“This Barren Land”: Bob Dylan’s Gospel Variations

One of the most striking and elusive aspects of Dylan's recent music is the way it channels the tone of American gospel songs.

By Max NelsonMarch 27, 2016

“This Barren Land”: Bob Dylan’s Gospel Variations

The following is a feature article from the LARB Quarterly Journal: Winter 2016 edition. To pick up your copy of the Journal, become a member of the Los Angeles Review of Books or order a copy at amazon.com.


SOME 70 YEARS before Bob Dylan recorded Time Out of Mind, the album that gave his career the most recent of its many jump-starts and reinventions, the Memphis street-corner gospel singer Blind Mamie Forehand and her husband — a guitar player identified only as “A.C.” — laid down a chilling, funereal 78 that quickly found its way into the gospel-blues canon. The legendary Virginian country trio The Carter Family recorded versions of both sides in the 1930s; several decades later, an all-female a capella gospel troupe would take its name from the famous A-track’s refrain. The song in question, “Honey in the Rock,” is the kind of spectral, imposingly vulnerable performance at which certain prewar Southern gospel singers — Washington Phillips, Blind Willie Johnson, and Homer Quincy Smith, among others — were especially skilled: an eerie invocation backed by a quavering guitar and the regular chiming of a tiny bell.

Forehand’s voice on the record’s B-side, “Wouldn’t Mind Dying If Dying Was All,” is firmer and more assertive than on “Honey in the Rock.” As the guitar trudges along behind her, she utters what might be a confession and what is certainly — whatever else it is — a warning:

After death, you’re gonna have to stand a test
After death, you’re gonna have to stand a test
After death, you’re gonna have to stand a test
I wouldn’t mind dying if dying was all

One of the most striking and elusive aspects of Dylan’s recent music — particularly the loose triptych of Time Out of Mind, Modern Times, and Tempest — is the way it channels the tone of American gospel songs like these. The voice that dominates songs like “Love Sick,” “Standing in the Doorway,” “Trying to Get to Heaven,” and many of the numbers on Dylan’s subsequent records was a half-secularized variation of the one that still emanates from that couple’s only 78: a voice that takes life for something tenuous, fragile, and short, that shuffles around on shadowy thresholds, that lives in a state of constant homelessness, that wouldn’t mind dying if it could only be sure that dying was all.


Since the release of Time Out of Mind, Dylan has never stopped accruing myths and rumors, making feints, leaving false trails. He wanders vagrant-like into Long Branch, New Jersey, inquiring about buying Bruce Springsteen’s old house. A self-trained boxer, he enters the ring with Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini and asks him, after some light sparring, to “take it a little easy on the head.” He releases a critically lauded collection of original songs between an album of Great American Songbook covers and a Christmas record featuring, among other standards, a Latin rendition of “O’ Come All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fideles)” and a shiver-inducing, menace-soaked “Little Drummer Boy.”

His recent self-effacing insistence, during a rambling, caustic, and startling speech at the Los Angeles Convention Center, that anyone could have written “Blowin’ in the Wind” who had sang “John Henry” as often as he had — “I just opened up a different door in a different kind of way” — was no new revelation. It’s well known that Dylan’s songwriting process has always been a matter of embellishing or reshuffling folk standards. Nor was it a new admission from Dylan himself, who once described (in his autobiography Chronicles, Volume One) having honed his skills as a young songwriter by “slightly altering” one melody over and over to produce new songs, once in a while “slipping in verses and lines from old spirituals or blues.” But it was an invitation for critics to undertake the same sort of exercise on Dylan’s later work that Greil Marcus and others performed on records like The Basement Tapes and Blonde on Blonde: a slapdash inventory of the ways in which certain strains of early American music found their way into the tone, texture, and mood of Dylan’s songs. In the case of these more recent records, it’s early American religious music that took a particular hold on Dylan’s imagination.

