The Jew Who Got the Blues: Bob Dylan and ‘Blind Willie McTell’
This text is from a talk originally delivered at the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity in 2007
In Nick Hornby’s novel How to Be Good, there’s a cute take on Bob Dylan. The narrator, Katie, is married to a jaded, middle-aged cultural snob called David. David loves nothing better than to slay sacred cows and assert rigid critical preferences. So in David’s view the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Kingsley Amis, Evelyn Waugh and – yes – William Shakespeare are ‘talentless’ or ‘overrated’. And the only people in world history who are any good are Graham Greene, Quentin Tarrantino, Tony Hancock and – you guessed it – Bob Dylan.
Well, by contrast I love the Stones, the Beatles and Shakespeare. But I am a bloke, I am middle-aged, I am called David, and I do often insist that Dylan is one of the few true geniuses in popular music. So maybe Hornby’s onto something.
Still, I like to think that it’s more relevant to my love of Dylan that I do theology for a living…
From the outset, Dylan’s work has displayed a rich biblical consciousness. Throughout his long career, he has taken the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as a key poetic and philosophical reference-point. Their colours and cadences, their textures and timbres, run right through his vast canon of song.
As he hit superstardom in the Sixties, this biblical strain in Dylan’s output was often eclipsed by his image as the poet of the counter-culture: the bard of youthful rebellion. Just as he attacked government and the military, so, it was widely assumed, he was anti-religion, too.
But the truth was more complicated than that.
For one thing, Bob Dylan is a Jew. For another, he’s a Jew who got the blues…
Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Minnesota, in 1941. At school he showed a strong aptitude for poetry. But he also studied Hebrew. In preparation for his Bar-Mitzvah in 1954, he took Bible lessons from an old Brooklyn rabbi. Later, poetry vied for his attention with early rock n’ roll and the films of James Dean. But his outlook was changed forever when an uncle gave him a batch of records by the legendary Louisiana blues singer, Lead Belly.
In Lead Belly the young Zimmerman heard the pain and yearning of the African American experience, reaching back to the slave ships and the cotton fields, and on into the terrible segregation that still blighted the US at the time. As he explored the blues further, he began to draw other associations. He realised that blues had been the foundation for jazz and rock n’ roll. But he saw, too, that it had itself developed from the ‘spirituals’ sung by slaves as they worked the fields of the Deep South.
And as a well-schooled Bible student, he must have noticed how often the motif of the Exodus and the Passover had suffused the music of the plantations: ‘Go Down Moses’; ‘Let My People Go’; ‘Pharaoh’s Army Got Drowned’. Indeed, once he started performing as ‘Bob Dylan’ in deference to his poet-hero Dylan Thomas, his own early repertoire would feature the Exodus-themed classic ‘Wade in the Water’.
From his debut LP in 1962 right through to his most recent albums, the blues have vitally underpinned Dylan’s work. Not only has he covered a number of blues standards straight: he has adapted, reworked and refreshed the blues, melding them with folk, rock, surrealism, satire and burlesque, to forge his own unique style. Yet he never forgets the blues singers who inspired him: not only Lead Belly but also Robert Johnson, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Sonny Boy Williamson and others. And it’s one of those other blues heroes who forms the focus for Dylan’s greatest single track since the Sixties – maybe even including the Sixties. The track dates from 1983. It’s called ‘Blind Willie McTell’.
Blind Willie McTell himself was from Georgia. Like several blues singers, he really was blind. But his voice was not rough and raw like many of his fellow Delta bluesmen. In fact, it was smooth and light, almost feminine. Yet on tracks like Statesboro Blues and Dyin’ Crapshooter Blues, he was a match for any. Dylan’s song expresses a profound affinity with a great bluesman. Yet as it does so, it bewails Dylan’s own inability to match McTell’s pathos and poise. As the refrain puts it: ‘I know no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell’.
The melody of the song is adapted from the old blues standard ‘St James Infirmary’. Dylan refers to this source in the last verse, when he sings, ‘I’m gazing out the window of the St James Hotel.’ St James Infirmary was a hospital in New Orleans, and the original song takes it as an ominous symbol of death and loss: ‘I’m goin’ down to St James Infirmary/See my baby there;/She’s stretched out on a long, white table,/She’s so sweet, so cold, so fair.’ Sad to say, that song came into its own again for New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
St James Infirmary was later converted into a hotel; and it’s there that we find Dylan as narrator, taking in the history of the South. And what a lot there is to take in…
Famously, Dylan’s biblical sensibility found its most explicit expression when he embraced evangelical Christian faith in 1979, and embarked on a series of unashamedly proselytising albums and tours over the next three years. At the time many of his more secular fans saw this as a gross betrayal, just as many folkies had cheered when he was branded ‘Judas’ for turning electric in 1965-6. Yet in retrospect, the whole ‘gospel’ period can be seen as a radical extension of that Scriptural mind-set which Dylan had always brought to his music.
By 1983, the evangelical fervour was less evident, but the biblical worldview was still very much there – not least in ‘Blind Willie McTell’.
In keeping with the gospel roots of the blues, the song starts with the Exodus and the Passover:
Seen the arrow on the doorpost
Saying, “This land is condemned…”
In Exodus 12 God instructs the Israelites to daub their doorposts with lamb’s blood so that the angel of death will ‘pass over’ their first-born in the slaughter to come. The mark to be made there is not an arrow, but Dylan’s arrow evokes time’s arrow – the line which points from birth to death, and so again recalls St James Infirmary, New Orleans and the birth of the Blues.
