Dylan works around China’s bosses?

Is there anyone in American popular culture who intrigues and frustrates journalists of a certain age — the Baby Boomer elites — than Bob Dylan? The man is a walking history book, when you combine the landmark events in his life with the confusing but gripping map that is his canon of songwriting.

That’s why it was big news when he agreed to take his road tour that never ends to Beijing, where the Communist authorities insisted that he play by their rules when picking songs for his set list. Now there’s a tug of war that could have been an amazing subject for musical, cultural, political and, yes, theological commentary, since this man’s songs many-layered songs are packed with subtle themes as well as baseball-bat-to-the-head commentary.

This is what the Washington Post served up at the top of its report from the front lines:

BEIJING – Rock music icon Bob Dylan avoided controversy on Wednesday in his first-ever appearance in Communist-led China, eschewing the 1960s protest anthems that defined a generation and sticking to a song list that government censors say they preapproved, before a crowd of about 5,000 people in a Soviet-era stadium.

Keeping with his custom, Dylan never spoke to the crowd other than to introduce his five-member band in his raspy voice. And his set list — which mixed some of his newer songs alongside classics made unrecognizable by altered tempos — was devoid of any numbers that might carry even the whiff of anti-government overtones.

In Taiwan on Sunday, opening this spring Asian tour, Dylan played “Desolation Row” as the eighth song in his set and ended with an encore performance of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” whose lyrics became synonymous with the antiwar and civil rights protest movements. But in China, where the censors from the government’s Culture Ministry carefully vet every line of a song before determining whether a foreign act can play here, those two songs disappeared from the repertoire. In Beijing, Dylan sang “Love Sick” in the place of “Desolation Row,” and he ended his nearly two-hour set with the innocent-sounding “Forever Young.”

There was no “Times They Are a-Changin’ ” in China. And definitely no “Chimes of Freedom.”

OK, let me confess that I am a minor-league Dylan fan. I’m not a fanatic who named his children after the guy, but I have been paying close attention for several decades. Anyway, the first question that popped into my head after reading the top of this story was, methinks, rather logical: So what was the opening song of this rather symbolic show? I mean, Dylan has a history of sending signals with the first words out of his mouth (think about that HBO special with Tom Petty years ago, when Dylan opened with “In the Garden”).

I mean, I assume that the Post reporter was there, right?

Luckily, there are websites out there that sweat the details on this type of question. The following set list looks short, for a Dylan show, but the opening number seems like a logical choice — that is, if one assumes that Dylan may have framed his thoughts about politics, faith and freedom in a less obvious way.

In other words, he opened with “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking.” Thus, it appears that the first words out of his mouth were these:

Gonna change my way of thinking, make myself a different set of rules
Gonna change my way of thinking, make myself a different set of rules
Gonna put my good foot forward, and stop being influenced by fools.

So much oppression, can’t keep track of it no more
So much oppression, can’t keep track of it no more
Sons becoming husbands to their mothers, and old men turning young daughters into whores.

Stripes on your shoulders, stripes on your back and on your hands
Stripes on your shoulders, stripes on your back and on your hands
Swords piercing your side, blood and water flowing through the land.

There’s quite a bit going on there in this song from his gospel classic “Slow Train Coming,” not the least of which is that “stripes” reference to torture and religious oppression. Perhaps a message for the millions of believers in the underground church in China, including the saints in prisons? And who would the “fools” be, in this case?

Then, if he sang the song straight (always a question with Dylan), he later would have added:

You can mislead a man, you can take ahold of his heart with your eyes
You can mislead a man, you can take ahold of his heart with your eyes
But there’s only one authority, and that’s the authority on high.

Did the principalities and powers in the Chinese government parse that one carefully?

Then again, there is a chance that Dylan used some of the new lyrics from the version of this song that appeared on the tremendous 2003 “Gotta Serve Somebody” disc in which gospel music greats performed many of his classics. In that version, Dylan joins up with the great Mavis Staples and, in part, belts out this message. This would not comfort the business lords of the new China.

Jesus is coming, he’s coming back to gather his jewels
Jesus is coming, he’s coming back to gather his jewels
We live by the golden rule, whoever’s got the gold rules.

Anyway, it does not appear that Dylan went silent in China. It appears that he did not perform some of the obvious political songs that the Post team would have recognized and, thus, considered important. However, it seems that Ron Gluckman and the team at the Wall Street Journal was paying attention, with that final reference to the opening declaration in “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking.” Kudos, for not missing the obvious!

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    Kudos, for not missing the obvious!

