One of the first original compositions that the young Bob Dylan debuted in folk clubs in New York upon arriving from Minnesota in 1961 was ‘Talkin’ Hava Negilah Blues.’ Introduced by Dylan as ‘a foreign song I learned in Utah,’ the song consists almost entirely of the singer trying to get the words ‘hava nagila’ out of his mouth. ‘Ha… Va…ha…Va… neh … gee…lah,’ he sings, as if the words were strange and foreign, before putting it all together in a slow and carefully enunciated ‘Ha-va Na-gee-lah,’ immediately followed by an anomalous yodel.
What this self-mockery belied was a profound connection to Jewish tradition, one that characterised and influenced Dylan’s entire oeuvre. His work stems from the ancient tradition of Jewish prophecy. The prophet, or navi, was a truth-teller to and an admonisher of his people: literally, a ‘proclaimer.’ The Prophets, whose sermons and declarations are collected in the biblical books of Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and others, were, in a sense, social critics—the original protest singers, if you will. They warned against backsliding, immorality and lawbreaking and foretold the bloody consequences of this behaviour. The torah of Dylan and the Torah of Moses share many overlaps: in the book of Prophets, Ezekiel recounts a vision of angels: ‘The soles of their feet… their appearance was like fiery coals, burning like torches’ [Ezekiel 1:7, 13]. In ‘The Wicked Messenger,’ a song about a scorned prophet from his 1967 album, John Wesley Harding, Dylan sings, ‘The soles of my feet, I swear they’re burning.’ In Exodus 33:20, G-d warns Moses, ‘No human can see my face and live’ a warning repeated in the chorus of ‘I and I,’ on the 1983 album, Infidels:
I and I
One says to the other
No man sees my face and lives.
Dylan’s echoing of this encounter between G-d and Moses also references the ‘I-Thou’ theology of Martin Buber, to whose work Dylan was reportedly introduced years earlier by his manager, Albert Grossman. The song paints a bleak portrait of absolute alienation: the narrator is alone even when he’s with a sleeping lover (‘if she wakes up now, she’ll just want me to talk/ I got nothin’ to say, ’specially about whatever was’); he goes out for a walk and concludes ‘Not much happenin’ here/ Nothin’ ever does’ and sees a train platform ‘with nobody in sight’; and he contemplates the end of the world (‘The world could come to an end tonight, but that’s all right’). Yet through all the emptiness he perseveres—‘I’m still pushin’ myself along the road, the darkest part’—towards the world, holding on to Buber’s teaching, ‘One who truly meets the world goes out also to God.’
Consciously or not, Bob Dylan’s use of the modes of Jewish prophetic discourse as one of his primary means of communication, determine not just the content of his songs but also his style of delivery, which is closer to declaiming rather than melodic singing. The vocals on his live albums from the 1970s (Before the Flood, Hard Rain, and Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Revue) are positively stentorian, underscoring his relationship to his audience, whom he never wooed but chided and provoked: You who philosophise, disgrace, and criticise all fears Take the rag away from your face/ Now ain’t the time for your tears. (‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’)
‘You’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend,’ he sings in ‘Positively 4th Street,’ addressed to the folk music traditionalists who first called him one of their own. Going electric at the Newport Folk Festival, playing commercial country music on Nashville Skyline and releasing a double album of cover songs mischievously titled Self Portrait are just a few examples of Dylan’s propensity to subvert his relationship with his fans in order to jar them from their complacency, like a Biblical prophet. Throughout his career, whether singing about racial injustice in ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘Hurricane,’ Cold War anxieties in ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall’ and ‘Masters of War,’ the treatment of Vietnam War veterans in ‘Clean-Cut Kid,’ or corrupt politicians in ‘Political World’ and ‘The Disease of Conceit,’ Dylan has repeatedly returned to that same prophetic tradition to infuse his songs with a measure of impact and dignity that so obviously sets his work apart from other singer song writers of the rock era. Bono, the singer of the Irish rock band U2 and himself a strong believer in a type of Christianity with ancestral Jewish roots, understands this about Dylan. ‘[Dylan’s] was always a unique critique of modernity,’ he writes. ‘Because in fact Dylan comes from an ancient place, almost medieval… The anachronism, really, is the ’60s. For the rest of his life he’s been howling from some sort of past that we seem to have forgotten but must not . . .’
One of the most rewarding ways of approaching Bob Dylan’s lyrics is to read them as the work of a poetic mind immersed in Jewish texts and engaged in the age-old process of midrash: a kind of formal or informal riffing on texts in order to elucidate or elaborate upon their hidden meanings. Perhaps the most famous of these riffs takes place in one of Dylan’s best-known songs, 1965’s ‘Highway 61 Revisited,’ his whimsical retelling of the Akeidah, the story of the binding of Isaac, which Dylan posits as a conversation between two jaded, cynical hipsters.