Starting with Time Out of Mind, you could argue, Dylan made a sustained effort to capture the peculiar morbid tone of the old spirituals: their obsession with fretting over, guessing, or confidently asserting what comes after death. At the start of what would become one of his most celebrated songs, Washington Phillips asked himself what “they” were “doing in Heaven today.” He gave himself a quick answer: “I don’t know, boys, but it’s my business to stay here and sing about it.”

It was indeed a business: the singers and preachers who made a living recording gospel music in the 1920s and ’30s very often did so on the strength of their ability to evoke what life would look like in the world to come, for the saved as well as the damned. The Rev. A.W. Nix’s sermon “The Black Diamond Express to Hell” was popular enough to inspire five follow-up recordings. Before his imprisonment at Parchman Farm, Delta blues singer and guitarist Washington “Bukka” White had a successful stint at Victor Records in the early 1930s recording optimistic spirituals like “The Promise True and Grand” and “I Am in the Heavenly Way.” Some of the most powerful early gospel recordings, like those featuring Bessie Johnson, a formidable singer whose earth-shaking voice was a fixture of the Memphis Church of God in Christ for years, pivoted on promises of redemption (“One Day”; “He Got Better Things for You”; “Since I Laid My Burden Down”) or doom (“The Great Reaping Day,” Rev. Johnny Blakey’s “Warming by the Devil’s Fire”). At his last recording session (the Depression put an early end to his career), the hugely popular preacher F.W. McGee cut a boisterous, vividly detailed picture of what “better things,” exactly, the Lord had in store for His people. Harry Smith included the recording on his legendary Anthology of American Folk Music, and Dylan, one imagines, readily soaked up the tone of the song’s chorus:

When the gates swing wide on the other side
Just beyond the sunset sea
There’ll be room to spare as we enter there
Room for you and room for me

For the gates are wide on the other side
Where the flowers ever bloom
On the right hand, on the left hand
Fifty miles of elbow room.

The lyrics are confident, prophetic. There will be room to spare on the other side, where the gates are wide, provided you have passed the test that — an implicit spiritual echo of Blind Mamie Forehand — you’re gonna have to stand. Assurance, however, is rarely the dominant tone in this strain of prewar gospel, which lends itself more often to doubt and discomfiture. Often, the doubt comes out in the music itself, in the texture of the singer’s voice and the restless, clattering, spectral movements of the backing instruments. Listen past the swaggering bluster of Brother Claude Ely’s 1953 recording of “There Ain’t No Grave (Gonna Hold My Body Down),” which the preacher allegedly wrote in divine inspiration during a childhood bout with consumption, and you’ll hear a fidgety, anxious tone to match its occasional, abashed conditionals (“If these wings should fail me / Want you to meet me with another pair”) and implorations (“Gabriel don’t you blow your trumpet / Until you hear from me”). Dylan’s late music is more agnostic, more openly skeptical than any of these prewar gospel numbers, but the morbid doubt that surfaces on records like Time Out of Mind and Modern Times was already written into early gospel music’s genes.

Oddly, when Dylan underwent a high-profile conversion in the early 1980s, the gospel records he started making were of a decidedly modern, postwar breed: roof-shaking, lavishly produced, choir-backed songs of perseverance and praise. Some of this music, particularly the magisterial Shot of Love, has aged well; much of it less so. The reassurance that fills “Death Is Not the End,” a schmaltzy, ballad-like spiritual that appeared midway through 1988’s Down in the Groove, is the stuff of condolence note boilerplate: “When the storm clouds gather ’round you / And heavy rains descend / Just remember that death is not the end.”

It was with the pair of albums he made between 1992 and 1993 — Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong — that Dylan found his way back to earlier, prewar strands of folk and blues, and it was on Time Out of Mind and its follow-ups that he rediscovered the spirit of early American spirituals. Like generations of listeners before him, Dylan saw through the promises and threats those songs proffered up front. What he’d come upon instead were deep reserves of doubt, anxiety, rootlessness, and pain.


