Bob Dylan played yesterday, April 10th, in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), Vietnam. He delivered a set list that was in keeping with the kinds of shows he’s been doing the last couple of years. Reportedly, the venue was “half-empty” (or, as one may prefer to think, half-full) but this didn’t prevent Bob from delivering a relatively rare second encore, with the song Forever Young. This is the full list of songs he played: Continue reading “Bob Dylan in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam”
Bob Dylan’s song “Spirit on the Water” from his album Modern Times has been mentioned a few times on this website. It’s difficult for this listener to hear the tune any other way but as a kind of playful love song to God, or perhaps more interestingly as a playful dialogue between the creature and the Creator. I don’t think there’s any need (and at any rate this writer doesn’t have the appetite) to go down line by line and impose a rigorous interpretation. Each time I hear the song I hear something a little different, and that’s one of the great joys of Dylan’s work, after all.
One verse that has gotten close attention here previously, however, is the penultimate verse, the lyric of which goes like this:
I wanna be with you in paradise
And it seems so unfair
I can’t go to paradise no more
I killed a man back there
This gets one thinking just because it seems wrong, or seems like a puzzle demanding to be solved. On the face of it, if the singer is talking about joining God in heaven, then why is he saying that it’s impossible for him to do it, due to the killing of a man? It is biblically pretty much beyond question that even murder does not put one beyond God’s capacity for mercy and for love (though far be it from my intention here to unduly promote the behavior). And how could the singer have killed a man in paradise, anyway?
Well, some time back, a reader named Kim wrote and suggested a really neat way of hearing this verse. She suggested that Bob might be referring to an actual Earthly place named Paradise, e.g., Paradise, Texas (pop. 459). This opens up a new and amusing interpretation; basically, this involves hearing it as a pun which the singer is making to his Creator. He’s saying, “I want to be with you in paradise,” as if making a straightforward prayer, and then comically mourning the fact that he can’t go back to Paradise (the town) because he shot a man there — something that maybe only God knows; i.e., it’s like a private joke between them. Of-course, I’m destroying all possible humor in it by spelling it out, but it fits both because we know how much Dylan loves even the silliest-seeming puns and because we also know how he enjoys Western motifs.
So that’s one way of understanding the verse.
However, another reader, recently coming across the post where that idea was discussed, suggests an alternative understanding. Thanks to Kent for his e-mail:
I saw elsewhere on your site where one reader proposed the idea that the line: “I can’t go to paradise no more; I killed a man back there…” Was referring to Paradise as a town, perhaps in Paradise, TX, etc…
May I also make another proposal: Is it possible that in said line, “Paradise” could be referring to the fleshly desires of the old man, aka sinful nature, and Mr. Dylan is saying that it seems unfair, but he can’t go to “paradise” no more (returning to the sinful nature) because he “killed a man back there,” meaning he put to death the misdeeds of his own body when he became “crucified with the Messiah,” upon his salvation through Him?
That’s a fascinating idea. I honestly think that something like it has flitted through my own mind on listening to the song, but I never stopped to put it into words for myself. The reference would be to the New Testament, and St. Paul in Romans, chapter 6. Here’s part of where he writes on the concept of “dying with Christ” beginning at verse 6 (ESV):
We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
So, with this in mind, when the singer refers to the fact that he “killed a man back there,” he’s actually referring to the death of that self which was enslaved to sin. This is very interesting and resonant indeed. The idea of paradise as a metaphor for that life enslaved to sin is not as obvious, but, on the other hand, total indulgence of one’s sinful desires can appear like a temptation of paradise. And who on this Earth isn’t sometimes guilty of mistaking paradise for that home across the road?
At a minimum, it’s another fruitful area of reflection to throw into the mix. It’s an illustration of how even the problematic or difficult-to-interpret lines in some of Dylan’s songs of faith can make their contribution simply by compelling one to ponder what they might mean.
Some might say that’s giving way too much leeway to a songwriter who is not getting across his point with sufficient clarity — but around these parts, we just call it a normal day.
I want to continue looking at some noteworthy things that came out of the Douglas Brinkley/Bob Dylan Rolling Stone interview, both the print version and the online outtakes (which are now gone but not forgotten).
