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Bob Dylan’s Hymns: What is Really Sacred[1]
by Taigen Dan Leighton   Copyright © 2023 Taigen Dan Leighton

Introduction: What is Truly Sacred?

One of Bob Dylan’s seminal songs is “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” from “Bringing It All Back Home” in 1965. Dylan critiques the shallowness of contemporary consumerist culture that makes “everything from toy guns that spark, to flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark.” Dylan then proclaims, “It’s easy to see without looking too far that not much is really sacred.”[2] In a world where not much is truly sacred, how does Dylan see what is indeed sacred, what he most values or finds meaningful?

Bob Dylan has written and sung many songs that might be described as hymns, devotional songs praising the sacred. Hymns have been defined as “simple and metrical in form, genuinely emotional, poetic and literary in style, spiritual in quality, and in their ideas so direct and so immediately apparent as to unify a congregation while singing.”[3] I do not intend a comprehensive discussion of all of Dylan’s hymns, a major project, but simply to offer a selection with which to suggest significant aspects of Dylan’s spiritual perspectives. I will consider hymns reflecting the broad range of Dylan’s career and his varied responses to the sacred.

Dylan is one of the modern world’s great creative spiritual poets. While considering Dylan’s lyrics as poetry, I deeply appreciate that he is a performance artist, and his words and spiritual insights come alive most vividly in his sung performances. He knows his songs well before he starts singing, as he declares at the end of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”

Dylan famously has had periods of espousing fundamental Christianity and of involvement with orthodox Judaism. But Dylan’s spiritual perspectives go beyond organized religions or official theologies. His lyrics can be heard and appreciated apart from references to texts from traditional religious institutions, as enumerated in the various studies of Dylan’s citations and analogies from the Bible and from ancient Roman religion, for example.[4]

We can see Dylan’s hymns as sharing the perspective of describing the sacred in four major realms. The sacred resides in the natural, phenomenal world rather than by seeking an escape from the mundane. Dylan celebrates the morning breeze like a bugle blowing, and every leaf that trembles and every grain of sand. Secondly, the sacred appears in misfits and outcasts, in every hung-up person in the whole wide universe. Then in helpful, healing engagement with all those who have been marginalized, who live outside the law and thus must be honest.

Further, Dylan often sees the sacred shining in his relationships with women, seen in “the beauty that I remember in my true love’s eyes” in “Tomorrow is a Long Time,” or the moonlight swimming in the eyes of the “Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” Finally, the sacred resides on the road, in the process of our journey. Dylan celebrates this sacred value in the pilgrimage of his ongoing never-ending tour, as well as in numbers of his lyrics.

The songs to be discussed here exemplify these aspects of the sacred. They are presented in rough thematic order, though certainly some of his hymns express a combination of these sacred elements. We might also hear these spiritual themes in some of Dylan’s songs not necessarily definable as hymns.

Lay Down Your Weary Tune

One of my favorite Dylan songs, a very early one, is “Lay Down Your Weary Tune.” Dylan performed it only once, in October 1963, and it was released only on “Biograph” in 1965. “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” celebrates the musical sounds of the natural landscape, as opposed to Paul Simon’s “Sounds of Silence” released in 1964, the year after Dylan performed his “Weary Tune.” In this song the sounds of nature create a hymn to the sacredness of the world itself and herald a refuge from its stress and suffering.

The song’s chorus tells of the weariness of life and its struggles, and calls for finding rest and peace in its midst. The chorus goes:

Lay down your weary tune, lay down
Lay down the song you strum
And rest yourself ’neath the strength of strings
No voice can hope to hum

After his chorus, Dylan continues strumming and singing sweetly, melodiously, about the music of nature. He sings of being struck by the sounds before sunrise, “The morning breeze like a bugle blew, Against the drums of dawn,” with bugles and drumbeats blowing in the wind. In the next verse the ocean plays like an organ, with the crashing waves like cymbals clashing. The ocean’s impact, after another chorus, leaves the singer “unwound beneath the sun and skies unbound by laws” as “the cryin’ rain like a trumpet sang.” This is not Dylan railing against a hard rain. The rain itself is weary and crying. After another chorus, Dylan suggests one context for this weariness, as the last leaves of autumn “fell from the trees and clung to a new love’s breast.” The bare branches play like a banjo to the wind again, this wind listening best to the cries of the world. The banjo “moaned,” evoking the new lover rather than the kind of banjo Pete Seeger popularized. The song here may suggest weariness with precipitous endings of shifting romantic intimacies.

