and the deep dark sea … of the lakes and the nymphs of the forest’. He begs her, ‘put me upright, make me walk straight … forge my identity from the inside out’, before praying: ‘Wake me, shake me, free me from sin. Make me invisible, like the wind’. It’s a song that exhibits a profound creation spirituality, and also lovingly evokes the women who have so often been the inspiration for his art.

The album closes with ‘Murder Most Foul’, the first insight we received on this new body of work when it suddenly dropped unexpectedly on the Bob Dylan YouTube channel on 27 March. That a 17-minute song about the assassination of John F. Kennedy would prove to be Bob Dylan’s first ever song to top the Billboard charts must surely be a sign of these strange times we’re living in. Perhaps it’s appearance during the pandemic struck a chord with an audience that needed a familiar voice to reassure them? Or maybe we just missed him? The song is a dream-like trance containing almost ‘spoken word’ stream of consciousness reflections about one of America’s defining moments punctuated by radio airplay requests that document an America in decline:

 

Goodbye, Charlie, Goodbye, Uncle Sam

Frankly, Miss Scarlett, I don’t give a damn.

What is the truth, and where did it go?

Ask Oswald and Ruby, they oughta know.

 

Dylan remembers the day they killed Kennedy, when someone said to him: ‘Son, the age of the Antichrist has just only begun’. During such times we need music as the soundtrack to our lives. Now we create our own Spotify playlists, but once upon a time we asked the disc jockey to play our favourite song to give meaning to our lives:

 

Wolfman Jack, he’s speaking in tongues

He’s going on and on at the top of his lungs

Play me a song, Mr. Wolfman Jack

Play it for me in my long Cadillac.

 

Sure, you might dismiss it all with, ‘Ok, boomer’, the ravings of a worn-out old man nostalgically mourning a forgotten past. But Dylan is so much more than this. As a living archivist, he carries within him the back catalogue of more than a century of music. As a hungry 20-year old kid in Greenwich Village, Dylan would beg, borrow, and steal other people’s record collections so he could excavate the hidden world contained therein. Sixty years later, he’s still engaged in the archaeology of the blues. At one point in the long playlist requested in the second half of Murder Most Foul, he requests, ‘Play “It Happened One Night” and “One Night of Sin”. There’s twelve million souls that are listening in’. ‘One Night of Sin’ was a 1956 hit for New Orleans rhythm and blues singer Smiley Lewis. When Elvis Presley covered it a year later, the risqué lyrics were sanitised to ‘One night with you’. This deep dive into the rich veins of music history is something that only our cultural elders can carry out, and it’s hard to think of anyone who can do it better than Bob Dylan. He may be one of the strangest cats on the planet, but we’ll sure miss him when he’s gone.

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Glen O’Brien is a theologian and historian. He is a Uniting Church minister employed by The Salvation Army as Research Coordinator and also serves as Chair of the University of Divinity Research Committee. Interested in all things Wesleyan and Methodist, he has published widely in that field including Methodism in Australia: A History (Ashgate, 2015) and Wesleyan-Holiness Churches in Australia (Routledge, 2018). His monograph, Liberty and Loyalty: John Wesley’s Political World, is currently in peer review with T&T Clark. Glen lives and works on Wurundjeri country in the beautiful Plenty Valley, gives thanks for the wisdom and custodianship of elders past and present, and has pledged to hear their voices and learn from their experience.

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