Exhausted, burnt-out, and heavy-limbed, many of the songs on Time Out of Mind and Modern Times suggest the fear of a pilgrim unsure of reaching — or having — a destination. The narrator of “Love Sick,” the first song on Time Out of Mind, makes his entrance “walking through streets that are dead”; that of “Standing in the Doorway” is introduced “walking through the summer nights”; that of Modern Times’s “Ain’t Talkin’” is, he insists, “just walkin’ / Through this weary world of woe.” (Similar images appear throughout Time Out of Mind’s centerpiece “Not Dark Yet” and its wry outtake “Marchin’ to the City.”)

Listen to any number of songs by the influential sacred country duo The Blue Sky Boys, who made their first recordings in Charlotte, North Carolina, near the end of 1936, and you’ll hear the same fear assigned a litany of causes. But in recordings like “Only Let Me Walk with Thee,” the B-side of the plaintively titled “No One to Welcome Me Home,” there’s no cause for fear named but the vague work of “toiling on life’s pilgrim pathway” — the uncertainty of walking when “the way is hedged in darkness / And the path I cannot see.” For another tonal spin on the pilgrim song, it’s revealing to pass over the strict color line record labels invariably drew between “race records” and “hillbilly records” in the years before World War II. Many of the African-American vocal groups that came to prominence in the ’20s and ’30s — The Golden Gate Quartet; South Carolina Quartet; Mound City Jubilee Quartette — developed a distinctly less fragile, more muscular variation on the form. Sung by black male singers under the thumb of an exploitative and racially prejudiced recording industry in the prewar South, lines like “I’m a pilgrim and a stranger / Traveling through this barren land” lose some of their vague forlornness and take on a more lacerating power.

It’s to the city that the characters in most of Dylan’s pilgrim narratives are marching, and into the specific sort of loneliness that word evokes. The singers might be trapped in a grid-like network of streets, like the characters who narrate “Love Sick,” “Standing in the Doorway” (“I got no place left to turn”), and an unreleased demo recorded in 2005 for Modern Times (“I don’t like the city / Not like some folks do / Isn’t it a pity / I can’t escape from you”), but the songs themselves are capacious, slippery, and porous, full of unexpected resonances, elongated syllables, and generous stretches of space in which notes can be cushioned and absorbed.

Who are the narrators on Time Out of Mind? Where are they going? Are they on the run? (“Maybe they’ll get me and maybe they won’t,” the speaker of “Standing in the Doorway” mumbles as if to himself, “But not tonight and it won’t be here.”) Their ways are hedged in darkness, but they take their relegation to those ways as an occasion for doubt, resentment, ambivalence, and silence. For them, words have worn out their use; often, as in “Standing in the Doorway,” they run down the clock on their songs by verbally confessing — or testifying to — their need to give up speech: “I see nothing to be gained by any explanation / There are no words that need to be said.”

Those lines emerge from Dylan’s body cracked, dusty, and dried out. On Time Out of Mind his voice has none of the enveloping roundness of certain early gospel singers (a tone that — as shown on the magisterial rendition of “That Lucky Old Sun,” which closes his most recent record, Shadows in the Night — he’s more than capable of), or any of the tremulous vulnerability, confident swagger, or meek submissiveness of others. It’s a rasp, a whine, a bruised and bruising energetic force. Like the drifters and highwaymen it’s been shaped to resemble, it can do damage by virtue of having been out walking too long.


It can also pine. If songs like “Standing in the Doorway” or “Love Sick” are corrupted pilgrim narratives, they often equally resemble warped, dispirited love songs. On Modern Times, Dylan’s second record after Time Out of Mind (it was preceded by the sweeping Love and Theft), we’ve been returned to a moment in the history of songwriting before the sacred and the secular were exclusive arrangements, when the same performers could move with ease between spirituals, folk legends, disaster songs, and brokenhearted blues laments. Now, however, the range of possible combinations has widened to include, among other ingredients, Vegas-style lounge singing (“Spirit on the Water”), accordion-driven Southwestern waltzes (“This Dream of You” from Together Through Life) and flickering cowboy laments (“Nettie Moore”).