In the last verse before the final chorus the singer gazes down to the river’s mirror, watching the river flow. In this song the varied elements of the natural landscape become musical instruments, producing a hymn to help lay down worldly burdens, perhaps calling forth the chimes of freedom ringing. Nature and its music provide their own solace and refuge within the weariness of the world’s woes. The celebration of the musicality of nature, and the communion of all its elements and instruments, implies a semi-mystical union of the world with its appreciators, and perhaps especially with musicians. Notably, the instruments attributed to each natural element are imaginative and not akin to the actual nature sounds, such as the breeze like a bugle, dawn as a drum, and trumpet-like rain, along with the moaning banjo.

The word “weary” recalls a line from the great 19th century songwriter Stephen Foster (1826-1864), “All the world is sad and weary everywhere I go” from “The Old Folks at Home” written in 1851. When first hearing this Foster song I imagined it was describing world-weariness after the violence of the American Civil War, but it was instead written of the antebellum South in 1851, and Foster died a little more than a year before the Civil War ended. In terms of the sheer volume and breadth of the approximately 208 songs he wrote, Stephen Foster may be considered the Bob Dylan of the first half of the 19th century. “The Old Folks at Home” sings of yearning in the context of slavery, yearning for a recollected peace with family and home. The great African-American leader W.E.B. Dubois (1868-1963) even suggested in his The Souls of Black Folk (1903) that “The Old Folks at Home” was a song about looking back and longing for the traditions of Africa.[5]

In “The Old Folks at Home” Foster’s rhyming of “bees a hummin’” with “banjo strummin’,” are echoed later in Dylan’s rhyming of strum and hum in the chorus of “Lay Down Your Weary Tune.” Foster writes:

When will I see de bees a-humming
All round de comb?
When will I hear de banjo strumming,
Down in my good old home?

The final verse of “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” describes gazing down to the river’s mirror. Watching this river flow, again we hear Dylan echoing Foster’s strum and hum, as the river flows like a winding strum as it “runs like a hymn and like a harp did hum,” an unusual sound for a harp.

Although as a Northerner he opposed slavery, Stephen Foster’s expressions of minstrelsy and his attitudes toward race are now considered questionable.[6] The early folklore scholar and compiler Alan Lomax said, “The Minstrel show dominated the American consciousness for almost a century, and the curious and ironic result was that many blacks came to accept its racist distortions as their own.”[7] Nevertheless, Foster’s songs remain popular, and influential to many musicians. For example, his song “Beautiful Dreamer” has been covered by Sam Cooke, Roy Orbison, and Joan Baez. And some of Stephen Foster’s songs clearly resonate with Dylan’s hymns.

In his book The Philosophy of Modern Song, Dylan has a chapter on Stephen Foster’s song “Nelly was a Lady,” a song of deep long-term grief for a loved one now departed. Dylan writes, “Your life is missing … Your happiness is out and out over. . . . Your excitement for life has faded away. . . All life’s colors have darkened, and your bones feel like they’re on the body of a ghost.” He adds, “A lot of sad songs have been written but none sadder than this.”[8] Dylan calls Stephen Foster the counterpart to Edgar Allan Poe, whose terror, moaning, and groaning will appear below.

