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Done Crossed Over – Belated Notes on Holy Days and Dylan’s Conversion
Passover is my favorite Jewish Holiday. It’s neither high nor holy. Rather than on temple and authority, it centers on a meal with family. One tradition is always to have a non jewish guest at the table, where the food is good and the story better. Revolt from slavery, exodus, good guys and bad, vengeance, plagues. There’s
the inedible but somehow irresistible matzoh, the 3 questions of the wise son, the dutiful, and the son who doesn’t know to ask, those “fruit” slices in kosher colors and that weird white pithy part, and “chad gadya,” a great kid’s song that begins with the purchase of a goat by a father for “two zuzim” and ends with the following verse, having run through the hierarchies of animal and inanimate, and heaven and earth:
Then came the Holy One, Blesses be He
And smote the angel of death, who slew the slaughterer
Who killed the ox, that drank the water
That extinguished the fire, that burned the stick
That beat the dog, that bit the cat
That ate the goat,
Which my father bought for two zuzim
But Passover has nothing on its major cultural competitor, Easter. Sure, there’s an egg on the Passover plate to represent spring and all. And there’s even a scorched animal bone, a lamb shank usually, to remind the feasters of sacrifice. But damn, the christians have got an actual, gruesome man nailed to a cross. I feel like the son who doesn’t know to ask. Or maybe he’s the wiser one, not even wanting to know about that beautiful man dripping blood and sweat and expiring upright for all our sins, whether you wanted him to or not.
Bob Dylan sings no Passover ditties – he was not the dutiful son, either. He is that Jew who turns the tide, like Jesus, and after him everything is changed. Other folk singers treated American song (and the descendents of the people who sang them) with a museum keeper’s reverence. They performed history, not bothering to change the pronouns in love songs to fit heterosexual romance conventions. As much as I loved Judy Collins and Joan Baez, to them, American song wasn’t living music. It was political, historical, a secular religiosity for the pre-consumer masses. At its worst it could be sexless and dull. Then Dylan electrified the folk festies, even before Newport. He sang his own lyrics and encouraged people to think for themselves, even as he was being railroaded into being the saviour of the 60s. Even his traditionals contained pointed messages about consumerism. His version of “Froggie went a courting” ends, like “chad gadya,” with froggie making the rounds of the animal kingdom, courting nothing but disaster, which comes in the form of a “lily white duck” who eats our poor mr. froggie up! And in case you didn’t digest the entire self-consuming message, the last line serves it all on one plate for you:
little piece of cornbread layin on a shelf
if you want anymore you can sing it yourself
Dylan, that most musical of writers, certainly does sing it for himself. Mostly about himself. Which always made me a little suspicious about his infamous conversion to Christianity. Or maybe just hopeful. For even the most deracinated, pork chomping, never entered a shul kind of jew, there’s a dispiriting feel to a jew falling for jesus. It just feels creepy, maybe a little like lesbians who up and marry men – yes it does happen – in middle age. You went to all that trouble to be different and despised and then you just give in? Do you really want to make so many christians so fucking happy?
So Bobbie Zimmerman converted — he turned the other cheek. But while I can understand feeling betrayed by a Jew who capitulates to conversion’s coercions, I can’t agree with those who say Dylan’s religious music isn’t fantastic. And it’s righteously religious too. It’s good music, good Dylan, and though it seems that the acute phase may have ended some time ago (remember “Covenant Woman”?), Dylan’s religious phase has never really ended. True religion permeates Dylan’s music now. The god is in the music itself. His return in Modern Times, Time Out of Mind, and last year’s Together Through Life to historical materials and genres indicates his desire to situate in a vernacular form a god-soaked time, before gospel became soul. When it still had soul.
But while I love religious music of Handel and Bach and Dylan I must confess I don’t read the bible. I don’t need to. The music itself is pure religion. The music of the country – white, gospel, mountain – the music Dylan hears, and Gillian Welch reveals – is essentially religious. This music is so religious in its roots that it can feel profane. It knows the desire to turn praise to stomp; it knows the foot of pride. Is it Dylan singing or the music singing through him? Is he a vessel in the chorus or taking an ornate solo flight of grace? No, I don’t read the bible itself. I’m not a literalist or a strict constructionist. It matters to me that Dylan converted, that he writes these songs, that he continues to translate King James’s vernacular to this chosen Jew who’s not converting, no way, I wouldn’t give anyone the satisfaction. My love for Jesus hangs on Dylan’s cross. It travels with him to the banks of the winding Mississippi, in the plantation fields, and the courtrooms of injustice under god. Dylan’s piano-based songs – think of “Blind Willie McTell” or “Nettie Moore” — tend to be most clear about the incomplete project of redemption in this fallen land, across this half-forgotten history. Although they on the surface don’t seem to be gospel songs, they are. Because they are rooted in the voices of the land that Dylan translates through the language and vernacular of their times to our times.
For all of Dylan’s singing of Him and of the lamb, can you ever really take the jew out of the voice? Dylan sure don’t sing like a christian angel. More like a rabbi, a melancholy wise man. Maybe “Mississippi” can be a walking rabbi blues in its opening couplet:
Every step of the way/ we walk the line
Your days are numbered/ So are mine
Every grain of sand, the comfort of knowing you are counted and accountable, not lost, not a rank stranger. And yet… though you may walk with Dylan, you always walk alone – two, disunited, under god. Dylan is like O’Connor’s Misfit, the courtly killer from “A Good Man is Hard to Find” who, in answer to the foolish question, why’d you do it? actually explains – it was Christ, coming to offer salvation that messed up his world. And instead of singing the gospel of christ, the Misfit went out to right the world, one person at a time, with his own errant revolver. They all would have been good people “if it had been somebody there to shoot [them ]every minute of [their] lives.” Short of the Misfit’s misbegotten offer of grace, I guess I’ll get along with listening to Dylan’s (or Handel’s or Bach’s) sung gospel every minute of my life playing in the background, in my head. Even when I’m not listening, it’s playing me. Saving me.
But who is this unsatisfying killer rabbi passing through apocalyptic Mississippi?
I got nothing for you
Had nothing before
Don’t even have anything for myself anymore
Sky full of fire
rain pouring down
Nothing you can sell me – I’ll see you around
Dylan is consumed, empty; he is insatiable. He is converted, and yet the same. Like the best of the jews, he knows what it was like, even for Jesus. Before the gospels and the dogma. He knows how hard it is to keep going and to stand on that shore, always beaten back, receding, attached to ruination:
The emptiness is endless/ cold as the clay
I sometimes wonder how Dylan can sing this line with such relish at the end of the lyric, and with such stamina.
And then only to rhyme, inconsequentially:
You can always come back/ but you can’t come back all the way
Who else would know the troubles He (I?) endure? Dylan was never really gone. But we all know what a comeback is, and he’s had a career comeback. But what part of him never resurrected? I’m no rabbi. I don’t split hairs; I don’t even know to ask the right questions. I’m just glad that even the desperate teachings of the followers of the god of love and thunder come out cracked and discomforting from His most converted servant. As Benjamin Franklin, a smartass son if ever there was, once counseled, and I believe Dylan heard: “Be Humble. Imitate Jesus.” Amen.
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