Israel might have escaped death in Egypt, but even in the Promised Land – even once settled in Jerusalem – she would find herself attacked and exiled time and again by this empire and that.
Just as Jerusalem was ‘condemned’ by various imperial invaders who enslaved and exiled the Jews, so the American South is ‘condemned’ by its exiling and enslaving of Africans. Likewise, just as many Jews were martyred for their faith, so many slaves died as ‘martyrs’ at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, based as it was in the ‘East Texas’ cited by Dylan.
Through all this, Dylan establishes a powerful link between his own family heritage as a Jew, and his adopted musical heritage in the blues. Both, he says, are grounded in suffering; and in both, this suffering produces great poetry – great psalms and laments. He knows all too well that he can only live the blues indirectly, vicariously, as white man born into an émigré Jewish family in a suburban mid-west town. He will never sing like Blind Willie McTell because he can’t ever have lived McTell’s life. Yet Dylan conveys the mood and history of the blues – the sights, sounds, touch, taste and smell of the South – so well that he matches the intensity of the greatest blues songs, despite his self-deprecation:
Well I heard the hoot owl singing
As they were taking down the tents…
See them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
See the ghosts of slavery ships…
I can hear them tribes a-moaning
Hear the undertaker’s bell
But nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell.
As Michael Gray has noted, the cinematic frames and panoramas of Dylan’s vision here recall Gone with the Wind. You can all but smell the plantations burning, feel the whips cracking in the air, shudder at the undertaker’s bell. Meanwhile, the tents which were the Israelites’ home in the wilderness of Sinai link to the tents of the circuses and travelling shows in which black people lived with their own hangover of enslavement: as itinerant ‘gypsy maidens’ and feathered dancers, trussed up for the delectation of their white paymasters.
In the final verse of the song, these dark scenarios are traced back to their common root – back to the source of the deathliness they exude. Back, that is, to sin. In his magnificent study Dylan’s Visions of Sin Professor Christopher Ricks nails what so many secular liberal analyses have missed: that at heart, Dylan’s work is concerned with the most basic biblical themes of fall and redemption, judgement and salvation, eternal condemnation and eternal life. Those who prefer to cast Dylan as a paragon of existentialism or an icon of self-expression tend to get squeamish about this. But it looms massively in his work, and never more so than here:
Well, God is in his heaven
And we all want what’s his
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seems to be all that there is
I’m gazing out the window
Of the St James Hotel
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell.
Here, Dylan looks sideways at the famously naïve exclamation of Robert Browning’s poem Pippa Passes: ‘God is in his heaven / All’s right with the world!’ Browning’s outlook does become more wizened as the poem develops, but Dylan insists that even youthful optimism like this needs a reality check. And turning again to his Bible he finds it in 1 Peter 1:23, which speaks of the ‘corruptible seed’ of the sin which leads to death.
Clearly, this seed was rampant in slavery, and in the oppression of African Americans which was maintained in segregation, and which continues today in more subtle forms of racism. Yet since death comes to us all, rich and poor alike, and since ‘all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory’, this last verse pushes the horizon of the song beyond Israel and the Deep South, towards a thoroughly universal vista. The whole world is corrupted – not just obvious villains like Pharaoh and slave owners. As in the days of Babel, ‘we all want what’s God’s’: we all seek to grab what belongs to God alone, even as in our better nature we all seek to honour him through humble ‘godliness’.
Dylan recognises the dreadful ambiguity of all this – yet in the final reckoning, he doesn’t despair. ‘Power and greed and corruptible seed’ are pervasive, but they are not everything: they only seem to be ‘all that there is’. 1 Peter 1:23 is stark in its depiction of sin, yet the early Christians to whom it is written are reminded by Peter that they have been ‘born again…of incorruptible seed, by the Word of God, which lives and abides forever.’ In the midst of darkness, there is light; in the midst of death, life; from the agony of suffering, redemption; out of crucifixion, resurrection.
Dylan understands that authentic biblical faith has no room for cheap grace – for skirting round sacrifice to quick-fix bliss. Exodus and the Psalms taught him that as a boy; the blues reinforced it as a young man; and Christianity confirmed it as he entered mid-life. ‘Blind Willie McTell’ fuses these sources and distils this essential theme.
I guess you could call ‘Blind Willie McTell’ a postmodern Blues song, inasmuch as it’s a song about singing, or rather not being able to sing authentically – a meditation on the aching space between Dylan’s allusive, magpie song craft and the simpler, more ingenuous art of the Delta bluesmen, and of McTell in particular.
Yet unlike most postmodern art this song miraculously breaks the shackles of allusion to become utterly present to itself, because totally present to Dylan’s self. By its end, Dylan realises not only that he can’t sing like McTell, but that he shouldn’t even try.
But he can attempt to find his own true voice through the medium of the blues. For while the blues will forever belong to a particular race and ‘tribe’ of persecuted people, they are too evocative, too intensely human to be hoarded by their custodians. Rather, they are those custodians’ gift to the world. And Dylan, part of another persecuted race and tribe whose heritage became a gift to the nations, appreciates that he can at least graft himself into the blues, and produce his own variety, his own hybrid stock.
For the wonderful irony of this great track is that in lamenting his inability to capture the essence of the blues, Dylan delivers a stunning blues song all the same. Out of his struggle and sense of inadequacy flows something so empathetic, so fundamental to what it means to be alive, that we are transported from the depths to the heights, from the dark valley to the mountain-top.
This is Bob Dylan at his best, and there are few things better.