Dylan covered Foster’s song “Hard Times” on the “Good as I Been to You” album in 1992. Dylan performed the song thirty times in 1993. Foster wrote in the chorus, “Tis the song, the sigh of the weary/ Hard times, hard times, come again no more.” The weariness and sadness Foster invoked in this song and in “The Old Folks at Home” might be seen as prologues to Dylan’s response in “Lay Down Your Weary Tune.” Michael Gray claims that “’Hard Times’ is about the only Stephen Foster song now politically acceptable.” However, Gray further calls Dylan’s cover of the song, “A thrilling achievement. The voice! It breathes his affection for Foster’s craft and his respect for its capacity to evoke, regardless of political correctness, a mythic Old South that still has the power to shiver the imagination and to smoke its way inside the landscape we know from those writers and blues singers who inhabited the real terrain.”[9]

Of course, Bob Dylan has enshrined his strong opposition to racism in numerous songs such as “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol,” “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” “Hurricane,” “George Jackson,” and “Blind Willie McTell,” to name just a few. But Dylan has also long since abandoned any fealty to political correctness. He has discussed how the old songs themselves are his lexicon and his scriptures, and clearly Stephen Foster’s songs have moved him.

Every Grain of Sand 

In 1981 Dylan wrote “Every Grain of Sand” released on the “Shot of Love” album, considered part of Dylan’s Gospel period. Dylan has performed the song more than 300 times, and in his tours in 2023 has closed his concerts with it. The song further celebrates the sacred value of our phenomenal world. It begins, “In the time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need/ When the pool of tears beneath my feet flood every newborn seed.” The mood of the song begins with regret, sorrow, and repentance, even if the next verse starts with the singer perhaps ironically having “no inclination to look back on any mistake.” But he sees the need to “break the chain of events” that leads to this present situation, and then sees the sacred present “In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand.”

Each second verse thereafter ends with “every grain of sand.” The singer comes to understand, onward in his journey, “That every hair is numbered, like every grain of sand.” This seeing all elements of the world encompassed in every grain of sand, the macrocosm in the microcosm, echoes the song “Auguries of Innocence,” ca. 1803, by the great 19th century British visionary poet William Blake (1757-1827). Blake begins these Auguries, defined as omens, prophesies, or predictions, with

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour[10]

Blake’s grain of sand embraces and contains the whole infinite universe including all times and heavens. In his “Auguries of Innocence” Blake proceeds to catalogue numbers of animals who are in tortured situations such as “A Robin Red breast in a cage,” “A dog starv’d at his Master’s Gate,” “A Horse misus’d upon the Road,” and “The Beggar’s Dog & Widow’s Cat [unfed]” along with many others.

Despite this proliferating suffering, Blake advises:

Man was made for Joy & Woe;
And when this we rightly know
Thro’ the World we safely go.

He adds later, “Some are Born to sweet delight,/ Some are Born to Endless Night.” This Blake lyric elaborates on the wholeness of the world, incorporated in a grain of sand. While containing great sadness and injustice, Blake also embraces the possibility of joy and delight when openly facing this world and all its elements.

Dylan’s grains of sand are similarly all-encompassing. Dylan specifically calls forth the sadness of regret and loss. The song ends:

In the bitter dance of loneliness fading into space
In the broken mirror of innocence on each forgotten face
I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand

Each grain of sand is likened to a sparrow falling. Dylan celebrates this life with its sandy grains replete with all elements of the world’s landscape, from trembling leaves to every hair to the passing away of birds flying in the sky. Like Blake, Bob Dylan sees redemption, or at least consolation, in facing this wholeness.

Not only does every grain of sand include and embrace a whole world or the universe, but every grain of sand matters. Each bit of creation is sanctified in Dylan’s vision, every hung-up person in the whole wide universe holds ultimate value. Dylan expresses this another way in “Only a Hobo” from 1963, released in the Bootleg Series, vol. 1-3. While out walking the singer spies an old hobo lying dead in a doorway, and sings, “Only a hobo but one more is gone, leaving nobody to sing his sad song, leaving nobody to carry him home.” For Dylan every creature is sacred and worthy of respect and reverence, along with the whole wide universe.

I Shall Be Released

“I Shall be Released” from 1967 might serve as a revealing counterpoint to seeing the wholeness and spiritual value of the everyday world of phenomena. Originally heard on “Music from Big Pink” by The Band, appearing on various Dylan bootlegs thereafter, and performed nearly 500 times by Dylan, the song poignantly calls for release from the sorrows of the world, aiming for “some place so high above this wall.” Yet in this song Dylan sings that “I remember ev’ry face/ Of ev’ry man who put me here.” The singer does not dismiss or forget the experiences of the mundane human world. The sacred includes his friendships and loves, and all the people and situations that “put me here.”