In the canon of prewar American folk music, it’s hard to find a secular singer who never recorded sacred numbers. Bluesmen like Charley Patton, Henry Thomas, and Bukka White achieved some of their most indelible, haunting effects on spirituals. (What might be Patton’s finest recorded song — “Some of These Days I’ll Be Gone” — is, revealingly, neither a spiritual nor a blues number, but an imaginative revision of a Tin Pan Alley hit by Sophie Tucker, although the scholar Richard Middleton is right, I think, to call the result “hymnlike.”) One of the greatest of all prewar gospel songs, Kid Prince Moore’s “Church Bells” was the work of a musician otherwise best known for singing lines like “If that’s your woman, pin her to your side / ’Cause if she flag my train I’m sure gonna let her ride.” The stigma attached to such racy numbers in certain churches at the time kept a subset of gospel singers from broadening their repertoires, but it didn’t stop the sauciness, insouciance, and sexual energy of secular folk and blues from bleeding into the country’s sacred music.

There was always a particularly close correspondence between romantic and spiritual longing in early American recorded music: both were matters of wandering, of loneliness, of redemption promised and deferred. One of Dylan’s signature moves on Modern Times is to yoke both sorts of longing together in the space of a single song. “Spirit on the Water” begins with an invocation of the Bible passage from which it takes its title (“Darkness on the face of the deep”) before veering into a markedly different tone: “I keep thinking ’bout you, baby / and I can’t hardly sleep.” It’s a pilgrim song that pivots on mischievous substitutions, falling into a tender romantic groove just when it seems best primed to abandon such worldly matters:

I’ve been trampling through mud
Praying to the powers above
I’m sweating blood
You got a face that begs for love

The promise that runs through “Nettie Moore” and “Spirit on the Water” is of a kind of romantic consolation — the kind the songs’ narrators can only attain after, as the singer of “Nettie Moore” puts it, everything they’ve “ever known to be right has been proven wrong.” Requesting that sort of consolation involves careening from threats (“Before you call me any dirty names, you better think twice”) to boasts (“You think I’m over the hill / You think I’m past my prime / Let me see what you got / We can have a whoppin’ good time”) to tender entreaties (“I could live forever / With you perfectly / You don’t ever / Have to make a fuss over me”) and solemn vows (“I’d walk through a blazing fire, baby, if I knew you was on the other side”).

The banality of many of these lines is part of what gives them their strange energy. It’s from threadbare pilgrims that songs like “Nettie Moore” and “Spirit on the Water” seem to sprout — characters who need clichés as bulwarks against exhaustion and doubt. Sung with this sort of brittle gravity and invested with this sort of emotional need, romantic entreaties start to sound like prayers. It’s hard to detect a shade of difference between the tone Dylan takes when he makes a snap religious confession midway through “Nettie Moore” — “I’m beginning to believe what the scriptures tell” — and the one that suffuses the climactic, lovesick invitation in “Spirit on the Water”:

High on the hill
You can carry all my thoughts with you
You’ve numbed my will
This love could tear me in two


The first thing most critics approvingly observed about Tempest when the record — Dylan’s most recent collection of original songs — appeared in 2012 was its violent streak. (The Guardian called it “murderous,” The New York Times “wrathful” and “grim,” The New Yorker “gruesome” and “stubbornly amoral.”) Dylan never exactly went out of his way to disabuse them of that image; two weeks after the album’s release, he snarled in a long, abrasive Rolling Stone interview — apropos of the “people that tried to pin the name Judas on me” — that “all those evil motherfuckers can rot in hell.”

At the start of the same interview, Dylan hinted at his initial impulse to “make something more religious” than the record that became Tempest. The corners of American music to which the album’s 10 songs relate most directly are, indeed, worlds away from the lamblike serenity of The Blue Sky Boys or the prayerful evocations of Washington Phillips or Homer Quincy Smith. Tempest occupies darker territory: a space of murder ballads, prison work songs, sinister Appalachian outlaw stories, disaster ditties, and slabs of vengeful country blues. Rock critics made much of this connection when it came to the record’s two long climactic narrative songs, which vividly evoked, respectively, a triple murder-suicide (“Tin Angel”) and the sinking of the Titanic (the title track).

