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Spiritual Themes in Bob Dylan’s Songs

November 9, 2016, in Articles > Music, by

After the announcement that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the media began quoting people who had listed their favourites Dylan songs.

Fans, and I include myself here, love his lyrics and melodies. We enjoy listening to his often idiosyncratic singing voice, his skill on his instruments, and his excellent bands. His memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, is superb.

If asked to name what I think is the best of the best of his works, I would go straight to one song, one that I believe has a deeply spiritual theme and which resonates with me as a Baha’i.

The song is “Every Grain of Sand” from his 1981 album Shot of Love.

For those unfamiliar with its lyrics, let’s look at some of them.

I gaze into the doorway of temptation’s angry flame
And every time I pass that way I always hear my name
Then onward in my journey I come to understand
That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand

To me these lyrics cry out the truth that despite the inevitable tests of life, God is, as Baha’u’llah said, “closer to man than his life-vein”. 1 More than that, we are not only part of creation as whole, but are individually loved and recognised by the Creator.

Here is the next verse:

I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand

In this verse, I hear the unconscious recognition by the poet of the “Ancient of Days, the Ancient Beauty, the Ancient Root”, Baha’u’llah Himself. And then, in the second line, Dylan identifies with something we all sometimes experience when we appeal for spiritual sustenance but feel we have yet to connect with the divine. He moves on to use words that might be familiar to many Baha’is from a well-loved book of compiled sacred Writings, The Reality of Man, in which Abdu’l-Baha writes: “The reality of man is his thought, not his material body.” 2 The last line of the verse, with its reference to sparrows surely alludes to the Biblical verse in which Jesus is reported to have said:

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. 3

And then there is the Old Testament verse:

How precious also are thy thoughts to me, O God!
How vast the sum of them!
If I should count them, they would outnumber the sand.
When I awake, I am still with Thee. 4

Although Dylan’s reference to the “Master” in the song would differ from the one Baha’is know, I like to think of Abdu’l-Baha when I hear these wonderful lines, thinking of Him extending His hand out to assist me:

In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand
In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand

Another Dylan song that I think harmonises with a Baha’i viewpoint is “Gotta Serve Somebody” from his 1979 album Slow Train. This is the refrain:

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

In many verses of this song, Dylan reminds a wide variety of people about their obligation of service. For example:

You may be a construction worker working on a home
You may be living in a mansion or you might live in a dome
You might own guns and you might even own tanks
You might be somebody’s landlord, you might even own banks

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody…

This reminds me of the Master, who said, referring to the name He adopted meaning “Servant of Baha’u’llah”:

My name is Abdu’l-Baha, my identity is Abdu’l-Baha, my qualification is Abdu’l-Baha, my reality is Abdu’l-Baha, my praise is Abdu’l-Baha. Thraldom to the Blessed Perfection is my glorious and refulgent diadem; and servitude to all the human race is my perpetual religion. 5

I take from what Abdu’l-Baha says in that passage, and what the poet Bob Dylan emphasises, that all human beings must serve others if they are to spiritually progress. In a sense, Dylan notes that life forces us to serve something, even if it is something negative like our own selfish desires. Better we serve others, thereby serving God and following in the footsteps of Abdu’l-Baha.

Another song that has meaning for me is “The Times They are a-Changin’”, with this verse, for instance:

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’

This was a song released in 1964 but copyrighted in 1963.

As I understand it, inspiration comes from the muses– in Baha’i terms from the concourse on high, the holy departed souls.

Could this song, telling of the arrival of dramatically changed times, be inspired by the Concourse on high, influenced by the year in which it was written, the centenary of the declaration of Baha’u’llah, and the inauguration of the Universal House of Justice?

We should expect that many more of the lyrics of the Nobel laureate nominee also have great meaning.

