16. Slow Train Coming – Bob Dylan


Bob Dylan

He was the prophet of a generation
They watched his every cryptic verb
People everywhere in every nation
Would bow and worship every word

He gave them songs and made them wild with passion
They would leave his name is history
Then he sang a little out of fashion
And so he gave them one more mystery

And then they cried – Commercial suicide…
Watch how you say it
We’ll never play it

“Commercial Suicide” by David Edwards

For a couple years in the late 1970’s it was rumored that world’s most “prophetic” singer/songwriter, Bob Dylan” has become a Christian. The nation’s icon of “counter-culture” had become a Jesus freak! And when word came out that he was working on a new album and that album would reflect his new found faith, his old fans shuddered and the evangelical community was skeptical.

After “Street Legal,” a highly acclaimed album it was hard to believe the next release to come from Dylan would be a Gospel release. But what was delivered was not only a testimonial tour de force, but one of the finest records in Bob Dylan’s career and easily one of the most important Christian albums of all time. Dylan received a Grammy for his performance on “Gotta Serve Somebody,” which was also a tremendous hit.

There was a vibrancy and energy that had been missing on all but a few releases for Dylan during the 70’s. Whether it was his new found faith, the new inspiration, a rock legend producer or the joy of working with Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler, something struck a chord with Dylan in the studio as he created “Slow Train Coming.”

“Slow Train Coming” was the first of what had become to be known as Dylan’s “Christian Era.” There is some debate as to what albums fall under the category though there is little debate that this one, “Saved” and “Shot of Love” all fit the definition quite nicely. It should be noted that “Shot of Love” did contain a combination of sacred and “secular” songs. Others, like myself, include “Infidels” on this list as well. I have no problem accepting any Dylan album since then as fitting into his “Christian Era” as well. In fact, 2006’s “Modern Times” has as much of a Biblical Worldview than nearly any other record in Dylan’s discography.

Our focus here, though, is on the masterpiece that started it all. From the opening bass and drum groove of “Gotta Serve Somebody” to the final note of the fading piano in “When he Returns” every note, every line and every theme is a discourse in how to create and “real” and literal Christian work of art.

God may have changed Dylan’s heart and worldview but he left his nasally, often off-key and limited, but passionate vocals alone. Dylan’s voice is admittedly an acquired taste and many never acquire a true appreciation for it, but, let’s be honest here, when it comes to Dylan it is all about the lyrics.

The first track on the album was also the first single, and surprisingly, Dylan’s first Grammy for a performance. In fact, during Dylan’s illustrious career up until that point Dylan’s only other Grammy was for a live album. Astonishingly enough, Dylan has never won a Grammy for writing a song, and his Grammy here for “Gotta Serve Somebody” is his only award for an individual song performance.

In “Gotta Serve Somebody” Dylan takes a cue from Jesus’ own words about “whoever is not for me is against me.” Dylan clearly proclaims that no matter a person’s situation, income, value or lot in life they are members of only two possible sides, the Devil’s or the Lord’s. Backed by Knopfler’s distinguishable guitar work Dylan proclaims.

You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls.

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
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.

The songs strength is in its simplicity and earnestly performed lyrics. Dylan here is not trying to make a great apologetic case on a deeper theological premise, but rather stating that humanity, since Adam and Eve, has been simply divided into two camps.

Dylan’s conversion to Christianity has had many urban legends built around it. A certain infamous Jesus Music pioneer laid claim to helping in the conversion process, while others claim it was a street evangelist that convicted him of his drinking, drugging and sexually promiscuous ways. Many have claimed that he was always interested in the Bible and spiritual things as many of his pre-conversion songs can attest to. Dylan himself laid claim to a “Paul-like” vision that knocked him to his knees in a hotel room in Arizona.

At the same time two band mates, Steven Soles and David Mansfield, had also converted to Christianity and began attending a Vineyard Church they were introduced to by T-Bone Burnett. Mansfield has gone on to record with several “fringe” Christian artist like Kate Miner, T-Bone Burnett and Leslie/Sam Phillips. Soles also worked with several Christian artists and even released two very well received Christian albums in the early 80’s that had a more reggae feel, like that of early Police. Soles did have one very successful song on Christian radio, the title track from his “Walk By Love” album.

That conversion experience show itself in the song “Precious Angel” more than on any other song.

Precious angel, under the sun
How was I to know you’d be the one
To show me I was blinded, to show me I was gone
How weak was the foundation I was standing upon ?

Now there’s spiritual warfare and flesh and blood breaking down
Ya either got faith or ya got unbelief and there ain’t neutral ground
The enemy is subtle, how be it we are so deceived
When the truth’s in our hearts and we still don’t believe ?

Shine you light, shine your light on me
Shine you light, shine your light on me
Shine you light, shine your light on me
Ya know I just couldn’t make it by myself
I’m a little too blind to see.