    Sadly those kudos are needed in today’s media world.

    Dylan’s music is still very relevant today. The middle east could be singing “Times They Are a’Changin”, for example.

  • Julia

    The cited lyrics to the Dylan songs are perfect examples of a “bar” tune – AAB. This was spelled out at a link in the comments to an earlier post – I think by Mollie. It was in regards to Amazing Grace and other hymn tunes that are described as “bar” tunes and erroneously thought to be drinking song tunes. The “bar” is a mark indicating that the first line is repeated for emphasis and the 3rd line is further explication. Has nothing to do with a drinking establishment.

    Now I get it. Thanks, Bob Dylan.

  • http://aleksandreia.wordpress.com Hector_St_Clare

    Re: The middle east could be singing “Times They Are a’Changin”, for example.

    The interesting thing about a song like ‘The Times They Are a Changin’” is that it could serve as an anthem for pretty much _any_ revolution. It could appeal to revolutionaries against the Chinese government today- but it could also have appealed equally well to partisans of the Sandinistas, or the Iranian revolution of 1979, or to the guerrillas in the Bolivian mountains, or for that matter to any number of revolutions of which American foreign policy would not approve.

    The song is about revolution, per se- not about democracy, or capitalism, or communism, or religion, or any other ideology. (Though it does quote the Gospels in a couple of places, I think). Which makes it less politically ‘relevant’, but also makes it more timeless.

  • http://aleksandreia.wordpress.com Hector_St_Clare

    FTR, ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ is a truly awesome song, and Bob Dylan’s religious music is much underrated. Actually, for that matter much of his earlier ‘secular’ music was full of religious references, see something like ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’.

  • http://thomasgwyndunbar.wordpress.com/ thomas

    The Not Dark Yet site has MP3 of the Beijing performance (see http://notdarkyet.org/change.html), along with extensive information about the song’s performance history. Yes, Dylan sang the 2008 version lyrics.

    “The mass media take on Bob Dylan’s first concert in China is that he didn’t sing his protest songs. Of course, the mass media wouldn’t know a protest song unless it agreed with their consensus.” from my website.

  • W.Sulik

    Great analysis!

    BTW, Sean Wilentz has a new book out, Bob Dylan in America, which I highly recommend. Unfortunately, Wilentz doesn’t “Get Religion” – or at least Dylan’s on-going wrestling with God throughout his life (as noted by Hector St. Clare, above). However, the book is redeemed by his other insights and an excellent look at the story of former partners William Walker and Benjamin Franklin White, who created two of the most successful hymnals in American history, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion and The Sacred Harp as a lead in to the story behind Dylan’s “Lone Pilgrim”. If you are going to ‘read’ this book, however, I recommend listening to the audiobook version by Wilentz, which includes a few audio snippets which are illuminating.

  • http://thomasgwyndunbar.wordpress.com/ thomas

    Note, however, that “2008 version lyrics” is a misnomer..see the Not Dark Yet site for more info.

  • http://thomasgwyndunbar.wordpress.com/ thomas

    At the Shanghai show today, Dylan again started with Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking.

  • Dan

    Does anyone really think that the Chinese in the audience actually understand, over the din of the raucous music, what words Bob Dylan is singing? How many Americans could? I am a huge and life long Bob Dylan fan, have listened to Slow Train countless times, and even I am learning here for the first time what the “stripes on the back of the hand” lyrics actually are and what they are a reference to (every time I listened to it before, I would wonder “is he singing ‘straps your shoulders, straps on the back of your hand’ and what does that mean”?).

    Bob Dylan’s pre-Slow Train religious music is a topic of particular interest to me. “Shelter from the Storm” (Isaiah 4 and 25), “All Along the Watchtower” (Isaiah 21) and “Senor” are all deeply religious songs.

  • http://thomasgwyndunbar.wordpress.com/ thomas

    Yes, Dan (9), listening to the MP3 from the Beijing show referenced above, which was obviously recorded in the audience, not difficult to understand at all.

  • http://thomasgwyndunbar.wordpress.com/ thomas

    Getting back to the theme of this site, not only does coverage of Dylan’s Beijing concert illustrate most journalism’s lack of due diligence with regard to religion in general and Christianity in particular but that is also compounded by journalism’s lack of due diligence with regard to Dylan current concert repertoire.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Being ironic? I was simply saying that stories about the content of his concert should include accurate information about the content of his concert, if the goal is to note lyrics that might tweak the powers that be.

