Sunday, February 9, 2014

Reading the Bible with Bob Dylan Part Five: Narrow Way


As it has throughout his career, Dylan’s recent work continues to be steeped in the language of the Bible. According to Malcom Guite, Dylan’s 2006 album ModernTimes, “has the greatest number of scriptural allusions of any album since the born again period.”[1] To be sure, the songs are by no means overtly religious or devotional like his Gospel albums were. His recent songs tend to be non-linear collages of allusions taken from diverse sources such as old folk songs; political figures; poets, such as Ovid; and, of course, the scriptures.  Guite says about Modern Times, “Genesis and Exodus seem to predominate, though I believe the final song, ‘Aint Talkin,’ an allegorical summary of Dylan’s life, contains allusions to the account of Mary Magdalene and the risen Christ in the Garden of resurrection.” The lyric he refers to is,

As I walked out in the mystic garden
On a hot summer day, hot summer lawn
Excuse me, ma'am I beg your pardon
There's no one here, the gardener is gone
Ain't talkin', just walkin'
Up the road around the bend
Heart burnin', still yearnin'
In the last outback, at the world's end

Dylan alludes to the scene in John’s gospel when Mary takes Jesus for the gardener (John 20:15-17). The heart also speaks of his heart burning which is a reference to another Post-resurrection encounter with Jesus in Luke 24:32. The singer is also “still yearnin.’” What is it that he yearns for? Truth? Salvation? In the final line, Dylan reasserts his conviction that we are living in the End Times.
            Dylan’s latest album Tempest, like the earlier Modern Times, is likewise rich with biblical imagery. London’s Telegraph describes the album as, "one of his [Dylan’s] darkest, bloodiest and most foreboding collections of songs, set in a barren landscape of Godless self-interest, moral equivocation, and random violence."[2] Dylan originally intended to make something much different. He says, "I wanted to make something more religious…I just didn't have enough [religious songs]. Intentionally, specifically religious songs is what I wanted to do. That takes a lot more concentration to pull that off 10 times with the same thread — than it does with a record like I ended up with."[3]
            The album begins with “Duquesne Whistle” a song about a train. The lyrics have an apocalyptic subtext that point us back to “Slow Train Coming.”

Listen to that Duquesne whistle blowing
Blowing like it's gonna sweep my world away

Later in the song, Dylan sings about “the sky blowing apart” and the sweet voice of the Virgin Mary calling out to him.

Can't you hear that Duquesne whistle blowing
Blowing like the sky is gonna blow apart
You're the only thing alive that keeps me going
You're like a time bomb in my heart
I can hear a sweet voice gently calling
Must be the mother of our Lord
Listen to that Duquesne whistle blowing
Blowing like my woman's on board

The third track of the album, “Narrow Way” has a refrain which is multivalent but clearly references Jesus’ saying about the narrow way that leads to life (Matthew 7:13-14). In keeping with Christian teaching, the singer knows that he cannot possibly work his way up to God. He sings, “you’ll surely have to work down to me someday.”
Dylan writes,

I've got a heavy stacked woman, with a smile on her face
And she has crowned, my soul with grace
I'm still hurting from an arrow, that pierced my chest
I'm gonna have to take my head, and bury it between your breasts
It's a long road, it's a long and narrow way
If I can't work up to you, you'll surely have to work down to me someday

Here the singer also compares himself to Saint Teresa of Avila, who is often depicted in ecstasy being stabbed in the breast by an Angel with an arrow. An image of the Saint graces the cover of the album. Indeed, the title of the record, Tempest, is more than just an allusion to Shakespeare’s play; it may also allude to the words of Teresa:So it is, in truth; for I used frequently to recollect how our Lord, when the tempest arose, commanded the winds to be still over the sea.”
            Pay in Blood” is a particularly difficult song to interpret. Throughout the song the refrain is repeated, “I pay in blood, but not my own.” At times, it sounds like a promise of vengeance, but at other times, it sounds like an appeal to the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ. The multivalent meaning, like those of “Narrow Way” is surely intentional. Dylan writes,

Low cards are what I've got
But I'll play this hand whether I like it or not
I'm sworn to uphold the laws of God
You could put me out in front of a firing squad
I've been out and around with the rising men
Just like you my handsome friend
My head's so hard, must be made of stone
I pay in blood, but not my own

The song appears to be a conversation between at least two individuals, possibly between the singer and the devil or some other accuser who says,

 I could stone you to death for the wrongs that you done
Sooner or later you’ll make a mistake,
I'll put you in a chain that you never will break

The possibility that the accuser is Satan is supported by a reference to Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the wilderness, where Jesus resists the temptation to turn stones to bread by saying “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4, ESV). The singer quotes this verse directly to his accuser,

Man can't live by bread alone
I pay in blood, but not my own

The song has other biblical references such as,

The more I take the more I give
The more I die the more I live

The singer’s words echo Jesus,’ “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:24-25, ESV).
            The title track of the album “Tempest” is based on the sinking of the Titanic. At nearly fourteen minutes, it is downright Homeric for a pop song! It is reminiscent of other old folk songs about the Titanic such as “It Was Sad When that Great Ship Went Down” and “Titanic (Husbands and Wives).” Often these old folk songs interpreted the sinking of the Titanic as a Tower of Babel style judgment on the hubris of human beings. The lyrics of one such song “The Great Titantic” reads,

While they were building they said what they would do,
 We will build a ship that water can't go through;
  But God with power in hand
  Showed the world that it could not stand.[4]

Dylan’s tale is likewise cast as an apocalyptic judgment. He even depicts the Captain looking back on his life and reading the Book of Revelation as the Titanic sinks,

In the dark illumination
He remembered bygone years
He read the Book of Revelation
And he filled his cup with tears

When the Reaper's task had ended
Sixteen hundred had gone to rest
The good, the bad, the rich, the poor
The loveliest and the best

They waited at the landing
And they tried to understand
But there is no understanding
For the judgment of God's hand

If the vessel described in “When the Ship Comes In” is a ship that will carry its passengers to glory, the ship in “Tempest” is one that leads only to ruin.

[1] Guite, “New Writings.”
[2] “The Dark Side of Dylan: Yes, His New Album Delves Deeply into the Shadows. But Then, so Does the Gospel.,” Christ. Today, n.d., n.p. [cited 23 December 2013]. Online:
[3] “Dylan on His Dark New Album,” Roll. Stone, n.d., n.p. [cited 23 December 2013]. Online:


  1. Excellent analysis, but since "Roll On John" must also be included in discussions of Biblical content on 'Tempest.' Although it's repeatedly referred to as a tribute to John Lennon (which it partially is), it is also clearly an homage to St John the Revelator, alluding in particular to his final days as a slave on the Isle of Patmos. I also think it's no coincidence the Bob used a lyric from his Christian song "Precious Angel." Rather than quote Lennon that "we all shine on," Bob knows that the light comes from another source, hence the refrain "Shine your light."

    1. Dave, thanks for the feedback. That is a fascinating reading of Roll on John and one that had not occurred to me! I will have to revisit the song with that in mind. There of coarse is a whole lot more that can be said about biblical allusions on the Tempest record and Dylan's catalouge in general. I have really just scratched the surface.