Saturday, November 11, 2017

Dylan's Scripture-Soaked Precious Angel: Strength In Weakness

Tonight's theme on KUMD's Highway 61 Revisited radio hour, hosted for 26 years be the über-dedicated John Bushey, featured cuts from the recently released Trouble No More, Volume 13 in Bob Dylan's Bootleg Series. The theme served as a trigger to write about one of my favorite songs from that period, Precious Angel.

There are three points I'd like to draw attention to here. First, the conflict between two conflicting definitions of strength. Second, a question regarding the purported plagiarism claims of his later work. And finally, the passion that he channels when performing.

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1. Friedrich Nietzsche appeared at a major turning point in history. The modern scientific age was dawning, religion no longer a necessary crutch to help us get through the wheel of suffering known as life. The Darwinian thesis that only the strong survive began seeping into a variety of channels, including the curiously heartless 20th century concept of eugenics in which the State helps in the disposal of the unfit and the weak.

Nietzsche wrote of the Übermensch, the Superman, who would cast off the shackles of the herd mentality found in religion and forge his own way through self-mastery. This secular concept of strength worked its way into the modern mind via a variety of channels, most notably Hemingway's fascination with bullfighters, Camus' existential heroes and secular humanism.

In contrast, we hear the chorus of Precious Angel, in which Dylan cries out from the depths, "I just can't make it by myself, I'm a little too blind to see." This acknowledgement of helplessness is central to a Christian worldview that makes no apologies about being dependent on the "higher power." As the Apostle Paul wrote in his second letter to the Corinthians, God's power is made perfect through weakness. In the chorus of Precious Angel, it's clear the Dylan "gets it."

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2. There were many critics who made a stink about Dylan's plagiarism in Love and Theft and Modern Times. Dylan "borrowed" from literature and the like without purportedly giving "credit where credit was due." Historically, however, haven't writers and artists been extracting text and concepts from the Bible for ages without necessarily providing chapter and verse? That is, to some extent, there is a measure of cultural literacy involved here? The habit of borrowing lines here and there and putting them into the Dylan mind-blender didn't begin in the 21st century.

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3. One of the notable features of Precious Angel, especially the studio recording that appears on Slow Train Coming, is the passion Dylan delivers. Looking backward, you hear it in the chorus of "Where Are You Tonight?" (Street Legal) all the way back to when a teen Dylan was unplugged by his principal while performing at Hibbing High School. His ability to channel emotion of all varieties has been a notable feature of his career as an artist. During his "Gospel period" he certainly projects an earnestness that was persuasive to his Christian followers, even if off-putting to many of his other fans. (Listen as he belts out "Solid Rock.")

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I've highlighted links to a few of the Scripture verses referenced here, not including the concepts of being blind and having one's eyes opened, or walking in the light.

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Precious Angel

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, flesh and blood breaking down
Ya either got faith or ya got unbelief, there ain’t no 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 your light, shine your light on me
Shine your light, shine your light on me
Shine your light, shine your light on me
Ya know I just couldn’t make it by myself
I’m a little too blind to see

My so-called friends have fallen under a spell
They look me squarely in the eye and they say, “All is well”
Can they imagine the darkness that will fall from on high
When men will beg God to kill them and they won’t be able to die?

Sister, lemme tell you about a vision I saw
You were drawing water for your husband, you were suffering under the law
You were telling him about Buddha, you were telling him about Mohammed
in the same breath
You never mentioned one time the Man who came and died a criminal’s death 

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

Precious angel, you believe me when I say
What God has given to us no man can take away  (John 10:29) (Mark 10:9)
We are covered in blood, girl, you know our forefathers were slaves** 
Let us hope they’ve found mercy in their bone-filled graves

You’re the queen of my flesh, girl, you’re my woman, you’re my delight
You’re the lamp of my soul, girl, and you torch up the night
But there’s violence in the eyes, girl, so let us not be enticed
On the way out of Egypt, through Ethiopia, to the judgment hall of Christ ***

Shine your light, shine your light on me
Shine your light, shine your light on me
Shine your light, shine your light on me
Ya know I just couldn’t make it by myself
I’m a little too blind to see
Copyright © 1979 by Special Rider Music

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Is religion the opiate of the masses, as Marx declared? Or is it a last bastion for hope in a world gone wrong?

* see also: Luke 4, and The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis.
** Origins of the Blood Covenant: Genesis 15:9-21
*** From Exodus thru to Revelations

For further reading see Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life by Scott Marshall

1 comment:

Ian Lovell said...

lovely piece of writing...thank you