As readers of my former blog know, I used to write a weekly piece entitled, “Dylan on a Sunday” where I would riff on some lyric or theme or related theological topic in the Dylan world. I’ve written a few since then, but have fallen out of the habit. But this week demands a piece.
First, we have the release of Dylan’s new cd of Sinatra-like covers, Shadows in the Night. It has received surprisingly good reviews, Rolling Stone giving it four stars. I saw where Elvis Costello even called it brilliant.
I was dubious, fearing it would be more like his Christmas album which I only listen to if I want to laugh. There’s nothing like the polka style Dylan rendition of “Must be Santa.” And for that we can be thankful.
My first listen through Shadows has been a relief.
I also found it fascinating that he granted both an interview to AARP’s magazine and gave away 50,000 copies of the new cd to its readers. I’m 40 days away from senior movie discounts, so its nice to look forward to other perks as I enter my new stage in life.
But the bigger recent Dylan event for me was the tribute given him by Musicares as their musician of the year. Last year, I watched the Musicares tribute to Bruce Springsteen. It was an incredible evening, and I can’t wait to find the Dylan tribute to view somewhere.
While I haven’t seen the tribute yet, I did read his speech from the event. It was amazing. It was touching, funny, and poignant. I laughed out loud at his response to critics who say he can’t carry a tune, lacks vocal range, mangles his lyrics, all met with the refrain “Lord, have mercy.” The funniest bit, though, of this part of the speech related to the way Dylan supposedly “confounds expectations.”
Critics have said that I’ve made a career out of confounding expectations. Really? Because that’s all I do? That’s how I think about it. Confounding expectations. Like I stay up late at night thinking about how to do it. “What do you do for a living, man?” “Oh, I confound expectations.” You’re going to get a job, the man says, “What do you do?” “Oh, confound expectations. And the man says, “Well, we already have that spot filled. Call us back. Or don’t call us, we’ll call you.” Confounding expectations. I don’t even know what that means or who has time for it.
The most fascinating part of his speech, though, had to do with his explanation of where his songs come from. They aren’t, according to Dylan, something entirely new or without precedent. In fact, just the opposite. They are steeped in tradition. “These songs didn’t come out of thin air. I didn’t just make them up out of whole cloth… It all came out of traditional music: traditional folk music, traditional rock and roll, and traditional big band swing music.” The hours he spent listening to traditional music funded an imagination which found new expression in his songs.
If you sang “John Henry” as many times as me – “John Henry was a steel-driving man / Died with a hammer in his hand / John Henry said a man ain’t nothin’ but a man / Before I let that steam drill drive me down / I’ll die with that hammer in my hand.” If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you’d have written “How many roads must a man walk down?” too.
“Roll the cotton down, aw, yeah, roll the cotton down / Ten dollars a day is a white man’s pay / Roll the cotton down/A dollar a day is the black man’s pay / Roll the cotton down.” If you sang that song as many times as me, you’d be writing “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more,” too. If you’d had listened to the Robert Johnston singing, “Better come in my kitchen, ’cause it’s gonna be raining out doors,” as many time as I listened to it, sometime later you just might write, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.”
I sang a lot of “come all you” songs. There’s plenty of them. There’s way too many to be counted. “Come along boys and listen to my tale / Tell you of my troubles on the old Chisholm Trail.” Or, “Come all ye good people, listen while I tell / the fate of Floyd Collins, a lad we all know well.”
“Come all ye fair and tender ladies / Take warning how you court your men / They’re like a star on a summer morning / They first appear and then they’re gone again.” And then there’s this one, “Gather ’round, people / A story I will tell / ‘Bout Pretty Boy Floyd, the outlaw / Oklahoma knew him well.”
If you sung all these “come all ye” songs all the time like I did, you’d be writing, “Come gather ’round people where ever you roam, admit that the waters around you have grown / Accept that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone / If your time to you is worth saving / And you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone / The times they are a-changing.”
This is just an amazing description of how traditional texts become new performances. There’s so many themes here for someone, who like me, thinks about hermeneutics–how meaning gets made. But because this is a blog and because I have bigger writing fish to fry, I will simply notice how Dylan’s very productive imagination was funded by a deep immersion in these older songs. Songwriting came from the deep practice of living in these songs. His new songs were not commentary on the old songs, nor were they lessons learned from the old songs. They were instead a new performance of the old songs, a continuation of them, an extension of them.
I think this is precisely how one ought to think about preaching and where sermons come from. They come from a deep and repeated engagement with the biblical texts so that the sermon is not commentary on the old texts, or moral lessons gleaned from the old texts, but a new performance of the text. Preachers don’t or shouldn’t strip mine texts for sermon ideas. Rather, sermons should spring from a deep and long engagement with texts. And here’s the deal. Though these sermons are a re-performance of these ancient texts, like Dylan songs, they seem fresh as today, inventive and alive, unique and new.