In December 1997, a noticeably uncomfortable Bob Dylan was being honored at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C. Flanked by the President of the United States and the First Lady, Dylan looked like a man who seemed as if he had stumbled into the wrong building, the wrong room, only to find himself to be the center of attention with America’s glitterati.
Tribute was paid to him by Gregory Peck, a video biography of his life work was shown, and live tributes were performed by Bruce Springsteen and David Ball. While he was appreciative, he still looked as if he wanted to run and hide. Just when he looked as if he had reached his limit, a moment of unexpected joy unfolded. As gospel singer Shirley Caesar finished her rendition of his best-known Christian song, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” Bob Dylan, the man who had barely cracked a smile all night, suddenly came to life. He beamed with enthusiasm as he, the honoree, stood to his feet, prompting a standing ovation for Caesar.
That experience goes a long way in explaining his involvement in the new tribute album, Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan (Columbia). The collection affords Dylan fans the significant opportunity to re-examine the songs he wrote between 1979-1980—the most exciting, but controversial, period of his career. The fact that Dylan—who was considered a “spokesman for a generation”—was pointing to Jesus as the source of his redemption was mind-blowing. However, when he suggested that Jesus was the answer for others, this was simply too much to bear.
A wonderful example of Dylan being very aware of this situation can be seen in a stage rap he gave on January 25, 1980, before an audience in Omaha, Nebraska: “Years ago they used to say I was a prophet. I’d say, ‘No, I’m not a prophet.’ They’d say, ‘Yes, you are a prophet.’ ‘No, it’s not me.’ They used to convince me I was a prophet. Now I come out and say, ‘Jesus is the answer.’ [Now] They say, ‘Bob Dylan? He’s no prophet.’ They just can’t handle that.”
When he was interviewed later that year by Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times, Dylan said, “I didn’t mean to deliver a hammer blow. It might come out that way, but I’m not trying to kill anybody. You can’t put people down who don’t believe. Anybody can have the answer I have. I mean, it’s free.”
Six years later, he told Mikal Gilmore of Rolling Stone: “I hate to keep beating people over the head with the Bible, but that’s the only instrument I know, the only thing that stays true.”
From that point on, the rumor mill worked overtime. The time-honored (yet erroneous) story that has been most widely circulated is that Dylan renounced his faith in Jesus, or has wandered away from his profession of faith. Dylan’s involvement with this new album should go a long way in silencing these false stories.
Bob Dylan and Mavis Staples are featured on the album singing a duet to “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking.” The song had been rewritten by Dylan to express his belief in the Second Coming, in prayer, and in a personal relationship with Jesus.
• “Jesus is calling/ He’s coming back to gather His jewels…”
• “Every day you got to pray for guidance/ Every day you got to give yourself a chance…”
• “Oh, Lord, you know I have no friend without you…”
These are the words Dylan wrote in 2002. Hardly the sentiments of a man who has lost his faith.
If you go to his shows today, you’re going to hear his classic songs from the 1960s such as “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” and “All Along the Watchtower.” However, you may also be treated to overt gospel songs such as “Rock of Ages,” “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior,” “Hallelujah, I’m Ready to Go,” “Somebody Touched Me,” and “I Am the Man, Thomas.” These songs are as overtly faith-filled as anything on Slow Train Coming or Saved, and he still continues to sing his own compositions he wrote after he had his experience with Jesus such as “Gotta Serve Somebody,” “In the Garden,” “Solid Rock,” and “Saving Grace.”
Dylan once expressed incredulity that people considered him to be enigmatic. It’s all right there in the music, he said; listen to the music, and you will know what he thinks and believes. Yet fans and critics alike seem to have a difficult time taking him at his word when it comes to his spiritual journey. Hopefully, Gotta Serve Somebody will help make the picture a little clearer.
ll is co-author of Restless Pilgrim: The Spiritual Journey of Bob Dylan (with Marcia Ford), Relevant 2003.