In this hymn to release, the word “release” has relevant implications for Dylan’s relationship to the sacred. His hymns provide release from the obstructions of a consumerist culture that values material acquisition and the frivolous, from “toy guns that spark to flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark.” Further, his hymns offer release and relief from the limitations of our narrowed materialist perceptions and values. Consumerism and commodity acquisition objectify the world and block open awareness of its beauty and possibilities of intimacy. Thus “this lonely crowd” is denied the value and meaning of what is truly sacred.

Chimes of Freedom

Dylan’s song “Chimes of Freedom” from “Another Side of Bob Dylan” in 1964 is a kind of hymn, which he performed fifty-six times between 1964 and 2012. In what might be seen as a development of “Lay Down Your Weary Tune,” the natural phenomena of thunder crashing seems to be the chimes of freedom flashing. The sacred that is praised in this song is the suffering of a whole array of “countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out” people. The lightning is “tolling for the outcast, burnin’ constantly at stake,” and tolling for “each unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail.” The song praises their relief and freedom from suffering, dedicated to “every hung-up person in the whole wide universe,” that they might hear the chimes of freedom flashing.

Much of “Chimes of Freedom” is about freedom from oppressive conditions, rather than positive expressions of what freedom is for. Freedom from, and adamant refusal to accept any oppressive social system, was expressed the following year, 1965, in one of Dylan’s greatest protest songs, “Maggie’s Farm” from “Bringing It All Back Home.” The singer is insistent that he “ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more.” Later “in the 1980s Maggie’s Farm was widely adopted as an anthem by opponents to British Prime Minister Margaret [Maggie] Thatcher.”[11]

Positive qualities of freedom that Dylan finds sacred are included in “Chimes of Freedom.” Such images as, “the warriors whose strength is not to fight… [and] the echo of the wedding bells before the blowin’ rain” celebrate helpful and free spirit. The chimes are “striking for the gentle, striking for the kind, striking for the guardians and protectors of the mind.” These gentle protectors are the sacred praised in this hymn to freedom. In the denouement of the final verse Dylan describes “being starry-eyed and laughing … when we were caught.” The song closes with gazing “upon the chimes of freedom flashing” as a beacon of true value and the sacred, and a comfort for the outcast and marginalized.

Ring Them Bells

“Ring Them Bells” appeared on Dylan’s “Oh Mercy” album in 1989. The song echoes “Chimes of Freedom” from 1964, for example in its fourth verse, “Ring them bells for the blind and the deaf,/ Ring them bells for all of us who are left,” reminiscent of “Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned an’ forsaked/ Tolling for the outcast, burnin’ constantly at stake,” from “Chimes of Freedom.” These bells toll for the outcasts, but also ring from the natural world, from the sanctuaries “through the valleys and streams,” recalling “Lay Down Your Weary Tune.”.

The song praises the sacred as an anti-hymn, lamenting the desecration of what is holy. The second verse ends, “the sun is going down/ Upon the sacred cow,” a double-edged perhaps ironic image. Cows may be truly sacred, for example in India, but also an expression of that which is falsely considered sacred, as in the biblical golden calf Moses encountered upon descending from Mount Zion. The song ends with the defilement of morality, “they’re breaking down the distance between right and wrong.”

“Ring Them Bells” resonates with “The Bells of Rhymney,” a song with music added by Pete Seeger to the lyrics of the Welsh poet Idris Davies. The song grieves for a Welsh coal mining disaster. “Bells of Rhymney” was covered by the Byrds in their 1965 “Mr. Tambourine Man” debut album, which also covered Dylan’s “Spanish Harlem Incident,” “All I Really Want to Do,” and “Chimes of Freedom,” as well as the title song. In “Ring Them Bells” Dylan calls, in different verses, to ring them bells to St. Peter, for Sweet Martha, and for St. Catherine. This recalls “The Bells of Rhymney” invoking the brown bells of Merthyr, the black bells of Rhondda, the grim bells of Blaina, the bells of Newport, the green bells of Cardiff as well as the sad bells of Rhymney. The sorrow of “Bells of Rhymney” for the dead miners and anger at the mine owners informs Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells” including ringing for “the child that cries, When innocence dies.”

