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Happy Bob-Day! 24th May, 2021

Diamonds & Rust: The Cracked Voice of History

By Pastor Graham Cooke,

“I contain multitudes”…..Bob Dylan always has.

I once heard about a man who, on a significant birthday, threw a Bob Dylan party. Everyone had to come dressed up as a character from a Dylan song. What a great idea! Maybe for my 60th? Trouble is, only a very few of those likely to come to my party would really appreciate the references. I would be having a great time guessing away whilst everyone else would look slightly bemused. Still- it’s my party…!  Who would I go as? Where to start! Captain A-rab maybe? Jack of Hearts? The man in the long black coat? Or even Paul Revere’s horse?

As I write, it’s Bob’s 80th birthday, and many people have been commenting widely on all aspects of Dylan. Many expressing admiration, others questioning what the fuss is about, or even the validity of his singing voice. Well, okay, that strained, fissured, nasal whine is clearly not everyone’s cup of tea. Though for many of us, it’s a not insignificant part of the point of Dylan. As another decades-spanning crooning contemporary famously sang: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”[1]

Moreover, there never has been just one Dylan voice. The vast array of characters populating Dylan’s songs serve as a reflection of the man himself. His most recent studio album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, was released last year (just after his 79th birthday). It is a sublime, rambling masterpiece; lyrics more spoken than sung.  The high-water mark is Murder Most Foul, a 17-minute incantation on how the assassination of Kennedy set a pattern of violence and duplicity in American society ever since (at least, that’s my best-guess interpretation). For one song, he jackdawed a quotation from Walt Whitman; “I contain multitudes”[2]. And Dylan always has.

For one thing, he has always drawn widely on a rich and varied reservoir of musical genre. Edward Docx expresses it better than I can:

“Down the decades he’s been Little Richard electric, Woody Guthrie folk, his own folk, his own electric, imperious, stoned, quasi-biblical, country, crooning, pastoral, comeback, Gypsy, despairing, Christian, biblical-biblical, Jewish, nowhere, drunk, back again, lost, finger-picking, back again, mighty and unbowed, Santa, Sinatra, and at the last… transcendent.”[3]

For another thing, Dylan’s literary hinterland is vast and various, ranging from Blake to Verlaine, taking in Rimbaud, Eliot and Yeats along the way, to name but a few. And the Bible, of course. Always the Bible. From the early work (for instance, Abraham and Isaac in Highway 61 Revisited), rather more overtly through his ‘born again Christian’ phase, and right on through to the later albums (“The judge is coming in, everybody rise”[4], “the city of God is there on the hill”[5]) Throughout his work is a distinctly biblical eschatological strain, often expressed in apocalyptic judgement language, sometimes more undergirded with hope (When The Ship Comes In)[6]. I’m not going to comment further on Dylan’s spirituality, as to whether he has found and retained faith in God- only to say that, one way or another, his songs clearly still yearn after him.

Along the way he has always resisted being put in a box, reinventing himself seemingly oblivious to the despairing cries of his disappointed fans. Even at the start, he was his own invention, almost literally pretending to be Woody Guthrie. Then, when his songs became the anthems of the politically woke, he stepped rapidly away. Famously determined to plough his own furrow, he picked up that electric guitar at the Newport Folk festival in 1965; subsequently enduring the cries of ‘Judas’ from disgusted folk fans during his UK tour. At the end of the decade, Nashville Bob dropped his voice. A decade later, born-again Bob scandalised his fan-base with his new-found religious certainties. And so on, continually re-inventing, re-shaping. Perhaps the latest moment of astonishment was one foisted upon him rather than of his own making; in 2016 he became Nobel Laureate Bob (Don’t think twice- it’s alright!)

