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Sunday, January 21, 2018

Master Blueprints # 3: “Oh, Though the Earth May Shake Me, Oh, Though My Friends Foresake Me, Oh, Even That Couldn't Make Me Go Back”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “I Believe In You”
Album: Slow Train Coming
Release Date: August, 1979

Several months ago the 13th volume of Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series, Trouble No More 1979 -1981, was released, which includes recordings from his aptly-dubbed “gospel years”, a period that covered three studio albums (Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot of Love) along with a considerable amount of in-the-Spirit touring (yes, that’s Spirit with a capital S).  Dylan’s outpouring of his Christian faith (and little else) during this time would end up alienating him from much of his longstanding fan base, but, not surprisingly this did not deter him.  After all, by this stage in his career, Bob Dylan had abandoned his past on at least several occasions.  In each of those cases, a degree of separation soon followed. This time, however, the stakes were higher.  This stark new reality was not a change in his music - the root of his prior detours - which remained rocking and rolling.  No, this newness was in his unwavering, unequivocal message.   

My own introduction to this period of Bob Dylan’s life, came later in the 80s.  I was still playing catch up, only several years into my personal odyssey into Dylan’s music when a friend and colleague, Jeff, handed me a tape of Slow Train Coming and suggested I give it a listen.  Jeff was aware that my appreciation of Dylan was promising, but in its infancy, and he was trying to broaden my horizons.  Whether to simply connect me to good music (which Jeff did and does often) or to give me a new angle on my own belief system, to this day I am not certain (perhaps I should ask him).  Whatever the motivation, it worked, albeit - as the title of the album suggests - in a slow, methodical way. 

Jeff caught me at a good time with Slow Train Coming.  I was still just skimming the surface of the treasure chest that is Bob Dylan’s catalog, so this full frontal assault of a message disguised as an album was helpful at this stage in my learning curve, giving me the proper perspective to interpret Dylan’s more subtle faith-centered lyrics later, on albums like John Wesley Harding and Oh Mercy or songs like “Señor” and “Shelter From the Storm”.  The fact of the matter was that hearing songs about Christian faith in the rock music I loved was new to me.  Yes, I’d already delved into George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, and virtually the entirety of Pete Townshend’s catalog; solo and with the Who. Both Harrison’s and Townshend’s music is loaded with beautiful songs of faith.  But their faith was the faith of Far Eastern origins, particularly India.  Conversely, what was radiating through each and every of the nine original songs on Slow Train Coming was my faith.  Up to that point, virtually all Christian faith-centric songs I connected with were hymns and psalms at Catholic Church services. I credit Bob Dylan (and my friend Jeff) for broadening that base for me.

The first song on Slow Train Coming that struck a chord was, strangely enough, “Man Gave Names to All the Animals”.  It’s the one light touch on the album, many critics referring to it as a children’s song.  But it does have an ominous ending, the song hanging in mid-lyric with the introduction (to the Garden) of the snake.  It’s this ending that ties “Man Gave Names to All the Animals” to the rest of the album; emblematic of the mood that permeates throughout.  Slow Train Coming is loaded with Biblical truths and consequences, from Genesis all the way through to Revelation.  Bob Dylan pulls no punches here.  An attentive listen to this album is not for the faint of heart, or the weak in spirit…. unless their willing to contemplate making some changes in their lives. 

There are three gems on Slow Train Coming:  “Precious Angel”, “When He Returns” and this entries’ Master Blueprint, “I Believe in You”.  As with just about any of Bob Dylan’s greatest songs, there’s always some point in the tune where his vocal delivery resonates particularly strongly; a stanza where you feel he is truly in the moment.  I have been touched this way listening to all 3 of these songs.  In “Precious Angel” it’s when Dylan sings the line “Sister let me tell you, about a vision that I saw” (at 2:40 mark of the url: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xh55de ).  It lasts all of 4 seconds, too fleeting to auto-repeat, but the essence of Bob Dylan can be heard on that brief stretch (put in proper context of course, by listening to the whole song).  Side Note: That’s Mark Knopfler playing the great lead guitar, which is topped only on the title track.

Start to finish, Bob Dylan’s singing on the song “When He Returns” (sorry, no studio-version video to be found online) is some of his best.  There are many great lines delivered here, but the most poignant one for me is near the end when he sings “Of every earthly plan that be known to man, He is un-con-cerned”.  “When He Returns” closes Slow Train Coming, which is appropriate in Biblical terms.  The song is stripped down, Dylan alone at the piano.  It’s raw, emotional, and powerful. 

As for “I Believe in You” those resonating moments would be all 6 times he exclaims “Oh” in the song (i.e. “Oh, though the earth may shake me….”:  https://vimeo.com/61070918 ).  Listening to these exclamations, I can’t help but conclude that “I Believe in You” is as much a prayer as it is a song.  There’s as much resolute devotion in the track as any church hymn I’ve ever heard. 