  • http://thomasgwyndunbar.wordpress.com/ thomas


    Well, perhaps just a bit ironic. However, I was mainly being critical of mainstream media’s theme that Dylan’s not singing his “protest songs” when they wouldn’t know a protest song if it bit them. Of course, in some sense all of Dylan’s songs are protest songs, as he has quipped himself.

    Still, for any useful definition of “protest” song, it seems to me that Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking is more of a protest nowadays than any of the 60s standards would have been. Besides, how many protest songs cite Dante in passing :)

    The sun is shining
    Ain’t but one train on this track
    Yes, I’m stepping out of the dark woods
    Jumping on the monkey’s back

  • http://thomasgwyndunbar.wordpress.com/ thomas
  • http://www.aleksandreia.wordpress.com Hector_St_Clare

    Re: “Shelter from the Storm” (Isaiah 4 and 25),

    “Shelter from the Storm” also makes some allusions to the Passion of Christ. “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” alludes (just of the top of my head) to a scene in Dante’s Wood of the Suicides, which was in itself probably drawn from the Second Book of Esdras. There are lots of other allusions that I’m sure I could cite if I started looking (though I was a little more familiar with Dylan’s oeuvre back in high school than I am today).

  • DABbio

    “I used to care,
    but things have changed.”
    –Bob Dylan

  • Dan

    I don’t know why this didn’t occur to me earlier – it seems so obvious — but it seems to me that there is a compelling argument that Dylan chose “Change My Way Of Thinking” not directly as a political statement but as a nod to the growing Christian community in China. This would explain why he opened with it in both mainland China and Taiwan. Further supporting this hypothesis is that over the last 20 years or so Dylan has only very infrequently included his overtly Christian music in his concerts.

  • http://hnn.us/blogs/3.html Judith

    Sorry, guys, but I do not buy the apologia. Canceling the appearance on principle would have made headlines around the world and caused the Chinese distress. Pity he missed an opportunity to make a difference.

  • MikeSays

    I say Young people these days could give a flyin’ handshake what BD thinks about anything. It’s 2011!Man,c’mon!

  • http://thomasgwyndunbar.wordpress.com/ thomas

    Just to illustrate the absurdity of news coverage, the UK Guardian writes:

    It was not just any two songs to which Beijing objected, either. Blowin’ in the Wind was the civil rights anthem that had established Dylan’s reputation when it first appeared on his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, back in 1962, and Desolation Row was the marathon poetic masterpiece that had climaxed Highway 61 Revisited three years later.

    When, in fact, Dylan played Desolation Row in Shanghai!

  • Bo Did

    Dylan did perform Desolation Row, a pretty cryptic song, in Shanghai Friday night. I’m not sure why that would bother the authorities though. And Ballad of a Thin Man, also performed, certainly is political and challenges authority.

    Btw, the PRC gov’t requires that a song list be submitted and approved by the local cultural authorities for every foreign concert. Standard policy here. Don’t agree, and you don’t get approval to play. For a live performance, you can always go back on such agreement, but that could affect your paycheck (I’m not sure on that, just guessing).

  • http://www.lisastewartlaw.com Lee

    Dylan is a businessman. He had an opportunity to make some money in a new venue and followed the rules that were necessary to perform in that venue.

  • Michael

    Bob Dylan plays his new version of “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” when he plays it these days.

    The lyrics can be found here. Just take out the conversation with Mavis Staples for the actual lyrics.

  • Karen

    I noticed that Maureen Dowd, in her NY Times op ed piece “Blowing in the Idiot Wind” repeated the assertions in the Washington Post piece, also without the basic playlist fact-checking. And days after this column.


  • http://yourlegacywriter.com Lauren Agnelli

    Dylan — as a creative writer and thinking person — sees things on many levels: mutlilayered levels of meaning and triple-plus entendre. Of course he’s figured out how to make a statement and make money and be subtle about the statement even though the government thought they could stifle his message by changing his playlist to not include the obvious protest anthems. Politics range from personal to public, and in between there’s so much gray area. . . I totally see where he’s coming from and how subtly he met the challenge with grace, intelligence, and — subversiveness! Good for you, Bob.

  • Julia

    Dylan just sang in Viet Nam.


    He had to turn in his playlist there, too.
    Among other songs, he sang “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”
    The AP stresses Dylan as a peace activist and a favorite with many Vietnamese because of his ant-war stand during the Viet Nam War.

    Disappointment at Dylan’s willingness to go along with the required song list was also covered.

    All the articles I’ve seen are dependent on the AP reportage; must be an AP reporter traveling with Dylan.

  • Ted Prescott

    Here is the blog of an American living in Shanghai that gives a view from within.