There is this from the print article on Bob Dylan’s taste in movies: Continue reading “Bob Dylan and John Ford: More on the Douglas Brinkley / Rolling Stone interview”
Regular readers of the writings in this space might not be unfamiliar with the suggestion that there is a way of listening to a great number of Bob Dylan songs — especially his work of the last couple of decades or so — such as to hear them as a kind of dialogue with Him who we can just call the LORD, ecumenically-speaking, and in the tradition of the Bible in English. My own appreciation of this originally came out of reading the deeply insightful writing, on Bob Dylan’s work, of Ronnie Keohane.
There’s plenty of this to be heard, should you be so inclined, on Dylan’s most recent LP, Modern Times. One example that could hardly escape even the most secular or agnostic of listeners is “Spirit on the Water”.
The first verse goes:
Spirit on the water
Darkness on the face of the deep
I keep thinking about you baby
I can’t hardly sleep
You don’t need a degree in Bible-ology to know that the first lines of this song reflect and reference the first few sentences of the Bible, and of the book of Genesis.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
So, if you take the first verse of the song at face value, the singer is addressing this song to that very Spirit on the water. Taken in that way — as a love song to the Creator — it’s easy to see the meaning and poignancy of verses like this one:
I’d forgotten about you
Then you turned up again
I always knew
That we were meant to be more than friends
There are so many ways in which people can forget the existence, and miss the presence, of the Creator. It’s almost as if there’s a conspiracy to make one forget, even if one happens to believe in the first place. Yet, the persistence of reminders (Then you turned up again) is arguably one of the greatest constants of all. The steady twinkling of a distant star, the sublime strokes of a masterpiece of art, the unasked for kindness of a stranger, the bells of some church in the distance, an inner knowledge that will not be quieted: Then you turned up again.
In certain of the verses of this song, a listener may also wonder if the perspective has changed, and if — instead of the singer addressing his Maker — what we hear is the Creator addressing his creatures:
Sometimes I wonder
Why you can’t treat me right
You do good all day
Then you do wrong all night
You can go through all of the verses of the song in this way, and they resonate one way or another according to this theme.
There is one verse, however, that arguably sounds a jarring note. It doesn’t seem to make any kind of biblical sense or any kind of normal sense. That’s this one:
I wanna be with you in paradise
And it seems so unfair
I can’t go back to paradise no more
I killed a man back there
What’s that about? The singer saying to his God, “I wanna be with you in paradise,” is straightforward enough, we may think. But that he can’t go “back to paradise” because he “killed a man back there”? How is that? Is not the LORD a forgiving God? And how is it that the singer was in paradise before, and killed a man there at all?
Others may have found a way through it, but I never could figure it out. That’s why I’m hugely indebted to reader Kim for sending me the following in an e-mail:
I am probably just stating the obvious, but I will do so anyway: he can’t really just be talking about heaven [in this verse]. I’m thinking he’s also talking about Paradise, TX. Makes sense to me, anyway. What do you think?
Well, I think that it is a pretty brilliant perception, and one that certainly wasn’t obvious to this listener.
Paradise, Texas, had a population of 459 according to the 2000 census (and as reported by Wikipedia).
It is not, however, the only town or city called Paradise in the United States, as a long look at an atlas or another quick visit to Wikipedia would reveal. There are also the following:
There are also towns and cities called Paradise in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and England.
You might say that there’s a lot of people out there who really have their own little slice of heaven.
Who can tell to which town or city called Paradise the singer in this song might be referring, if indeed he is referring to a town or city? I don’t personally know how to pick one over the other. But just introducing the idea that it is an actual geographical real-world location to which he is referring changes everything, doesn’t it?
Consider: Bob Dylan loves citing place-names in his songs. We know this. Especially American place names, from Baton-Rouge to Corpus Christi to Boston-town and so many others. You could almost recreate a map of America from his songbook, if all other records were lost. And, for that matter, he also loves foreign place names, from Tangiers to Buenos-Aires to Gibraltar and beyond.
So how does it alter the sense of this verse if the singer is referring to a real town or city called Paradise? Assume, as we do here, that he is addressing the words to God. What the verse then becomes is a four line joke, a gag, a pun — and we also know how much Bob loves his puns — that is directed towards none other than the Creator Himself:
I wanna be with you in paradise
And it seems so unfair
I can’t go back to paradise no more
I killed a man back there
As befitting this sweet song of love, the singer says, and God hears, “I wanna be with you in paradise.” No problem there, God thinks. But then the singer goes on, “it seems so unfair,” because he can’t return to paradise, owing to the fact that he “killed a man back there.” He can’t go back to Paradise, the town, because he killed someone there, and now there are wanted posters on the walls, and a price on his head. (As Mrs. C. observes, it is like a vision from the Old American West, where you have to get of town to evade the sheriff and the crimes you committed in that particular locality. Places with great names like Tombstone.) The singer doesn’t provide us with these details, of-course. But then, after all, the song isn’t addressed to us. The singer is serenading the One who knows all those details already. God knows that this guy singing the song once killed a man in Paradise (Texas, Montana, Nevada — you name it). The joke, the gag, the pun, is on God Himself.
