Bargaining for Salvation

Bob Dylan
Blood on the Tracks

If you follow the arc of Dylan’s spiritual journey from his first album to his latest, there is a long line of Biblical references and allusions, as well as images drawn from the scriptures. In addition, there is a succession of cries from the heart, cries of both belief and despair that mark the way.

Whether it is the Guthrie-inspired cover of “The Gospel Plow” on his first album, or the sly reference to the sinner’s prayer on “Together Through Time”, there is ample evidence that Dylan’s journey has been that of a seeker. Blood on the Tracks is no exception, and may in fact be the document of one of the key turning points in Dylan’s journey. Not overtly a religious album, it is an album of deep and raw emotion that indicates disillusionment with the human condition, and the pain of failed human love, that set the stage for a search for a higher power.

Many people rate Blood on the Tracks as one of Dylan’s best recordings and the consensus is that the album documents the painful ending of his marriage to Sara Lowndes; it is the blood of Dylan’s broken heart that is “on the tracks” of this very revealing collection of songs.

In light of Dylan’s lifetime of spiritual and religious seeking, there might be a second level of meaning in the blood on these tracks; perhaps he is also alluding to the blood of sacrifice, known to him in the sacrificial system of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Although the question of Dylan’s religious affiliation has been brought back to the forefront because of Seth Rogovoy’s book Dylan: Poet Prophet Mystic it is unlikely that Blood on the Tracks can be used to build a case for or against a Christian or Jewish world view.

Blood on the Tracks is a document, splashed with a few strong religious allusions underscoring the core spiritual search of the artist; it is not overtly a statement of belief, but an album that records a movement toward the transcendent qualities of Biblical religion to overcome the anguish and disillusionment of lost love and a culture that appears to have lost its moral compass.

The key to this line of argument is found in the spiritual Rosetta Stone of the album, “Shelter from the Storm”. The lyrics dipped in the imagery and metaphor of pain and suffering, culminate in the religiously loaded reference to the beloved being willing to take his “crown of thorns”. We can’t escape the powerful cultural and religious overtones of this reference. Even still, this writer does not see this as a statement of belief, but rather it is a statement of identification, with intense suffering, like that of Jesus on the cross.

The song is a testament to the degree of suffering Dylan apparently felt in the dissolution of the marriage, for it is this woman who was willing to give him shelter that he has lost. It is hard not to see also a reference to the suffering that the artist has experienced in the “messianic” role that was thrust upon him by his audience in the socio-political context of his rise to celebrity during the tumultuous years of social unrest that were the ‘60s.

Like John Lennon in “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, the suffering of Christ in his passion affords a metaphor for the personal fires of affliction suffered by those who were thrust (or thrust themselves) center stage at such critical times. It is this intense suffering that points Dylan toward the possibilities of salvation. Even though Dylan appears to have a more “this worldly” feminine mediated salvation in mind in the song, it seems to me that he has another dimension of salvation also in mind. How deeply Dylan is consciously tapping into the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53 may never be known, but I believe it is significant that it is this Biblical allusion that he invokes. Though there remains sharp debate over who the suffering servant is, it is clear that on some level Dylan identifies with that Biblical prophecy.

Religious imagery also shows up in the other key song of disillusionment on the album, “Idiot Wind”. As Dylan is describing the lost condition of modern man, he invokes another allusion to a Christ-like figure in the “lonesome soldier on the cross”. Also, he declares “the priest wore black on the seventh day”, an apparent reference to a darkening of the purpose of the weekly celebration of the created order. There is an interesting echo here of the classic line from the earlier Dylan song “It’s Alright Ma” where “flesh colored Christs that glow in the dark” help to indicate that “not much is really sacred”. It is a restatement of this sense of the loss of the sacred, coupled with the lost possibilities of “salvation” in intimate relationships, which implies the need to search for the holy as redemption. It may well be the cry of the loss of these things that helped to set the stage for Dylan’s ongoing search for the transcendent.

There are earlier religious and quasi- religious references and parables in two albums that closely preceded Blood on the Tracks: Planet Waves and John Wesley Harding indicate Dylan’s spiritual concerns and search; the former again taking up the theme of domestic and marital love, and the latter a series of parables, including the apocalyptic themed “All Along the Watchtower”, based on the Book of Isaiah that could have signaled the declaration of faith that was Slow Train Coming. But, it is the painful association with wearers of the crowns of thorns that depict the brokenness that often leads to the search for redemption that Dylan portrays amid the songs of lost loves that we see on Blood on the Tracks and that we see in his exploration of Judaism and Christianity in the years ahead.

Jim Mello is a music junkie and home grown musicologist who has not been able to give up his day job as a counselor. He has presented papers on Bob Dylan and the Kinks at Popular Cultural Association Conferences in recent years.