by Matt Shedd
In his excellent liner notes to Tell Tale Signs, Larry "Ratso" Sloman quotes Bob Dylan on religion: “Those old songs are my lexicon and my prayer book. You can find all my philosophy in those old songs. Hank Williams singing ‘I Saw the Light’ or all the Luke the Drifter songs. That would be pretty close to my religion. The rabbis, priests, and ministers all do very well. But my belief system is more rugged and comes more from out of the old spiritual songs than from any of the established religious attempts at overcoming the devil" (Liner notes to Tell Tale Signs).* (For more on this theme of the sacred and secular in American song, see Madonna Hamel's tightly crafted and spot-on Easter post here on ND: "Singing Sacred in a Secular World.")
Dylan’s emphasis on the song over the ceremony certainly seems in keeping with the spirit of his recent work. This is a seismic shift compared to some of his fiery on stage sermons, like the famous bootlegged Toronto performance of 1980. (These sermons came during a period in which he was undergoing a very public conversion, was frequently reading Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, and refused to play his non-religious work). But this shift back to a more unspecified position is not too surprising. Being on fire for God and the kingdom to come is an exhausting business, particularly for the riven soul of the great American musicians—see Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and virtually every blues and country musician.
I imagine that Dylan's brief credo elicits a wide range of responses from fans. Bob Dylan, like all popular artists, ends up becoming a contested space. This naturally happens when people like us engage with their work and the writings surrounding it, particularly in our days of instant information. Amidst the sea of texts and opinions floating around us, we end up resisting certain readings, upholding others, and forging our own. This seems particularly true with fans who have a stake in Dylan’s personal religious beliefs or disbelief. A little research into the criticism about this period reveals that a good number of people still believe they have something to win if Dylan casts his religious lot with their own--whether they are religious Dylan fans or adamantly against religion in all forms. However, if people were looking for something a little more definitive about Dylan's beliefs, they were undoubtedly disappointed by the above-quoted statement. (But I'm sure many Hank Williams's fans were as thrilled as I was). But alongside his refusal to endorse or condemn any approach to religion, we find a certainty that there is a devil and that he should be resisted. According to this statement, the devil is just a fact for a person who lives in this world. We cannot escape him, but we can overcome him. So what does Dylan mean by the devil here? Reading this with his more contemporary albums (dating from Time out of Mind to the present), I suspect it’s something more malevolent and persistent than the literal descriptions many of us grew up hearing about in church. However I don't think it is a thoroughly secular and de-mythologized employment of the term either. When Dylan writes about "overcoming the devil," I think of Tom Waits's "Way Down in the Hole," a work which similarly resists specific religious or non-religious codifications. As I pointed out, all of these readings are necessarily up for debate. However, the reason I think we should look beyond dichotomies to appreciate artists like Dylan and Waits is that the experience can be much more rewarding. Nightmares aren't literal, but they are very real. However, I don't think nightmares are purely metaphorical either. There are certain things that call for the the artist to draw from everything at hand to allow us to engage with something indescribable through any other way than the work of art.
More to follow on Bob Dylan's relationship to the crossroads.
Tidbits on Tom and the devil
This sometimes frightening and thoroughly strange clip is from Waits's 1988 film Big Time
"(You Gotta Keep the Devil) Way Down in the Hole" was performed by Waits and four other acts for intros to all 5 seasons of HBO's "The Wire."
Tom Waits also played the devil in the 2009's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Contact Matt via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Originally published at A Missing America:
*No Depression shout-out: My thanks to Al Steads and Scott Warmuth for pointing me in the right direction with the citation for this quotation, and helping to fix previous errors. This help makes me thankful, yet again, to be part of this knowledgeable music community.