Making a joke to God is kind of audacious. And it can also be understood as a particularly intimate expression of love, can it not? It is only the most devoted who can joke to one another in this way, daringly making light of past transgressions.
Understood in this manner, the affectionate and playful nature of the song is asserting itself all the more in this previously confusing verse. Not every verse is without some mystery, of-course, even within this way of understanding the song, but that is as it should be. Every line doesn’t have to be nailed down and explained away. It is enough that there is nothing that is discordant or contradictory to this sense of the song, and that can be said, I think, if paradise is, after all, just Paradise (with a latitude and a longitude).
And that’s very nice indeed.
In the Canadian newspaper London Free Press, James Reaney writes on Bob Dylan’s recent show in London, Ontario. Guitarist Paul James (with whom Dylan has history) replaced Stu and Denny for the first several tunes. Reaney regrets that photographers were not allowed: “So you’ll have to take my word that Dylan was wearing a big white cowboy hat and a black suit with red trim that made him look like a bellhop in a wild west hotel.” That’s an interesting way of describing Bob, although I can’t imagine it’s quite the effect he’s going for. Reaney also writes this:
This reviewer has decided to accept Dylan’s decision to play around with his famous words. When he wants a line to be heard clearly — say, the slashing “I hope that you die” from Masters of War or the self-mocking “You think I’m over the hill” from Spirit on the Water or the menacing “How does it feel?” from Like a Rolling Stone — it could be heard.
“Unintelligible,” Dylan said clearly during the band introductions, one clue that this master artist and joker can be heard when he needs to.
Dylan said “unintelligible”? What’s that about? Well, let’s check the tape, which I happen to have. Click below for Dylan’s band intro and remarks – my transcription of the relevant part is below that.
So, after introducing Denny, Stu and Donnie, Bob says (to the degree that it’s intelligible, of-course):
If you haven’t noticed, there’s a journalist backstage, and he’s asking somebody, “Is he always so unintelligible?” Unintelligible. Does anybody out there think I’m unintelligible? [Pause, indistinct crowd reaction. Bob laughs.] Tell me the truth now!
Pretty funny stuff. The way he rolls that word around, “unintelligible,” sounds a little W.C. Fields-esque to me. In any case, just priceless.
No doubt everyone’s heard it already by now, but for the record, here is an mp3 file of Bob Dylan’s remarks at his gig in Minnesota on election night 2008:
He spoke during his encore, in between playing “Like A Rolling Stone” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” He introduced his band members and made his fateful comments after naming the bass player and mainstay of his band all these long years, the estimable Tony Garnier. Here is my own scrupulously accurate transcript:
I wanna introduce my band right now. On the guitar, there’s Denny Freeman. Stu Kimball is on the guitar too. Donnie Herron as well, on the violin right now, playin’ on the steel guitar earlier. George Recile’s playin’ on the drums.
Tony Garnier, wearin’ the Obama button — [applause] alright! — Tony likes to think it’s a brand new time right now. An age of light. Me, I was born in 1941 — that’s the year they bombed Pearl Harbor. Well I been livin’ in a world of darkness ever since. But it looks like things are gonna change now …
These remarks have been referred to and partially quoted in a variety of established news outlets since Bob Dylan made them. None of these reports, as far as I’ve seen, included Dylan’s reference to Tony’s Obama button, or his references to what he says is Tony’s belief that “it’s a brand new time now” and “an age of light.” Leaving out this context alters the tone of Dylan’s comments and renders them incomprehensible. As I said the other day, the remarks as reported seemed “completely cockamamie” and “not the Bob Dylan I know.” (Not that I’ve ever met the guy, you understand.)