G-d said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son.’
Abe said, ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me on.’
G-d said ‘No.’
Abe said, ‘What?’
G-d said ‘You can do what you want, Abe But the next time you see me co min’ you better run Abe said, ‘Where you want this killin’ done?’ God said, ‘Out on Highway 61.’
U.S. Route 61, incidentally, is the main highway leading from New Orleans to Dylan’s birthplace of Duluth, Minnesota, where he was born to a man named Abram.
In 1982, Dylan’s son Samuel became bar mitzvah in Jerusalem. Shortly thereafter, Dylan’s earnest prophetic style gave way to a hardline Zionism that suffused the 1983 album Infidels, with a sleeve featuring Dylan overlooking the Old City. The song ‘Neighbourhood Bully’ defends Israeli aggression with little regard for the plight of the Palestinians :
Well, the neighbourhood bully, he’s just one man
His enemies say he’s on their land
They got him outnumbered about a million to one
He got no place to escape to, no place to run
He’s the neighbourhood bully
Coming as it did in the wake of the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon, this strongly nationalistic identification with Jewish peoplehood and land did not endear Dylan to those still on the Left. Neither did the song ‘Union Sundown’ on the same album, whose chorus appeared to be a critique of organised labour :
Well, it’s sundown on the union
And what’s made in the U.S.A.
Sure was a good idea
’Til greed got in the way.
A scathing review in New York City’s Village Voice, dubbed Dylan ‘the William F. Buckley of rock and roll,’ in reference to the founding editor of the conservative journal, the National Review. For many, it seemed, the one-time ‘voice of a generation’ had turned into a right-wing crank, a Bible-thumping, washed-up relic of the sixties. Dylan’s album sales plummeted to an all time low and where they remained for much of the 1980s, when he seemed, at best,irrelevant or, at worst, pathetic. In the final year of the decade, however, Dylan returned with one of the strongest albums of his career. Oh Mercy reflects a mind steeped in a Jewish worldview and one whose creative vision prompted what became his Never Ending Tour. This tour has been going on for over two decades and, at nearly 70, Dylan continues to play around one hundred concerts each year. ‘Everything Is Broken’ portrays the Kabbalistic concept of a world in a state of disrepair, and ‘Political World’ includes a vivid description of Kiddush HaShem, the religiously inspired martyrdom of those who were dying in Auschwitz around the time Dylan was born. When Dylan received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammy Awards in 1991, the focus of his acceptance speech was a passage that astute listeners recognised as a paraphrase of Psalm 27, the prayer based upon notions of repentance that lie at the heart of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy. Dylan, it seemed, was transmitting a coded message to those who may have thought he had forsaken them. Why else accept a Grammy Award by paraphrasing a Jewish prayer written by Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, the spiritual leader of traditional German Jewry in the mid-nineteenth century?
Dylan has continued to find inspiration in Jewish scripture in recent years. His 1997 Grammy Award–winning album, Time Out of Mind, is a catalogue of regret and reflections on mortality (released shortly after his recovery from a near fatal heart infection); ‘I was born here and I’ll die here against my will,’ he sings in ‘Not Dark Yet’, paraphrasing Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Fathers, from the Mishnah 4:29): ‘Against your will you were born, against your will you die.’ The same album’s opening track, ‘Love Sick,’ borrows its unusual central complaint from King Solomon’s love poetry as expressed in Song of Songs 2:7:
‘[Bereft of your presence], I am sick with love’ or, to put it more succinctly, as does Dylan, ‘I’m sick of love… I’m love sick’, the cry of an aging lonely man who engages with other people only when he takes the stage for one of his concerts on the Never Ending Tour.
In recent years, Dylan has been spotted at Yom Kippur services, typically at whatever Chabad synagogue he finds himself near as he tours the world. The central imagery of the concluding Neilah service, that of a penitent standing at a gate, praying to be written into the Book of Life before the doors are shut, finds its way into Time Out of Mind’s ‘Tryin’ to Get to Heaven’:
Now you can seal up the book and not write anymore I’ve been walking that lonesome valley Trying to get to heaven before they close the door.
Knocking on heaven’s door may not be unique to Bob Dylan, but the Neilah reference undoubtedly is, and it frames his own late work within a Jewish context of sober reflection and repentance.
Seth Rogovoy is the author of Bob Dylan: Prophet Mystic Poet (Scribner), from which this essay has been adapted.
Please visit him on the web at www.dylanprophet.com