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A Prophet Sings the Blues
Bob Dylan’s CD Modern Times casts the singer/songwriter/poet in a decidedly Biblical role
Reviewed by John Tintera

Warning: I am about to say something that may be disturbing to some people. I believe that Bob Dylan is the prophet of our times. First, some background to put my assertion in perspective:

In the Hebrew Bible, the primary act of worship is listening: “Hear now, O Israel, the decrees and laws I am about to teach you. Follow them so that you may live and may go in and take possession of the land that the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you” (Deuteronomy 4:1 NIV).

Following and obedience are necessary corollaries, but are secondary to the great command to open oneself up to the voice of the Almighty. In like manner, the primary spiritual leaders in Judaism are not shamans entering trances, scribes interpreting the laws, or priests performing sacrifices, but prophets listening to and communicating the word of God. The prophet speaks and the people listen. This is the essential transaction between God and the people of God in Judaism.

Looking back on Biblical times, especially the times of Moses and Joshua, Christians are often tempted to think, “Wow! It must have been easy to be a faithful person back then. There were clearly called and commissioned prophets, a supporting community all around you, and very clear distinctions between ‘the good guys’ serving God and ‘the bad guys’ offering sacrifices to graven images and worshiping kings.”

As tempting as that may seem, I like to think of the Israelite’s quarrels at Meribah and their groaning in the desert as signs that it was just as hard to be faithful back then as it is now. All of which brings us to the Bob Dylan’s CD Modern Times.

From his earliest days singing about his devotion to Woody Guthrie—the troubadour of the downtrodden—and his anthems of political struggle, to his present efforts to channel traditional folk, jazz, and blues ballads, Dylan’s music is a labor of love pointing “Beyond the Horizon,” as the title of one of the new songs puts it. In order to touch the masses in our intentionally secular culture, the would-be prophet cannot stand upon sacred texts and simply hand down the decrees of old. Rather, the prophet must dig into the same earth, plow the same fields, and gather in the same harvest as his or her peers. What’s more, prophetic utterances can never be simply moralistic—they must also be sympathetic. The prophet not only sings to humankind of the ways of God, but also brings word of our plight to the Creator.

What’s most striking about Dylan’s new CD is the difficulty he has in putting into words the overwhelming emotions he’s experiencing. (This, from the poet whose best songs often run for five or more long stanzas.) Modern Times opens with the following quatrain:

Thunder on the mountain, and there's fires on the moon
A ruckus in the alley and the sun will be here soon
Today's the day, gonna grab my trombone and blow
Well, there's hot stuff here and it's everywhere I go

As captured in the line “Today’s the day, gonna grab my trombone and blow,” a deep irony runs throughout the CD. Dylan, our most successful poet, seems to be abandoning words. The thunder, the ruckus, and all that “hot stuff” everywhere compel him to make music, but not necessarily speak out with a guitar and a microphone as he did in the heady days of the early ‘60s. Instead, he wants to cover his lips and blow the low notes on the trombone. Later, in the last song on the album, Dylan further elaborates his frustration with words:

Ain't talkin', just walkin'
Through this weary world of woe
Heart burnin', still yearnin'
No one on earth would ever know

The refrain, “Ain’t talkin’, just walkin’” is repeated nine times in the song, driving home his growing discomfiture toward his calling, and his recognition that words ultimately come up short against reality—especially the reality of times like ours.

Dylan’s discomfort with his role and his reluctance to speak parallel the experiences of many of the Biblical prophets, who also felt an uneasiness with their responsibility to warn Israel about the consequences of its unfaithfulness. Moses questioned God about his calling saying, "O Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue." Jonah famously ran in the opposite direction when God called him—ultimately landing himself in the belly of a whale.

In his autobiography, Chronicles Volume One, Dylan muses upon “the big bugs in the press [who] kept promoting me as the mouthpiece, spokesman, or even conscience of a generation.” “That was funny,” he says. “All I’d ever done was sing songs that were dead straight and expressed powerful new realities.”
Now that the aging troubadour, who once sang “I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now,” qualifies for the support of the AARP, the subject of aging has entered his repertoire in more meaningful ways than ever. In “Spirit on the Water,” the second track, he croons,

You think I'm over the hill
You think I'm past my prime
Let me see what you got
We can have a whoppin' good time

He’s also looking to square-up old debts. In one of the record’s rollicking blues numbers, “Rollin’ and Tumblin,’” Dylan turns from chastising old loves (i.e. “long dead souls from their crumblin’ tombs”) and abruptly asks for forgiveness:

Let's forgive each other darlin',
let's go down to the greenwood glen
Let's put our heads together now,
let's put all old matters to an end

It’s the kind of sentiment rarely, if ever, heard in traditional blues.

And yet, despite the prophet’s stuttering and his homely humanism, God’s message of comfort to his people still manages to come through. In the song, “When the Deal Goes Down,” we see the prophet as a vulnerable traveler, lost like Dante in the deep forest of night:

In the still of the night, in the world's ancient light
Where wisdom grows up in strife
My bewildering brain, toils in vain
Through the darkness on the pathways of life…
We live and we die, we know not why…

God speaks this to the bewildered pilgrim:

I'll be with you when the deal goes down

What’s “the deal” going down? It is mortality and death. Cancer, heart disease, plane crashes, terrorism, and the threat of nuclear holocaust. Preachers and prophets don’t speak of death as “the deal,” but old bluesmen do. In the plain and repetitive tones of the blues, Dylan has rediscovered a mode of speaking that enables him to communicate not with irony but rather with the authority of the prophet spreading his message of God’s undying love for all times and for all people.

©2007 John Tintera


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