As opposed to the professional journalists in attendance at the concert who got this thing so wrong, a kind reader of my website who wishes to be known only as John W., and who was also in attendance at that gig, had emailed me a much more accurate rendering of Bob’s remarks, in advance of us being able to hear the audio. His accuracy and fairness in remembering and reporting Bob’s actual words leads me to also give great credence to his overall description of the moment. You may or may not do the same. It is not crucial to understanding what Bob was really saying, but in the absence of a good quality video it helps paint the picture. This is how John characterized it:
What seemed to prompt him to talk to the crowd more than anything was Tony Garnier’s donning of an Obama button. It was Tony’s turn to be introduced and Bob started to chuckle a bit and said something like, “Tony Garnier over there wearing his Obama button (raises his eyebrows)…..Tony thinks it’s gonna be an Age of Light (chuckling)…..Well I was born in 1941, the year they bombed Pearl Harbor. Been living in darkness ever since……Looks like that’s all gonna change now (chuckling a bit).” Then he broke into “Blowin’ In The Wind.”
On the bootlegger’s audio, I don’t detect the sound of Dylan chuckling, but there’s such a thing as a quiet and more visual kind of chuckle and that may be what John was picking up on. It’s far from crucial in any case.
The news reports of Dylan’s remarks that I have seen all portrayed them as being a sincere endorsement by Bob Dylan of the notion that President Barack Obama is going to change everything for the better. I didn’t see any attempt to explain what he meant by saying that he’s been living in a world of darkness since he was born in 1941, the year of the attack on Pearl Harbor. It just makes sense to some people, I guess, to think that Bob Dylan has been miserable in this world since birth but that Barack Obama is going to change all of that. I couldn’t understand it myself. In my original post I put forth just one conceivable explanation (based on Bob’s deep links to the black American experience) but concluded that really only Dylan himself could explain the remarks as reported in the press.
Now, knowing the full context and tone of his words, I no longer think that Dylan needs to explain anything at all. I don’t believe that his actual remarks are even at all mysterious or cryptic. I think that they are crystal clear and they are consistent with how this man and this artist has tried to carry himself throughout the long and crazy years he’s been on this planet. He is being faithful, and we should also remember that it’s not easy to be faithful — it’s not easy for any of us. The dignity of this man is something that is not often pointed out. But he is a man of very great dignity, and this moment on the stage in Minnesota on election night of 2008 — offhand though it may or may not have been — was a moment where he exhibited great dignity as well as respect for his fans and for things more important than fame and wealth.
But lest I choke up too much here, let’s also lighten up, because his remarks were first and foremost jocular ones. When he says that Tony Garnier with his Obama button believes it’s going to be a “brand new time” and “an age of light,” he is clearly needling Tony, but doing it affectionately. I hate to descend to the level of saying “listen to how he says” something, but there are actually people out there who — after hearing the audio — are still taking Dylan’s remarks completely seriously; so for them, please: listen to how he says “an age of light.” Does it sound like something he believes in? Be honest for a moment and have an ear to hear. (But no one can be forced to do so.)
Once it is understood that Dylan is joking around and does not seriously believe that all things will be made new by the incoming U.S. president, then his words about living in a world of darkness for his entire life become comprehensible in the context of what his songs have told us again and again.
This litany will be of necessity very incomplete, but consider: Dylan sings of living in a world of mixed-up confusion, where everything is broken. He’s hung over, hung down, hung up and a million miles from the one he loves. He longs to disappear past the haunted, frightened trees. He looks out with his lady from Desolation Row, and sings a lullaby that goes, “When the cities are on fire with the burning flesh of men, just remember that death is not the end.” He sees the cat in the well, with the wolf looking down. He’s knocking and trying to get to heaven before that door shuts. He wanders around Boston town but his heart is in the Highlands — he can’t see any other way to go. The times are always changing and changing, and yet nothing ever really changes. Don’t conclude that he is without solace, however: he’s liable to stand on the table and propose a toast to the King. He’s using all eight carburetors. The hills and the one he loves have always given him a song.
The world of darkness, in other words, is not something foisted upon Bob by presidents of the United States or by political powers or anyone else in particular. For him (and maybe if we think about it for us too) it is just normality: it is the way things are. The world is a difficult place. Life is hard. People suffer and people die. The truth about anything that is of this world is ever-elusive and leaves one ultimately bereft of comfort.
Now, what I want to know is this: Is the new American president going to fix all that for Bob — all of the above? Is he going to take Bob out of this darkness he’s lived in since 1941? Does anyone think that Bob Dylan believes that, and that’s what he wanted to tell everybody on election night of 2008?