This fluidity of identity, the refusal to be labelled, is of a piece with his lyrical style. I love Dylan’s lyrics in the same way I love the poetry of T.S. Eliot. For so much of the time I have very little idea of what exactly they’re saying, but they say it so well, and they move me deeply. There are times when things seem to come into focus, a moment of clarity is reached, before the kaleidoscope is tweaked once again and the hard edges of meaning dissolve into blur and ambiguity. But then, the older I get, the more that seems a more accurate portrayal of life in this fallen world where everything is broken. Even Dylan’s narrative ballads, the stories seemingly so lightly and effortlessly sketched, leave you finally scratching your head; “What did actually just happen there?” Dylan’s multitudes are merged and blurred, just as so much of life is.

In his resilience and longevity, he is testament to the true artist. In his first ‘born again’ album there’s an enchanting little song, Man gave names to all the animals,[7] a rather kitsch portrayal of Adam’s zoological classification task in Genesis 2:20. I’ve often thought that this event was not only the start of the scientific project (finding ever-more accurate ways to describe reality) but also the start of artistic endeavour. Surely good art does a very similar thing, in a very different way; portraying reality in some way that we may not have recognised before.

His early song, A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall[8], is a dialogue between a father and his son, who reports back on what he’s seen during his journeys in the world. So Dylan captures the role of the artist. Having stared the world in the face, with all its hurt and despair, its strife, its environmental damage, the son determines to go back out there to sing his song, to tell it how it is. He recognises he has to know his song well before he starts singing. I think this is exactly what Dylan has been doing this last 60 years or more.

It’s always struck me that this isn’t a bad description, not only for the role for the artist, but also for the task of the preacher; indeed, of anyone who wants to take the good news of Jesus Christ into the world. It’s what I want to be doing, and it’s also my prayer for my own blue-eyed son, not to mention my brown-eyed and greeny-grey-eyed daughters, that they will take up the baton, and keep on singing their song in a difficult and often-hostile world. The challenge is to sing that sing in a way simple enough to cut through, whilst nuanced enough to truly reflect reality. I’m not holding up Dylan as a model for how to do that. I think the messages we want to sing might differ somewhat. But I do admire how he has gone on telling it as he thinks it is, even when that has meant departing from the pattern, the song-sheet, that others think he should follow. The truth is, although I do firmly believe there is one harmonious symphony, produced by one composer, no one camp sees the whole of that master-score, the whole of reality, and it is surely basic to our very humanity to at least recognise that and proceed with humility. We limit ourselves to the point of distorting reality when we remain so stubbornly rooted in one particular enclave that we only ever sing their particular pages of the hymn book.

And, what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?

And, what’ll you do now, my darling young one?

…I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’,

I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest dark forest,

Where the people are many and their hands are all empty,

Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters,

Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison,

And the executioner’s face is always well hidden,

Where hunger is ugly, where the souls are forgotten,

Where black is the color, where none is the number,

And I’ll tell it and speak it and think it and breathe it,

And reflect from the mountain so all souls can see it,

And I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’,

But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’,

Bob Dylan, A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall, on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963)

Sean Latham, Director of the Institute for Bob Dylan Studies at the University of Tulsa, has called Dylan ‘The cracked voice of history’.[9]  That’s a great description. The other half of my blog-title is Joan Baez’s description, in a song about their relationship; Diamonds and Rust[10]. The diamond cuts right through reality. The rust reminds us that he’s a flawed and struggling human being, just like the rest of us, a chipped and broken clay jar. But God has bestowed this clay jar with treasure worth appreciating, As he has all of us. And so, like Bob, let’s keep on going back out there to sing our song.  

[1] Leonard Cohen, Anthem, on The Future (1992)

[2] Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, 1855

[3] Edward Docx, ‘Mighty and Unbowed’, The Guardian Review, 22/5/21

[4] Nettie Moore, on Modern Times, (2006)

[5] False Prophet, on Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020)

[6] When the Ship come in, on The Times They Are A’Changing, (1964)

[7] On Slow Train Coming (1979)

[8] On The Freewheelin Bob Dylan (1963)

[9] ‘It Ain’t Me You’re Looking For’, BBC Radio 4, May-17-21st 2021,

[10] On Diamonds and Rust, Joan Baez, 1975