The Biblical Weight of Suffering in Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize Winning Songwriting

The Biblical Weight of Suffering in Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize Winning Songwriting October 13, 2016

(Bob Dylan performing at St. Lawrence University in New York, Date 26 November 1963, author: unknown; Source: Wikimedia, CC BY SA 2.0)
(Bob Dylan performing at St. Lawrence University in New York, Date 26 November 1963, author: unknown; Source: Wikimedia, CC BY SA 2.0)

Bob Dylan is one of my earliest theological influences, therefore it gladdens me to see him awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature this year.

His interest in the great religious theme of suffering, as it is presented in the Judeo-Christian tradition, go back to his earliest albums, not only his brief Evangelical period. This has been convincingly argued by Stephen H. Webb–how I wish he were still around to see Bob get the Nobel–in Dylan Redeemed.

41TU4aDErIL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_I first “got” Bob Dylan during an extended 2001 study abroad in Rome while reading through all the theology I could get my hands and dealing with a death in the family.

The echoes of Psalm 23 in Time Out of Mind’s “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” were what I needed to redeem the time:

The air is getting hotter
There’s a rumbling in the skies
I’ve been wading through the high muddy water
With the heat rising in my eyes
Every day your memory grows dimmer
It doesn’t haunt me like it did before
I’ve been walking through the middle of nowhere
Trying to get to heaven before they close the door
When I was in Missouri
They would not let me be
I had to leave there in a hurry
I only saw what they let me see
You broke a heart that loved you
Now you can seal up the book and not write anymore
I’ve been walking that lonesome valley
Trying to get to heaven before they close the door.
Then the nearly apophatic tones of “Not Dark Yet” (see below) nudged me toward going through the whole Dylan catalog–something I’m still doing, because it is so immense and great. The other thing I like about his music is that he’s not afraid to push the limits and fail. There’s usually at least one stinker on one of his albums, which makes the songs that work sound all the better.
Shadows are fallin’ and I’ve been here all day
It’s too hot to sleep and time is runnin’ away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal
There’s not even room enough to be anywhere
It’s not dark yet but it’s gettin’ there.
Well, my sense of humanity has gone down the drain
Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain
She wrote me a letter and she wrote it so kind
She put down in writin’ what was in her mind
I just don’t see why I should even care
It’s not dark yet but it’s gettin’ there.
Dylan’s trek though the valley of death once pulled me out of an encounter with the deepest depression. I still remember the moment when during an expat concert in Krakow I heard these lines from the deeply biblical song (Original Sin, redemption, eschatological liberation, and so on) “I Shall be Released”:

They say ev’rything can be replaced
Yet ev’ry distance is not near
So I remember ev’ry face
Of ev’ry man who put me here
I see my light come shining
From the west unto the east
Any day now, any day now
I shall be released

They say ev’ry man needs protection
They say ev’ry man must fall
Yet I swear I see my reflection
Some place so high above this wall
I see my light come shining
From the west unto the east
Any day now, any day now
I shall be released

By the end of the song I was released.

Czeslaw Milosz once asked in his poem “Dedication,” “What is poetry which does not save/Nations or people?” I must say, I really owe Old Bob one for that balm for my soul.
I would also like to submit “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)” from the under-appreciated Street-Legal album (lodged between the great critical success of Blood on the Tracks and the generally panned first Gospel album Slow Train Coming–note the continuity in the album titles) as a remarkable example of apocalyptic writing:
Senor, senor, can you tell me where we’re headin?
Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?
Seems like I been down this way before
Is there any truth in that, senor?
Senor, senor, do you know where she is hidin’?
How long are we gonna be riding?
How long must I keep my eyes glued to the door?
Will there be any comfort there senor?…
…Senor, senor, let’s overturn these tables
Disconnect these cables
This place don’t make sense to me no more
Can you tell me what we’re waiting for, senor?
There is plenty quibbling about whether what Dylan does counts as literature, which is why I was so glad to run across the following history lesson in the first article I read about Dylan winning the Nobel:
Sara Danius, a literary scholar and the permanent secretary of the 18-member Swedish Academy, which awards the prize, called Mr. Dylan “a great poet in the English-speaking tradition” and compared him to Homer and Sappho, whose work was delivered orally. Asked if the decision to award the prize to a musician signaled a broadening in the definition of literature, Ms. Danius responded, “The times they are a-changing, perhaps,” referencing one of Mr. Dylan’s songs.
In other words, the distinction between poetry and music is untraditional; for the most comprehensive account of this see G.S. Kirk’s The Songs of Homer. This also works in reverse, some of the best contemporary poetry should be, and sometimes is, sung. Those who might disagree with this might as well claim that the Psalms are merely music.

51slnFB9JTL__SX331_BO1,204,203,200_This is also why I don’t buy the following passage from the same article:

The choice of Mr. Dylan for the world’s top literary honor came as something of a surprise and was widely viewed as an expansion of the academy’s traditional notions of art. Mr. Dylan, 75, joins a pantheon that includes T. S. Eliot, Gabriel García Márquez, Samuel Beckett and Toni Morrison — the last American to claim the award, in 1993.

“The old categories of high and low art, they’ve been collapsing for a long time,” said David Hajdu, a music critic for The Nation who has written extensively about Mr. Dylan and his contemporaries, ”but this is it being made official.”

Dylan’s music is not low art, since it borrows from an ancient religious tradition, deftly gives new life to old religious idioms, and even borrows heavily (Dylan calls it Love and Theft) from the writers mentioned above, chiefly T.S. Eliot and Samuel Beckett.

The biblical weight of suffering is what Dylan has contributed to both contemporary song and literature. It is an invaluable service, Nobel-worthy for sure.

This observation brings me back to his meeting with John Paul II who was perennially snubbed for the Peace Nobel (so much so I said he had won it in the original draft of this post). It gladdens me to know they briefly met during a Bologna Eucharistic Congress in 1997. Both of these great figures are men of sorrows in their own ways. I especially think of the words of atheist philosopher Julia Kristeva who said John Paul II was the greatest witness of our time to the reality and meaningfulness of suffering that our culture tries so hard to repress in its celebration of the inane.

I hope Bob does get to heaven before they close the door.

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