Like quite a few of you here in the US , I was watching Martin Scorsese’s ‘rockumentary’ this week on Bob Dylan – No Direction Home. The film on PBS was incredibility focused – a very human look at the singer-songwriter’s life and music from 1961-66 which chronicles those years when Bob Dylan moved from being merely another folk singer to a true American icon. What I was most taken with was the raw, vunerable interviews with Dylan of 2005 reflecting on his life and art. More than once he mused that “Hibbing (his hometown) was nowhere – I came from nowhere – my family didn’t influence me. I left Hibbing and made myself.” There was a stark amorality to his reflections – beholden to no one, meaning was something found only in the “Now”. Most telling in this regard was the interviews with those who were ‘closest’ during these years. Listening to Joan Baez, it was as if Dylan honestly didn’t realize that the world around him was in turmoil. As she put it, people think that his songs denoted a level of commitment to certainly political views – taking a stance against Vietnam, against Racial injustice, etc. What made his songs powerful, she said (as did Mavis Staples), was the transcending quality of life that he sang about – and the power came when the songs, along with the growing mythos of ‘Bob Dylan’, was taken on by other artists. Even though the ‘artist known as Bob’ never did sit-ins in protest… the spirit was breathed into the millions that did sing his songs amidst THEIR actions of protest and gave the songs flesh… and the songs became (along with Dylan) protest songs.
In a similar way, the Columbia records compilation from a few years back entitled “Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan” takes the flesh of Dylan’s more ‘faith-centric’ tunes and gives them Holy Spirit power in and through the voices of true Gospel artists. Dylan’s dance with Christianity -including the famed harmonica backing for Keith Green – is the stuff of legend. The late John Bauldie heard from Tony Wright, the artist who Dylan hired to paint the original cover to the Saved album that “when he was doing the previous album, Slow Train Coming, in Muscle Shoals, he’d had this vision of Jesus, of the hand coming down and these hands reaching up. And he said at the same time he had this vision, he saw the whole album too–all the songs, everything, the whole thing was there. And he said, ‘What you’ve drawn here was exactly what I saw’.”
In a similar vein, the gospel artists on “Gotta Serve Somebody” ‘sing’ what they see as the event horizon of Dylan’s songs, many that are often dismissed by Dylan fans from his “Saved” and “Shot of Love” era and deserve the proper context to be heard.
The first track has Gospel great Shirley Caesar starting off with a call to worship pre-song rap which includes these words–“I wanna share Bob Dylan’s song with you”. As one reviewer noted “[I]t may well be the case that she’s done to “Gotta Serve Somebody” what Jimi Hendrix did to “All Along the Watchtower.” Like Hendrix, she wasted no time in making it her own (she recorded the song in 1980); Dylan even said, way back in 1985, that he liked her version better than his.” Caesar, in this take, makes heartfelt and emotional declarations that seem anything but weak, alludes to the Hebrew scriptures at the beginning of the song (Joshua) and at the end (Chronicles) while her backup singers–with their occasional “Serve my Jesus.”
The lost boy from Hibbing, Minnesota has certainly written some great tunes – many that speak of a home in ways it seems that his “the never ending tour” only begins to touch on.
If you get a chance, pick up a copy of “Gotta Serve Somebody” – even if you can’t stand Bob Dylan’s voice… these artists will get you out of your seat and dancing in the aisle…