How Faith Has Affected Bob Dylan’s Music
Author of a new book on the iconic musician explains why spirituality means so much to the artist
Miami, Florida, January 1974: A man in a hat, in his early 30s, pedals up on a 10-speed bike to a Jesus People rally. He wants to chat after the rally with Arthur Blessit, one of the speakers. Blessit, a man known for literally carrying a large cross around the world, is a Jesus freak if there ever was one. The man on the bike asks Blessit questions about his faith and Jesus. Their meeting lasts about 10 minutes, and is briefly cited by Rolling Stone magazine.
The man on the 10-speed bike was Bob Dylan, and he’s just returned to touring for the first time since 1966 — and happens to be in the middle of a wildly popular U.S. concert tour.
A few years prior, in autumn 1970, Dylan took in an Eric Clapton concert in New York and then found himself on a station-wagon ride with Clapton and two old friends, Scott Ross and Al Aronowitz. Ross, married to former Ronettes singer Nedra Talley, had become a Christian since the two last met in 1965, and he shared his faith with Dylan after the singer inquired about it. Before the evening dissipated, Dylan stopped by his apartment to pick up and give Ross a copy of his then-current album, “New Morning.” Dylan referred Ross to its final song, “Father of Night,” a song that served up evidence that its composer, the utterly reluctant countercultural idol, had not forgotten there was a creator.
Just days after Dylan’s meeting with Arthur Blessit back in January 1974, the singer was in the garden of the governor’s mansion in Georgia.
“Bob and I spent a long time in the garden that night just talking about matters concerning theology and religion,” Jimmy Carter reminisced in an interview with The Atlantic in 2015.
When Bob Dylan turned to Jesus in a very public manner — writing and recording songs and performing only his newly written gospel songs for a season in 1979-1980 — even though many fans were shocked, saddened, and confused, others viewed it a logical conclusion after years of seeking. Even though Dylan’s turn to an electric band in 1965-1966 caused controversy, it was child’s play compared to his turn to God — a move that was without parallel in a career now spanning over a half a century.
“I’ve always been drawn to spiritual songs,” Dylan said in a 2014 interview with AARP. He then quoted a line from “Amazing Grace” — “that saved a wretch like me.” What may have become a rote, feel-good song for many was a reminder, to Dylan, of personal sin and salvation.
This comment, not long after a 2009 Christmas album puzzled some fans, simply communicated the sentiment that the gospel was a given. In an interview for the release of “Christmas in the Heart,” Dylan remarked that he was a “true believer” after the interviewer observed that his rendition of “O’ Little Town of Bethlehem” sounded like it was delivered by a true believer.
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When former president Jimmy Carter showed up, in 2015, to present Dylan with the MusicCares Person of the Year Award, it was per Dylan’s request. In a wide-ranging and surprisingly long speech for Dylan, he said that no one should be surprised if he comes out with a future gospel album and that if he ever records “Stand by Me,” it won’t be the popular song — but the gospel one instead.
The world-weary yet contented voice heard on “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” from his 1997 Grammy Award-winning album “Time Out of Mind” sums up a significant aspect of the artist’s career. This same artist once, in an interview, even went to the trouble of pointing out how the word “career” is derived from a French word and its meaning doesn’t really apply to what he’s been up to; he prefers the word “calling.” That calling now has apparently included the Nobel Prize in Literature, which he was given to him last October.
Fifteen years ago, in 2002, Dylan stepped into a studio with his old friend and gospel singer Mavis Staples to rerecord one of his songs from the controversial “Slow Train Coming” album of 1979. The new version, with a hilarious opening (not without musical precedent, incidentally), soon morphed into a gospel blues rocker that capped off a tribute album — “Gotta Serve Somebody.” That album was devoted to Dylan’s songs from the “Slow Train Coming” and “Saved” gospel albums.
The young man who penned and gave us “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “With God on Our Side,” “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” and “All Along the Watchtower” is the same man who, when middle-age dawned, composed “Every Grain of Sand,” “Blind Willie McTell,” and “Dark Eyes”; he’s also that aging troubadour who composed “Not Dark Yet,” “High Water (For Charley Patton,)” “The Levee’s Gonna Break,” and “Long and Wasted Years.”
As one writer put it, there’s an enviable task before those who are largely (or entirely) unfamiliar with the Dylan catalog. The 76-year-old Minnesota native has been given much, but also has given — and continues to give — Americans and people around the world the gift of his songwriting and performing.
As the lyric goes, may his song always be sung. It doesn’t appear that will ever not be the case, even long after he’s gone on — tryin’ to get to heaven before they close the door.
Scott M. Marshall is the author of the soon-to-be-published book, “Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life” (BP Books). He lives with his wife, Amy, in Toccoa, Georgia.