Another antecedent for “Ring Them Bells” might be heard in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Bells,” which Dylan’s sometimes colleague Phil Ochs adapted for his beautiful song “The Bells” in his 1964 album “All the News That Fits.” Poe’s Bells start by extoling delight. In the first two verses, “A world of merriment their melody foretells” and “a world of happiness their harmony foretells.” But the tone shifts to “Brazen bells! What a tale of terror now their turbulency tells!” This somber mood increases to “a muffled monotone … on the human heart a stone.” In the last verse we hear “the sobbing of the bells” and the poem closes with “the moaning and the groaning of the bells.” Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells” is not nearly so ominous as Poe’s Bells. Yet the song does present the loss of innocence as “the willows weep and the mountains are filled with lost sheep.” In the last verse “the fighting is strong” as “they’re breaking down the distance between right and wrong.” In this hymn Dylan acts as a guardian and protector of the sacred, noting how it is threatened.

In his song “I Contain Multitudes” from “Rough and Rowdy Ways” in 2020, Dylan honors both Poe and Blake, antecedent to “Every Grain of Sand.” He sings, “Gotta tell tale heart like Mr. Poe” and a few verses later, “I sing the songs of experience like William Blake.” Dylan is not shy about honoring the multitudes of his musical and poetic inspirations.

Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands

Dylan’s hymns often celebrate the sacred in the women he has loved. Dylan’s “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlandswas written in 1966 and released on “Blonde on Blonde.” It is one of Dylan’s longest songs, surpassed in length only by “Highlands” and “Murder Most Foul.” Its length might account for why Dylan has never performed “Sad-Eyed Lady,” or perhaps it is simply “too personal a tale,” as he sings about the “lonesome-hearted lovers” in “Chimes of Freedom.” (Dylan has performed versions of “Highlands” nine times, and nearly 600 times “Desolation Row” equal in length to the Sad-Eyed Lady, though he also has never performed “Murder Most Foul.”) Sad-Eyed Lady is a hymn-like love song, generally acknowledged as dedicated to Dylan’s first wife, Sara Lownds.

The song is complex, replete with colorful images, many likely symbolic references to events in their relationship. A full exegesis or interpretation of the song is not relevant to this article. But “Sad Eyed Lady” serves to exemplify a hymn dedicated to a loved one. It is one of three Dylan songs containing the word “hymn,” mentioning her matchbook songs and her “gypsy hymns.” Among many images that evoke Sara’s spiritual qualities the song mentions “your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes, And your silver cross, and your voice like chimes.” He appreciates her “silhouette when the sunlight dims” and the moonlight swimming in her eyes. He praises “your gentleness now, which you just can’t help but show,” and “your holy medallion which your fingertips fold, And your saintlike face and your ghostlike soul.” This song clearly honors his love for his wife, invoking her sacred qualities.

Nobody ‘Cept You

Another song that mentions the word “hymn” is “Nobody ‘Cept You” from 1973, released on “Bootleg series 1-3” in 1991. While Dylan states that there may not be much that is really sacred in the modern world, this song has the refrain, “there’s nothing to me that’s sacred ’Cept you, yeah you.” The song includes the verse:

There’s a hymn I used to hear
In the churches all the time
Make me feel so good inside
So peaceful, so sublime
And there’s nothing to remind me of that
Old familiar chime
’Cept you, uh huh you

In the following verse the singer recalls his childhood playing in the churchyard cemetery, but so much older now, he mournfully sees his former playground as “where the bones of life are piled.” No one sees him anymore “’Cept you, yeah you.”

