Sunday, July 23, 2017

Scott Marshall's Book About Bob Dylan, the Gospel and the Great American Songbook: What a Long, Strange Journey It's Been

"Good evening ladies and gentlemen,. Would you please welcome Columbia recording artist... Bob Dylan."

Glory, glory, glory, somebody touched me
Glory, glory, glory, somebody touched me
Glory, glory, glory, somebody touched me
Must've been the hand of the Lord.

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This is a review of Scott Marshall's 2017 book, Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life, which I finished last weekend, just before my interview with the author. This is not Marshall's first book, nor is it his first foray into the the theme of Dylan's religious convictions. Unlike his first, Restless Pilgrim, this is an in-depth survey of all that Dylan has written, that Dylan himself has said, his actions related to spiritual matters (his son's bar mitzvah, his visits to the Wailing Wall, etc.), and what others have written about Dylan's spiritual impulses, as well as some "man in the street" types of inquiries about perceptions as to where Dylan is at.

Marshall has stated that he spent 12 or 13 years consciously working on the book, sifting through everything Dylan has ever written or said in order to collect the flecks of gold dust that could be re-assembled in this volume. The author acknowledges his own bias up front (he is a Christian and a Dylan fan) but for the most part strives to let the evidence he's accumulated speak for itself.

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Last weekend, while listening to the radio program Beale Street Caravan, the theme of Pentecostal revivalism was brought up as one of the streams that flowed into the blues. The narrator of the show asserted that when we listen to Motown or the music from the streets of Memphis, there's this whole gospel Pentecostal influence that can't be ignored. Anyone who's been to Bourbon Street in New Orleans knows that one of their theme songs is "When the Saints Go Marching In."

What was the appeal of Gospel music? It's chief appeal was a message of hope, a feeling that we've not been abandoned, a message finding its strongest resonance amongst those who were indeed most likely to feel abandoned and without hope, the down-and-outers, the end-of-the-liners, the betrayed, forgotten and lost.

While Wikipedia's account of Pentecostalism is fairly extensive, the first paragraph does a fairly good job of summarizing the core of this movement.

Pentecostalism or Classical Pentecostalism is a renewal movement within Protestant Christianity that places special emphasis on a direct personal experience of God through the baptism with the Holy Spirit. The term Pentecostal is derived from Pentecost, the Greek name for the Jewish Feast of Weeks. For Christians, this event commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the followers of Jesus Christ, as described in the second chapter of the Book of Acts.*

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When I was in college I had an art instructor named Frank Holmes. He was a sensational artist who painted interiors in the classical impressionist/realist tradition. A couple years later I learned that Frank had gone to New York and had a loft where he was now painting. I inquired as to how he was doing and what he was working on. I was told that he was painting a piano, but to paint it profoundly he had to engage it profoundly, meaning he felt he had to learn to play it. He had gone a year on this piano engagement without doing a painting. He may have been doing drawings and sketches, I do not know, and this story was relayed to me second hand, but it was my understanding that he was somehow internalizing the piano first. 

This memory popped into my head as I was listening to Beale Street Caravan last weekend, when they discussed the influences of Gospel music on the Blues. If Bob Dylan's life mission had been to internalize and absorb the Great American Songbook, it would have been impossible to do this without becoming immersed to some extent in the music of its Gospel traditions. 

The Bluegrass stream is thoroughly awash in Gospel, the Carter Family being one of its chief conduits. The music of them thar hills is a blend of both sacred and secular themes, shining a light on the high road while acknowledging the brokenness and muck of life's other side.

Like Frank Holmes's efforts to understand a piano before painting it, the best way to really understand the emotional charge Gospel music gives might be to get "set afire" by the Gospel. What I mean here is that getting totally immersed in the Gospel seems to be the most authentic way to translate the Bible through the unique internal method that is Dylan.

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1979, San Francisco (photo courtesy Bill Pagel)
Marshall's book is an overview of all the periods in Dylan's life, extracting quotes from interviews as well as lyrics analysis. Many of the stories are familiar, such as Dylan's question to Noel Paul Stookey, "Do you ever read the Bible?" when the latter was visiting Dylan's Woodstock home in 1967. Nor is Marshall the first to note the more than 60 Biblical references and allusions in Dylan's John Wesley Harding. Marshall, on the other hand, may be the first to sift the sand of Dylan's life this thoroughly, from the beginning till the most current times.

The critics were harsh when Dylan released Christmas in the Heart, outdoing one another with their creative salvos, so much so that one failed to notice the positive remarks  that were made. Marshall doesn't miss these and highlights them for his readers.

One of my favorite lines in Mark Sutton's "I'm a Bigger Dylan Fan Than You" is the one where he sings, "I became a Jew and then a Christian, and then again became a Jew." On the surface, this is a common interpretation of Dylan's temporary three year embrace of Christianity. What Marshall attempts to demonstrate is that, although know one knows except Dylan himself, there is ample evidence to support the belief that he never renounced his Christian faith of the late 1970's.

The word that may best describe Dylan on these matters is syncretism, which defines as "the attempted reconciliation or union of different or opposing principles, practices, or parties, as in philosophy or religion." Indeed, this is what Marshall states near the book's culmination. Dylan has been known to still attend synagogue on Jewish holy days.

Though the songs from his Saved album, for the most part, were only temporarily showcased on his playlist from 1979-1981, Dylan continued to sing "In the Garden" and "Solid Rock" up into the 21st century. He's performed "Gotta Serve Somebody" from his Slow Train Coming more than 400 times, right up to 2011. The song was Dylan's first Grammy, but would that be the only reason he opened so many concerts with this one?

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Marshall has marshaled an impressive list of endorsements, including Gary Cherone of Extreme and Van Halen, Noel Paul Stookey, Grammy-Nominated producer Jeffrey Gaskill, a columnist at The Nation Randall Balmer, Alice Cooper and the President Jimmy Carter. If this is a subject that interests you, you'll probably enjoy it, too.

Meantime, life outside goes on all around you. Engage it.

*Wikipedia entry on Pentecostalism.

1 comment:

Graham said...

Just bought the book and now looking forward to reading it.