It is accurate to admit that I have never been a fan of singer Bob Dylan or his music, which for me was too folksy and, admittedly, probably too intellectually deep for my feeble mind.
Recently, however, I stumbled across a documentary of his early years, directed by Martin Scorsese, and let it play in the background while I was working. Increasingly, I was pulled away from work to listen to an understatedly quiet, brilliant man discuss his life and how the words were of him but not by him.
“They just fall on me,” he said with absolute honesty and not a smidge of false humility.
His producer, the late Bob Johnston, explained that Dylan would come into the studio, sit down at the piano and, as if in a trance, pour out incredible words. “Man, the Holy Spirit was all over him, in him, you could see the Holy Spirit when he wrote like that.”
Throughout the entertainment business, it has long been whispered that Dylan, born of a Jewish family in Minnesota, had, in his early career years, a meeting of the minds with the Lord Jesus Christ. I believe that to be true because of the words that sometimes pepper his stories: crucifixion, resurrection, Holy Spirit. Some even attribute that conversion, or at least the catalysis of it, to his friendship with Johnny Cash.
To the interviewer, he told the story of hearing a gospel song sung by Hank Williams when he was around 8. It was such a jolting experience that Dylan said, “Suddenly, I felt that I was born to the wrong family in the wrong place.” He would be forever forth drawn to the Appalachian sound and its old music.
He would testify to being born again through an album called Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan. He wrote every song on the album, including “When He Returns,” the album’s title song and “Saved,” (which he co-wrote).
Peggy Noonan, former speech writer for Ronald Reagan, wrote an admiring Wall Street Journal piece on Dylan, the only songwriter to ever be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and quoted Dylan talking about the gospel music of Little Richard.
“Why did people appreciate his gospel music?” Dylan asked. “Probably because gospel music is the music of good news and in these days there just isn’t. Good news in today’s world is like a fugitive, treated like a hoodlum and put on the run. On the other hand, gospel news is exemplary. It can give you courage.”
It just happened that a few hours before reading that, I was flipping through a news feed on social media when I encountered an older woman, her daughter and granddaughter singing a’cappella, the old Southern gospel song, “Heaven’s Jubilee,” with all three verses. I listened. Again. Again. And again. It was hopeful and uplifting while the grandmother’s husky alto spray coated a gloss of pure joy over it.
In fact, there was just a tinge of Holy Ghost shouting in their blood harmony.
These three generations, standing in front of a kitchen stove, were raising the roof with praise. That clip had been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. Hours later when I read Dylan’s words, I realized how truly wise he is.
As I listened to them sing, I felt the darkness of the world could be made light again. And, that there is always hope, because as songwriter G.T. (Dad) Speer, wrote, “What rejoicing that will be, when the saints shall rise; headed for that jubilee, yonder in the skies.”
I may never be bright enough to grasp the erudite language of Bob Dylan songs, but this I can say: I’m now a big fan of Bob Dylan the man.
Dylan reminds me of this scripture: Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.
Also, as he said in the documentary, it can give you courage.