Bob Dylan is neither an idiot nor a crank, though he’s been called both on various occasions. He knew very well, singing to that University of Minnesota audience, how hyped up most of them were for Barack Obama’s election. His remarks were not a slam of Barack Obama, nor an endorsement of John McCain, or anything like that. In his own way, he was kindly alerting those with ears to hear that one should not have such high expectations of a politician or of any fellow human being. There will be no age of light; at least not until the real age of light, and that age will not be instituted by any president of the United States. All presidents, you see, sometimes have to stand naked.
Of-course, most at the gig heard what they were so desperate to hear: that change is a comin’ with Obama, and it’s all gonna be great.They heard “it looks like things are gonna change now” without the irony that the context provides. And Bob, dignified, gave them that respect. He didn’t mock them. Everyone has to come to their own understandings at their own pace. Some will think twice about what he said.
He then sang “Blowin’ in the Wind.” I love the current live arrangement of this song, which Bob and the band have been playing for quite a while. I wrote about it in a previous post here. It is indeed a buoyant and a joyous version. It is a version of the song which conveys — to this listener at any rate — how wonderful a thing it is that the answer is right there blowing in the wind in front of our faces. Thanks, Bob.
It is better to put trust in the LORD than to put confidence in princes. Psalm 118:9
Addendum: And one more thing. We all no doubt remember Bob’s quoted remarks in that interview with the U.K. Times last June. As they stood up to end the interview, the interviewer asked him “in a last aside” something about the coming U.S. election.
We don’t know exactly what the question was or what Dylan’s full response was. There is no pretence that we are being provided a complete transcript — it’s not that kind of an article. Dylan is quoted as crediting Barack Obama with “redefining the nature of politics from the ground up” and “redefining what a politician is.” He is quoted as saying that he’s “hopeful that things might change” and that “some things are going to have to.” Our fresh experience of seeing how journalists and newspapers missed the humor and irony of Bob Dylan on stage in Minnesota on election night — and gave us a completely different story — cannot but make me entirely reevaluate whatever I thought I knew about Dylan’s remarks in that interview. They may have been entirely ironic. Or maybe not. He also is quoted as saying, “You can’t expect people to have the virtue of purity when they are poor.” The remarks as quoted are, in the final analysis, incomplete and not fully comprehensible on their own — just like what was quoted in the Minnesota newspapers after the election night gig. So make of those quotes what you will, or, perhaps more wisely, make nothing of them at all.
Perhaps I was going a tad nuts implying that it might be the greatest thing Bob Dylan has ever done. After all, you could certainly argue that there’s nothing radical about the record. It’s not going to set the world upside down, or spark revolution in the streets, or spawn hundreds of imitators in the music biz trying to copy the “Red River Shore” sound. You could hardly imagine a simpler melody, and some might say that Bob Dylan can write a song like this in between rolling out of bed and brushing his teeth. And maybe he can, if the mood is right. Yet, the song and the performance moved me and shook me up in a way that is very rare; all the rarer, in fact, as I get older and bend a little from the weight of believing that I’ve heard it all already. And isn’t it nice to be able to get that excited about something again?
The song is stirring and poignant in direct proportion to the way in which it expresses feelings which are unspeakable. This also makes it difficult to write about, and likewise makes me personally not want to write about it too much.
There is one thing that the mind of the listener probably meditates upon, and goes back and forth about, when listening to the song, and that is the question of just who this girl is—the girl from the Red River shore. Of-course any given listener can believe that she is just a girl—some variation of an unrequited human love for whom the singer is pining. And there ain’t nothing wrong with that.
However, without wanting to speak too much to what perhaps can’t or shouldn’t be said outside of the song itself, I will say that it has crossed my mind, while listening to this song, that the girl from the Red River shore is perhaps the same “she” for this singer as the “she” of “Shelter from the Storm” is for the singer of that song. And I offer this not by way of trying to define an end to the meaning of the song, but rather to open up its possibilities (as if that’s even necessary).
In that song from Blood on the Tracks, the singer is by turns nurtured and comforted by this female figure; he is then alienated from her through his own failing ( “I took too much for granted, got my signals crossed”), and is finally left meditating at once optimistically and hopelessly on the ultimate possibility of truly knowing her or uniting with her.
Well, I’m livin’ in a foreign country but I’m bound to cross the line
Beauty walks a razor’s edge, someday I’ll make it mine.