On “I Believe In You” Dylan addresses the new found persecution and misunderstanding he was receiving as a result of his conversion. This is most plaintive and direct song on the record and is a testament to validity of the experience and the willingness to continue down that road despite the objections and obstacles. It also deals with the simple faith of a new convert that has placed his faith in Jesus Christ.

They ask me how I feel
And if my love is real
And how I know I’ll make it through
And they, they look at me and frown
They’d like to drive me from this town
They don’t want me around
‘Cause I believe in you.

They show me to the door
They say don’t come back no more
‘Cause I don’t be like they’d like me to
And I, I walk out on my own
A thousand miles from home
But I don’t feel alone
‘Cause I believe in you.

Knopfler’s lonesome guitar is compelling as it sets the mood of the lonely traveler making his way through this new land. But as the song builds toward the end Dylan’s vocals shine as he pleads…

I believe in you when winter turn to summer
I believe in you when white turn to black
I believe in you even though I be outnumbered
Oh, though the earth may shake me
Oh, though my friends forsake me
Oh, even that couldn’t make me go back.

Don’t let me change my heart
Keep me set apart
From all the plans they do pursue
And I, I don’t mind the pain
Don’t mind the driving rain
I know I will sustain
‘Cause I believe in you.

The musical highlight of the project is the title track. This is where Knopfler’s guitar work shows itself to be of great value generating a passion and musical scope. Here, for the first time on the album, Dylan addresses some issues outside of directly the religious.In fact, outside of the popular imagery of the coming doom (Second Coming) associated with a train, the song could have just as easily fit on any previous Dylan project.

All that foreign oil controlling American soil
Look around you, it’s just bound to make you embarrassed
Sheiks walking around like kings, wearing fancy jewels and nose rings
Deciding America’s future from Amsterdam and to Paris
And there’s slow, slow train coming up around the bend

Even false teachers and religious hypocrites are worthy victims of Dylan’s attack.

Big-time negotiators, false healers and woman haters
Masters of the bluff and masters of the proposition
But the enemy I see wears a cloak of decency
All non-believers and men stealers talking in the name of religion
And there’s slow, there’s slow train coming up around the bend.

This six-minute diatribe goes down as one of my all time favorite Dylan compositions for its ability to communicate truths within a Biblical worldview without resorting to some sort of street preaching.

In a true blues fashion of repeating the first line of each verse twice, “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” Dylan expresses this paradigm shift in his thinking and worldview. Dylan here seems to be taking his cue from both the Psalms and the book of Proverbs.

Gonna change my way of thinking
Make myself a different set of rules
Gonna change my way of thinking
Make myself a different set of rules
Gonna put my good foot forward
And stop being influenced by fools.

Dylan also continues to address the struggles with an obsession with the opposite sex that was hinted at in “Precious Angel” but declares that his new found faith has also provided someone who would not lead him astray.

You can mislead a man
You can take ahold of his heart with your eyes
You can mislead a man
You can take ahold of his heart with your eyes
But there’s only one authority
And that’s the authority on high.

I got a God-fearing woman
One I can easily afford
I got a God-fearing woman
One I can easily afford
She can do the Georgia crawl
She can walk in the spirit of the Lord.

The “Golden Rule” is the subject of “Do Right to Me Baby (Do Unto Others)” while “When You Gonna Wake Up” is call to repentance but with a significantly more philosophical and political bias than the rest of the album portrays.

Counterfeited philosophies have polluted all of your thoughts
Karl Marx has got ya by the throat, Henry Kissinger’s got you tied up in knots.

When you gonna wake up, when you gonna wake up
When you gonna wake up strengthen the things that remain ?

You got innocent men in jail, your insane asylums are filled
You got unrighteous doctors dealing drugs that’ll never cure your ills.

When you gonna wake up, when you gonna wake up
When you gonna wake up strengthen the things that remain ?

Once again the Church is not spared the indictment of hypocritical living as Dylan calls the Church to the same repentance the prophets of old proclaimed toward God’s people.

Adulterers in churches and pornography in the schools
You got gangsters in power and lawbreakers making rules.

When you gonna wake up, when you gonna wake up
When you gonna wake up strengthen the things that remain ?

Do you ever wonder just what God requires ?
You think He’s just an errand boy to satisfy your wandering desires.

When you gonna wake up, when you gonna wake up
When you gonna wake up and strengthen the things that remain

If there is a slip up on the album it’s the odd and quirky “Man Gave Names to All the Animals.” What must have been a great idea on paper sometimes appears as it may have fit better on a Dylan “Children’s Gospel” album. To be fair I loved the song the first 10 times or so. The song is really about the pay off of the last line. After listing the characteristic of different animals and imagining how Adam may have come up with the names for the animals using an obvious rhyme scheme he concludes with…

He saw an animal as smooth as glass
Slithering his way through the grass
Saw him disappear by a tree near a lake …..