This song, heard as a hymn, praises the sacred quality of “You, yeah you,” one of Dylan’s many love songs that invokes the sacredness of a romantic partner, who sees him clearly, even amid his changes. Certainly, one focus of the sacred for Dylan is love, and women. However, when Dylan sings about “you,” it is a good example of why Sean Wilentz calls Dylan “a master of ambiguity.”[12] Especially in his Gospel period, but also perhaps as an undertone in this song, the “you” may imply the Deity, or a sacred spirit, as well as his lover. Sometimes Dylan’s “you” may imply the audience for whom he sings. But in this song, as unambiguously as Dylan can ever be, he serenades a human lover, one who sees his spirit true.

I’ve Made up my Mind to Give Myself to You 

The song “I’ve Made up my Mind to Give Myself to You,” is from Dylan’s album “Rough and Rowdy Ways” in 2020, and points to a few of Dylan’s aspects of the truly sacred. Like “Lay Down Your Weary Tune,” this hymn celebrates the world’s landscape. The singer is “lost in the stars.” He sees “the first fall of snow, [and] the flowers come and go.” He says, “My heart’s like a river – a river that sings” recalling the natural elements that perform in “Lay Down Your Weary Tune.” This is the backdrop for the song’s purposeful refrain, “I made up my mind to give myself to you.” The natural setting goes through to the last verse, “From the plains and the prairies – from the mountains to the sea.” This extends “From Salt Lake City to Birmingham, From East L.A. to San Antone” and everywhere he goes, “I don’t think I could bear to live my life alone.”

Dylan’s use of pronouns has long been ambiguous, as previously cited from Sean Wilentz for “Nobody ‘Cept You.” The “you” in “I’ve Made Up My Mind” carries various referents. The first obvious “you” here is a woman, a romantic partner. The singer is “pledging my time to you, hoping you’ll come through too,” as Dylan sang in “Blonde on Blonde.” This is a love song in which to “preach the gospel, the gospel of love,” and as a hymn it praises “you” in a sacred commitment to a relationship to a lover. It is one of Dylan’s most beautiful of his many love songs.

However, sometimes when Dylan sings “you,” it might be addressed to his audience, or sometimes even to himself. In his so-called “gospel period” in the 80s You is the one God. However, in the last verse of “I’ve Made up my Mind” Dylan sings, “I hope that the gods go easy with me.” In referring to a plethora of gods he is not here looking at “you” as the one monotheistic deity.

In “I’ve Made up my Mind to Give Myself to You,” Dylan sings, “I traveled the long road of despair,” echoing “Every Grain of Sand” with its “morals of despair” and going “onward in my journey.” The reference in “I’ve Made up my Mind” to a traveling man might well be a tribute to Ricky Nelson and one of his signature songs. But “traveling man” of course refers to Dylan himself, going back to his very first album’s “Song to Woody” ending, “The last thing that I’d want to do, is to say I’ve been hittin’ some hard travelin’ too.” Dylan’s long and dusty road continues right up to his still current never-ending tour, far beyond “Salt Lake City to Birmingham, From East L.A. to San Antone.” Thus “I’ve Made up my Mind” is also a hymn to the road, literally and metaphorically, to the terrain Dylan has traversed in his songs and his touring, as well as to the “You” to whom he is committing. The road Dylan celebrates in Chinese spiritual context is the Tao or Way, the very heart of the spiritual path and process. We can add to what is truly sacred for Bob Dylan the journey or pilgrimage through the world, his hard travelling in his songs as well as in his widespread performing tours. In many spiritual traditions, pilgrimage is a key practice of the sacred.

In a recent concert on his “Rough and Rowdy Ways” tour, Dylan followed his performance of “I’ve Made up my Mind to Give Myself to You” with a cover of the Grateful Dead song, “Truckin’.” This anthem and hymn to the road, released by the Dead in 1970 on “American Beauty,” has been covered by Dylan many times, and names eight cities. Its pivotal line, “What a long, strange trip it’s been” certainly applies to Dylan’s varied, genre encompassing songwriting career as well as to his performance tours.