As in the tradition quoted by the Bab:

Treasures lie hidden beneath the throne of God; the key to those treasures is the tongue of poets. 6


Footnotes & Citations
  1. Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah. Trans. Shoghi Effendi, Wilmette, IL., US Baha’i Publishing Trust,1990, p. 185[]
  2. Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha, The Reality of Man. Wilmette, IL., US Baha’i Publishing Trust,1975[]
  3. Luke 12:4-7[]
  4. Psalm 139: 17-18[]
  5. http://reference.bahai.org/en/t/ab/TAB/tab-473.html[]
  6. The Dawn-Breakers: Nabil’s Narrative of the Early Days of the Baha’i Revelation. Trans. Shoghi Effendi. Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1932, 1999, pp258-9.[]
Posted by

Michael Day

Michael Day is the author of "Journey to a Mountain", "Coronation on Carmel" and "Sacred Stairway", a trilogy that tells the story of the Shrine of the Bab, as well as a photo book “Queen of Carmel" on the same topic. He also authored the 2021 publication "Fragrance of Glory: An account of the Ascension of Abdu’l-Baha". He was a journalist for daily newspapers in Australia and New Zealand. Then, from 2003-2006, he was the editor of the Baha’i World News Service at the Baha’i World Centre. Now based in Benowa, Gold Coast, Australia, he is researching and writing on aspects of Baha’i history.
Michael Day

Discussion 17 Comments

what an insightful article. I love Bob Dylan and enjoyed reading this. Reflecting on the fact that quite a few poets in Iran (Hafez, Molana Rumi, Sohbat Lari) wrote direct references to the coming of the Bab and the revelation of Baha”u’lla years before their coming, surely the same kind of inspiration would apply to some western poets.

Sonbol Taefi

Sonbol Taefi (November 11, 2016 at 9:49 PM)

Bob Dylan,great words smith,songs and music he touches on so many Spiritual theme`s and life a real troubadour and poet. Yes. The times they are a changin

Peter Burns

Peter Burns (November 11, 2016 at 9:58 PM)

I like how you describe him as a troubador, Peter.

Michael Day

Michael Day (November 11, 2016 at 8:18 PM)

I play guitar and write a few songs and Dylan’s lyrics always fascinated me. I like the way you relate these lyrics to the Baha’i writings.

Graham Benvie

Graham Benvie (November 11, 2016 at 12:41 AM)

Thanks, Graham. Best wishes for your lyrics!

Michael Day

Michael Day (November 11, 2016 at 7:59 PM)

This article rules

Vesper

Vesper (November 11, 2016 at 12:49 AM)

Thanks, Vesper.

Michael Day

Michael Day (November 11, 2016 at 8:18 PM)

As a child of the sixties Bob Dylan was one of my greatest heroes and I still love his music to this day! You can read so many things into his lyrics. And they all have great meaning. Thank you for this article and the more songs you read the more you find meaning.

Randi D Nichter

Randi D Nichter (November 11, 2016 at 3:41 AM)

Agree, Randi. One of the beautiful things about poetry it that it can stimulate your own thoughts and visions.

Michael Day

Michael Day (November 11, 2016 at 8:01 PM)

How timely a blog post! Just recently we began study of Ruhi Book 4 “Twin Manifestations.” I started it with The Times They Are A-Changin’!” The lyrics provided a perfect start!

Lesa Morey, Producer, CafeBahai.com

Lesa Morey, Producer, CafeBahai.com (November 11, 2016 at 12:00 AM)

What a creative way to start Book 4. The times are not only A-Changin’ but those changes are speeding up, don’t you think? Yes, we have to go through turmoil as those we study in Book 4 predicted, but if we keep our focus on the goal of a united world society based on justice and love we retain real meaning and purpose in our lives and will devote our time and thoughts to something really worth achieving.The changes will be worth it.

Michael Day

Michael Day (November 11, 2016 at 8:08 PM)

Thank you, Michael, for this wonderful post. We absolutely love Bob Dylan here in Canada and have always felt the beauty of his words and music move our hearts. We enjoyed discovering “Every Grain of Sand” and will check out the Shot of Love album thanks to your post. As Baha’is, we especially love the line “Ring them bells so the world will know that God is one” from the Oh Mercy album.

Cathy

Cathy (November 11, 2016 at 12:32 AM)

Thanks, Cathy, for your kind words and for pointing to that special line in that song.

Michael Day

Michael Day (November 11, 2016 at 8:12 PM)

Can you post a song of Bob Dylan? Im interested to listen to it. Thanks.

Criselda R. Figuerres

Criselda R. Figuerres (November 11, 2016 at 1:01 PM)

Hi Criselda! Here’s the link to the official Bob Dylan Vevo account on YouTube where you’ll find many of his songs: https://www.youtube.com/user/BobDylanVEVO

Sonjel Vreeland

Sonjel Vreeland (November 11, 2016 at 10:57 PM)

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