The album concludes with “When He Returns,” the most simple and direct song on the record. Accompanied by just a piano, Dylan’s vocals come front and center and despite its limitation is so authentic and earnest that the song works. It is by far the most poetic and beautiful song on the project and, arguably, the best of the Gospel era songs. One can only imagine the Psalmist penning similar words.

The iron hand it ain’t no match for the iron rod
The strongest wall will crumble and fall to a mighty God
For all those who have eyes and all those who have ears
It is only He who can reduce me to tears
Don’t you cry and don’t you die and don’t you burn
Like a thief in the night, he’ll replace wrong with right
When he returns.

Than like the prophets of old or John the Baptist in the wilderness, Dylan places himself in that same wilderness and cries out for his own sins and the sins of the people.

Truth is an arrow and the gate is narrow that is passes through
He unreleased His power at an unknown hour that no one knew
How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice ?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness ?
Can I cast it aside, all this loyalty and this pride ?
Will I ever learn that there’ll be no peace, that the war won’t cease
Until He returns ?

Then like the preacher proclaiming a warning of a soon coming destruction Dylan closes with…

Surrender your crown on this blood-stained ground, take off your mask
He sees your deeds, He knows your needs even before you ask
How long can you falsify and deny what is real ?
How long can you hate yourself for the weakness you conceal ?
Of every earthly plan that be known to man, He is unconcerned
He’s got plans of his own to set up His throne
When He return.

Only God knows the heart of man and I have personally avoided the fray of discussing Dylan’s current commitment other than to state that Biblical images and spiritual content remain up unto the most recent releases. But for our purpose here there was a time in 1979 when a prophet of a generation of one of the greatest songwriters in history took up his pen to create one of the greatest albums of all time.


7 responses to this post.

  1. A difficult inclusion, but a worthy one. Even Dylan’s closest confidants will admit he’s a trickster and assumes many different positions through the course of his career. Some will point to later appearances on the L’Chaim telethon with son-in-law Peter Himmelman as a sign that he shied away from this newfound faith. Others will point to his appearances in The Traveling Wilburys and poo-pooh his Christian phase. And still others will point to his honorary station as America’s musicologist, say it was only natural he would explore the sounds of gospel music, but that doesn’t really mean anything.

    It always struck me how badly some Christians wanted Dylan in their camp, and how dejected they became when it was assumed he was no longer a part of the flock. This has been a major part of his career though, this push and pull between accepting his adoration as THE MAN and shrinking from it, demanding he’s only “a man.” I think he has a lot of fun messing with the cult of personality.

    None of that takes away from Slow Train Coming, the potency of the writing, the rawness of delivery and the fact that Mark Knopfler is simply one of the greatest guitar players ever. If one is really interested in the christian message, but off-put by the confusion of where Dylan ‘truly stands’ then, my response to that is, why is your devotion on Dylan anyway? What’s that album actually about?


  2. Posted by Dave Haddock on February 24, 2010 at 4:05 am

    I’ve read enough biographical work on Dylan to know he wasn’t just going through a “phase” of trying gospel music. He went to Bible studies. He was surrounded by several Christians including backup singers that were able to speak into his life. You can’t write the lyrics he wrote on Slow Train without having experienced something real and profound. That having been said…I do think Dylan cooled to the Christian experience because of the fact the secular world wouldn’t embrace it and the Christians were trying too hard to make Dylan a spokesman for the cause. His seed was planted in soil that was not able to allow his faith to thrive.

    As far as his music goes…I have to admit, I was never a Dylan fan in his earlier secular days. When I heard he had become a believer and put out an album I was curious enough that I went out and bought it. It has been a Top Ten favorite of mine to this day. All I can say is “brilliant, brilliant, brilliant!”


  3. Posted by Shawn McLaughlin on February 25, 2010 at 5:48 pm

    Totally in agreement that it is possible to consider all of his post “Slow Train Coming” work as part of his Christian Era. You mention “Modern Times” and I would also point out “Oh, Mercy” as a strong purveyor of a biblical worldview.


  4. Posted by Eric gresham on April 20, 2012 at 3:40 pm

    How many Christian albums did Bob Dylan make?


    • Posted by low5point on April 20, 2012 at 4:00 pm

      Well…that is up for debate. Most “mainstream” critics would say a “trilogy” of albums including Slow Train, Saved and Shot of Love. I easily place “Infidels” and even “Empire Burlesque” amongst those work. I have no problem noting that “Modern Times” not only belongs with that group, but may be the best of the lot outside of Slow Train. Shawn and others may have a different perspective.


  5. I was so glad to hear this album when it first came out. I listen to it regularly to this day. I don’t think Bob has lost the faith, but like all of us he has gone through trials. There was a collection of Dylan’s gospel songs in 2008 called “Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan,” and I was happy that Bob chose to sing on it.


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