Ain’t Talkin’

A more painful aspect of the sacred path is explored for our contemporary situation where “the sufferin’ is unending” in “Ain’t Talkin’,” the final song of “Modern Times” released in 2006. The song begins, “As I walked out tonight in the mystic garden, The wounded flowers were dangling from the vine.” The mystic garden recalls the musical natural world of “Lay Down Your Weary Tune.” But the “wounded flowers” depict a damaged world gone wrong. This is followed by the chorus starting with the title line, “Ain’t talkin’, just walkin’, Through this weary world of woe.” The singer has returned to a weary world, whether or not he previously laid down his weary tune. A few verses later the singer avers, “Ain’t talkin’, just walkin’ Through the world mysterious and vague.” The world as mysterious at least suggests possibility. But then the nature of this dark pilgrimage is clarified, “Walkin’ through the cities of the plague.” A little later he elaborates, “They will crush you with wealth and power.”
The verse that affirms this song of silently just walkin’ as a spiritual hymn to the path goes:

All my loyal and my much-loved companions
They approve of me and share my code
I practice a faith that’s been long abandoned
Ain’t no altars on this long and lonesome road.

The singer is not on a solitary pilgrimage, even if it is on a long and lonesome road. He is accompanied by “loyal and much-loved companions.” His faith has long been abandoned, an ancient spirit tradition with all altars gone, and perhaps all ritual and ceremony forgotten. The long and lonesome road must be re-excavated, or even reinvented. This indicates Dylan’s creative genre exploration. Though calling on his cherished lexicon of many musical and poetic traditions, there were no roadmaps for Dylan’s particular spiritual career. This hymn is also a lament, “The sufferin’ is unending, Every nook and cranny has its tears.” The final destination of this hymn’s dark journey is “the last outback at the world’s end.”


The hymns I have discussed all honor the sacred right in this world, on the road, and even amid suffering. These are not hymns praising something sacred beyond this phenomenal world with its sorrows and delights. Dylan has written many songs critiquing social injustice throughout his career, not only in his early “protest” songs. But his hymns offer tribute to the goodness and sacred that remain in the world, and he encourages us in “Highlands” to strengthen the things that remain. Dylan’s hymns celebrate the sacred in the natural landscape, in the sounds of the breezes and the flowing streams. Some of Dylan’s hymns sing of the forlorn, ignored folks who must live outside the law and its injustices. But among them are the guardians and protectors who care for troubled people. Dylan’s hymns also sing of the sacred in his true loves’ eyes and in the intimacy of lovers. He sees the sacred further in his never-ending travels, in the songs themselves and in the tradition of songs that Dylan channels. The journey itself is sacred. Finally, as an insightful spiritual poet Dylan’s hymns offer release and relief from our narrowed materialist perceptions that block open awareness, thus denying true value and meaning.

Biographical note:

Rev. Taigen Dan Leighton PhD, Sōtō Zen Buddhist teacher, leads the Ancient Dragon Zen Gate congregation in Chicago. He is online professor at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. Leighton’s ten books of Buddhist commentaries and translations include numerous references to Bob Dylan. Leighton’s Zen Questions includes an essay interpreting “Visions of Johanna” as a song about Zen Mind. Just This Is It: Dongshan and the Practice of Suchness features discussions of “I’m Not There” and other Dylan songs.


[1] This is an expanded version of a talk presented at the World of Bob Dylan International Symposium, June, 2023, at the University of Tulsa’s Institute for Bob Dylan Studies.

[2] All lyrics of Bob Dylan songs are from:, unless otherwise specified.

[3] McElrath Eskew, Sing with Understanding, An Introduction to Christian Hymnology. (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1980).

[4] For Dylan’s connections to Roman religion, see Richard F. Thomas, Why Bob Dylan Matters (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2017).

[5] See:

[6] For a discussion of Foster’s legacy and the context of the minstrel show, see Michael Gray, Song and Dance Man III: The Art of Bob Dylan (London: Continuum, 2000), pp. 718-724.

[7] Alan Lomax, The Land Where the Blues Began, (London: Methuen, 1993) in Gray, Song and Dance Man III, p.721.

[8] Bob Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2022) pp. 113-115.

[9] Gray, Song and Dance Man III, pp.722-723.

[10] Geoffrey Keynes, edit. Blake Complete Writings (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), pp. 431-434.

[11] See:’s_Farm

[12] Sean Wilentz, “New York Review of Books,“ June 19, 2021.