And yet it requires some selective listening to call Tempest a record of murder ballads when it proceeds, for the most part, as a loose assembly of spontaneous, acidic outbursts: aggressive first-person monologues with no clear characters save the overheated singers themselves. Unconverted show-ups at a camp meeting lavishly enumerating their sins; street-corner preachers carried away by their own hellfire rants; reverends indulging in minutely imagined visions of the torments of the damned: the American character types Tempest maps are more religious, in at least a certain sense of the word, than Dylan has ever let on.

Who said, after all, that early gospel music had to be polite? Songs like “You’ll Never Go to Heaven With Your Powder and Your Paint” by the now-forgotten duo Ira and Eugene Yates, are confrontational, vengeful, rude, and cruel. (“You’ll never get to Heaven with your bobbed hair / You’re going down to hell, they have a barbershop there.”) Much of the appeal of recorded sermons lay in hearing charismatic preachers contort their voices into barks, grimaces, and snarls; listen, for instance, to the way “The Liar,” an amazing sermon by Rev. Isaiah Shelton, rumbles out of the preacher’s mouth in sonorous, condemnatory couplets, or the way the prolific Elder Richard Bryant fills out the sandpaper textures of “Saul, A Wicked Man,” or the way the guitar evangelist Rev. I.B. Ware’s wife and son wail hauntingly behind him as he sings a lumbering rendition of “You Better Quit Drinking Shine.”

The personae these preachers and singers took on were born angry, their bile a righteous calling with no need for an explanatory cause; unlike the blues singers who vented similarly murderous drives, they didn’t need an act of infidelity, betrayal, or injustice to sour them on humankind. It’s no easier to imagine what set them off than it is to find a basis for the violent threats that fill Dylan’s “Early Roman Kings” (“I can strip you of life / Strip you of breath / Ship you down / To the house of death”), to account for the unchecked fury of a song like “Pay in Blood” (“I got something in my pocket, make your eyeballs swim / I got dogs could tear you limb from limb”), or to identify the sinister, elaborately imagined setting of “Scarlet Town,” where “the evil and the good livin’ side by side” and “all human forms seem glorified.”

The last lines of “Narrow Way” hint at the kind of conversion narrative on which many prewar gospel songs are built—

I heard a voice at the dusk of day
Saying, “Be gentle brother, be gentle and pray.”
It’s a long road, it’s a long and narrow way
If I can’t work up to you, you’ll surely have to work down to me someday.

— but the song is too rabid to admit anything like a submissive religious conversion into its world. In moments like this, which occur often enough in recorded sermons and sinner testimonies, the death obsession of early gospel music — its eager interest in who would turn out “up” or “down” on the other side of life — takes a bloody, mud-splattered shape.

By 2012, Dylan was wise enough to the religious musical traditions he was riffing on to know that gospel singers didn’t always work up to salvation, that they didn’t always so much as claim to have heaven on their minds. Hell was on their minds too, as well as the narrow, dark, misshapen world between those two eternities. That sacred music could be loud, vulgar, disruptive, and irreverent; that it could deal in threats and taunts just as well as in pieties; that it could share a lineage with love songs and folk ballads; that it could obsess, doubt, rave, babble, fidget, and grunt in frustration; that it could emerge from the grooves of a record seemingly up to its neck in mud and earth as well as in baptismal water: Dylan’s late records propose as rich and capacious a picture of old American gospel as any in popular music. The doors were there all along, on compilations like the Anthology and in stacks of more or less forgotten 78s. It just took this particular interpreter, with his inconstant temper, attentive ear, and loose tongue, to open them.


Max Nelson is a New York–based film critic who regularly contributes to Reverse ShotCinema Scope, and Film Comment, where he writes a bimonthly column on new and upcoming restoration work.

LARB Contributor

Max Nelson is a New York–based film critic who regularly contributes to Reverse ShotCinema Scope, and Film Comment, where he writes a bimonthly column on new and upcoming restoration work.


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