“I Believe in You” is a perfect example of why I am calling this series Master Blueprints.  Bob Dylan’s vocals, though amazing to some (including myself) are not for everyone.  He’s probably always known this.  And so, I believe one aspect to Dylan’s genius is that his songs are studio-produced in a way for other musicians to listen to, feel a connection with, cover, and make their own.  Many musicians have tapped into this deep well, including Richie Havens (“Just Like a Woman”), Lou Reed (“Foot of Pride”), Jimi Hendrix (“All Along the Watchtower”), Johnny Winter (“Highway 61 Revisited”), Ronnie Wood (“Seven Days”), The Byrds (“Mr. Tambourine Man”), Manfred Mann (“Quinn the Eskimo”), Joan Baez (“Love is Just a Four Letter Word”, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”), the list goes on.  In all these cases, it’s as if the song was written for that artist alone to discover and to sing.  I don’t see this anywhere else in the annals of music, not to this degree anyway.  Heck, last night Nancy and I went to a local show and both bands played Bob Dylan songs in unique and admirable ways that were compatible to their own styles.  I see this on a routine basis at shows I attend.  Incredible.

At least two musicians picked up on this made-for-me insight with “I Believe in You”.  The first was Sinead O’Connor, who was originally supposed to cover the song at Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert in 1992.  But in reaction to getting heckled by some in the audience as she walked onto the stage - this being not long after her appearance on SNL when she burned a photo of the Pope - she stared down the crowd for a good stretch.  At one point Kris Kristofferson came out to her from offstage to implore O’Connor by whispering - near enough to the mike for all to hear - “don’t let the bastards drag you down”.  His advice went unheeded.  Sinead tore off her headset, and stopped the band, who were trying to launch into “I Believe in You”.  She then ripped into a scathing vocal-only rendition of Bob Marley’s “War”, in turn ending up being the only artist that night who did not cover a Bob Dylan song.  Anyhow, she later covered the song at her own shows, including this lovely rendition in 1999: ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uofTS1sI3rc ). God is forgiving. 

And then there was Alison Krauss who also makes “I Believe in You” her own in this moving rendition: ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b5dpkBV2ifs ).  Definitely worth a listen.

Slow Train Coming launched an invaluable 3-album period in Bob Dylan’s career. Faith was always in his repertoire, but full disclosure was necessary.  I believe the honesty, integrity and bravery of ‘the gospel years’ was a bridge of sorts that would eventually propel forth such brilliance in his later works.  That’s what faith, openness and honesty does.  It frees the soul and stirs the natural creative juices that are inside us all, juices always longing to be sprung.  I try to take these lessons to heart.  It’s not always easy, but I know when it’s happening, because when I feel it, it’s really, really real.

Pete

3 comments:

  1. Pete. brilliantly conveyed once again. I had neither sought, nor heard gospel overtones/undertones in Dylan's work, but of course it would be there. I now recall your encouraging Father Peter to listen to Dylan, and the gospel connection makes perfect sense.
    It has always been refreshing to me when a contemporary musician references his/her faith in what they produce. I will take a closer listen to your Dylan entries.....

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  2. Gotta Serve Somebody is the one that stuck with me from this time, but it was in a much more secular sense than I suppose his head was at the time. Religion/faith has always been sort of a black box for me since the second year of college, prior to which I did much, much more musing about it and 'spiritual' things, but that all dropped away. When Slow Train Coming and Shot of Love happened it hit me like a lot of early years Dylan fans. Whats that all about? Some of the songs obviously sounded pretty good but it was a big change. To my mind I Believe in You has been covered more convincingly with more impact than Gotta Serve Somebody, although there have been such interesting renditions of each by others. My recollection, which is getting pathetically poor, is that I listened a good bit to Slow Train Coming a good bit for just a brief while, and Shot of Love much less. I saw him at the Hosuton Summit in the early 80s after Shot of Love, its a Dylan show so its a big deal, plenty of local musicians were there, one sitting right by me. It was a decent interesting enough show with lots of new stuff, politely accepted but not with a lot of excitement. Unfortuntely I can't imagine what I was doing passing to you that particular record in those first few years in Mass. I think I was still listening more to Highway 61 and John Wesley Harding at the time. Don't take this wrongly, it may have been one I just wasn't interested in listening to. Worked out ok anyway I guess. Just like some bugger excommunicated me from Mass and inadvertently moved me back to PA and my hometown for an early retirement. Although I am a stranger in my 'hometown' I am still comfortable there.

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    1. Sounds to me your recollection remains pretty darn strong, Jeff. You reminded me here that it was Gotta Serve Somebody that you were interested in back then. I'd forgotten that detail. Anyhow, this is the kind of feedback I love getting. Keep it up, and thanks!

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