I’m not a child of the 60s; my formative years were the early 80s. But in 1978 a certain well-known rock icon became a born-again Christian and started writing gospel songs. For a period of five years, Bob Dylan was an all-out, full-bore Jesus freak.
I was introduced to Dylan’s music by the three albums of gospel music that he released during that period (Slow Train Coming, Saved, Property of Jesus), then quickly began devouring his back catalog, and became an enthusiastic follower of all the music he’s made since. I don’t think much of his gospel music ranks up there with his best work, but it certainly made its mark on me.
In honor of today’s news that Dylan has received the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, I’d like to point you all to the seven best songs on those gospel albums, and encourage you to take a listen.
7. Slow Train Coming: Even before his conversion, Dylan often played the role of Old Testament prophet, but he’s at his best in this brooding, rambling bluesy song about approaching judgment. He addresses “foreign oil controlling American soil,” “people starving and thirsting,” and “false healers and women haters,” while warning that “there’s a slow, slow train comin’ up round the bend.”
6. The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar: Dylan borrows a New Testament metaphor of Christ as the groom, and the church as the bride, for this rollicking, scathing criticism of “the madness of becoming what one was never meant to be.” It’s typical Dylan — is the song about the church, or about this woman named Claudette, or about war in the Middle East? Who knows and who cares when it sounds this good?
5. Precious Angel: This is a love song, pure and simple, but the woman Dylan pines for is also a spiritual companion. Dylan warns that “the enemy is subtle, how be it we are so deceived when the truth’s in our hearts and we still don’t believe?” The song is rife with Scriptural references, some easy to decipher, others more obscure.
4. Property of Jesus: In this song, Dylan describes what it’s like to become a Christian in public, perhaps drawing from personal experience. He sings the chorus with a note of scorn: “He’s the property of Jesus, resent him to the bone; you got something better, you got a heart of stone.” Ironically, after this album was released, Dylan appeared to drop his born-again views and return to his Jewish faith.
3. I Believe in You: Most of Dylan’s gospel music is confident and righteous, but this tune is darker and filled with doubt. The song depicts the believer who begins to feel alone and abandoned; it’s similar to one of the Psalms of lament. “I believe in you even through the tears and the laughter, I believe in you even though we be apart, I believe in you even on the morning after.”
2. Gotta Serve Somebody: This is the first song on the first gospel album, and it sent shockwaves through the music world when it was released in 1978. The song is vintage American blues with a simple message: “You’re gonna have to serve somebody; it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
1. Every Grain of Sand: This is the pearl of great price in Dylan’s Christian “phase.” The lyrics alone stand as a powerful testament to faith in the face of suffering and evil.
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.
Congratulations, Bob! Thanks for the beauty.