If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born.
“Come in,” she said,
“I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”
“[W]hen God and her were born.” It’s one of those great lines: an imponderable line that you cannot help but ponder and ponder. It’s a poetic jump that takes the feeling of the song beyond normal expression. It sounds a little bit like some kind of secret key—like a Rosetta Stone line. But it defies being completely nailed down, and so its magic survives.
Taken in any kind of literal sense, it’s a big thing to say that someone or something has been around as long as God himself. You might be really hung up on an ex-girlfriend or boyfriend, but when you get into that kind of thinking then you’re going somewhere else entirely.
Now, the parallel with the girl from the Red River shore can perhaps be seen most clearly, likewise, in the final verse of that song. After singing about the “man full of sorrow and strife” (Is 53), whom — the singer has heard — used to be able to literally raise the dead, he sings:
Well I don’t know what kind of language he used
Or if they do that kind of thing anymore
Sometimes I think nobody ever saw me here at all
‘Cept the girl from the Red River shore
Well, when he sings about this man who used to raise the dead, we know—any listener knows, regardless of his or her own faith or lack thereof—that this singer is (just like that earlier singer) invoking none other than God himself. If this man he heard about actually did used to do that, then he was, at least in some inscrutable sense, God. Yet the singer then puts the girl from the Red River shore on a level beyond anyone else he’s ever known, and potentially beyond even that Man, when he indicates that she may have been the only one who ever actually saw him on this earth—the only one whose acknowledgment of his existence proved that he actually did exist. That is a heavy honor indeed, and quite a heavy burden for any girl from the Red River shore to bear.
Perhaps it’s worth summarizing some of the qualities of this figure—if it is one figure—this “she” who promised shelter from the storm, and this girl from the Red River shore.
Back when he was just a “creature void of form,” she was there for him. And then when he needed a “place where it’s always safe and warm,” she was there. Later, she walked up to him “so gracefully and took [his] crown of thorns.” She was there again when the entire world seemed to just pose a question that was “hopeless and forlorn.” This mysterious girl was the only one he ever wanted to want him—the one with whom he wishes he “could have spent every hour of [his] life.” He is a stranger in the land in which he is duty-bound to live, but she—and the hills—give him a song with which to get by. Although many saw them together at one time, when he goes back to inquire with them no one even knows what he’s talking about. Each day he lives is “just another day away” from that girl from the Red River shore.
So, she is the very source of song itself. From her comes comfort, protection and wisdom, at those times when he needs it most desperately. Yet she is somehow invisible to the world, and, although she has touched him, she remains just out of his reach: unattainable.
While she is an eternal presence for him, she is in some sense distinct from that other presumed eternal presence; i.e., God.
I don’t know necessarily what you might call such a being (if you’re not calling her the girl from the Red River shore). However, it cannot but strike me that, for Christians, there is actually a specific name that can be applied to a figure who meets all of these criteria. Indeed, it was that aforementioned man full of sorrow and strife who gave the figure a name, as in Luke 11:13:
If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?
The Holy Spirit is believed, by Christians, to be at once God and a distinct person—in a sense that I’m distinctly unqualified to plumb. This is part of that theological mystery called the Holy Trinity, where God is believed by Christians to be at once Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But, relevant here, it does mean that the Holy Spirit is as old as—or, if you like, was born at the same time as—God, because the Holy Spirit is God, while still being in a real way the Holy Spirit. Interesting, no?
Now, am I saying that “Red River Shore” is “Bob Dylan’s song about the Holy Spirit”? By no means would I blandly state that. The heartbreak, the longing, the love and the mystery that inhabits “Red River Shore” can’t and shouldn’t be labeled, solved and neatly filed away like a doctrine. And we know that the writer of “Shelter from the Storm” is unlikely to have been self-consciously writing about a specifically Christian concept like the Holy Spirit. I’d also tend to believe that in his greatest songs, Bob Dylan is not deliberately writing about anything at all. When things are happening at that level, the song is always in some way expressing itself. I believe that he’s made much this point himself in interviews over the years.
Yet, it is one measure of the greatness of this song that amongst all of the various ways in which it works and holds true is also this quasi-theological sense. Pretty astounding.
Is it the greatest song that Bob Dylan has ever done, as I breathlessly intimated it might be a few days ago? Who the hell knows? But I can say without hesitation that it’s the greatest song by anybody that this listener has heard in a long, long time.