Bob Dylan's 'When the deal goes down' -lyric analysis - Part 2
Bob Dylan’s: ‘When the deal goes down’ – lyric analysis by Kees de Graaf – Part 2
2. Analysis of the verses
A. Verse 1
In the still of the night, in the world's ancient light
Where wisdom grows up in strife
My bewildering brain, toils in vain
Through the darkness on the pathways of life
Each invisible prayer is like a cloud in the air
Tomorrow keeps turning around
We live and we die, we know not why
But I'll be with you when the deal goes down
We do not know if Dylan had the expression ‘’Ancient Lights” somewhere in the back of his mind when he wrote this first line. He could just be using a play upon the words here. Anyway, "Ancient Lights" is a colloquialism for the "right to light," guaranteed under English law, whereby windows that have seen twenty years' worth of "uninterrupted" daylight cannot be blocked by the construction of new buildings.
“In the still of the night, in the world's ancient light” takes our minds back to the early days after the creation of the world, to the time and place where wisdom was first born. ”Wisdom” is personified here. Wisdom has been defined to be “the quality of being wise; knowledge, and the capacity to make due use of it, is the use of the best means for attaining the best ends''. Wisdom therefore implies the selection of right ends as well as of right means.'' Hence, wisdom implies the union of high mental and moral excellence. ”Knowledge”, on the other hand, is a more comprehensive term; it signifies the simple apprehension of facts or relations. Wisdom, however, is so much more than knowledge, for wisdom it takes tossing and turning and often strife to come to the right decisions. Wisdom is such a precious gift that it can only grow up and thrive in the stillness of the night, in the world’s ancient light, when it all began. In the stillness of the night, when God alone was there in the flickering ancient light, he created the earth by wisdom, like we read in Proverbs 3:24 “The LORD by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding He established the heavens”.
“Where wisdom grows up in strife”. When Dylan wrote this song he must have been inspired by the poetry of Henry Timrod (1826-1867). In this song we find a few lines which are very reminiscent of this poet. In his poem “Retirement” the poet Timrod writes: “There is a wisdom that grows up in strife and one - I like best – that sits at home and learns its lessons of a thoughtful ease”.
“Wisdom grows up in strife” means that, although there is a wisdom that is acquired easily like in Timrod’s poem, most of the time true wisdom is never acquired in an easy way. It takes a lot of pain, struggle and strife to find true wisdom. In the world’s ancient light, when God created the earth through wisdom, wisdom was incontestable and irrefutable but when man was corrupted, true wisdom can usually only be acquired through strife.
“My bewildering brain, toils in vain, through the darkness on the pathways of life” Although the poet will eventually find consolation when the deal will go down, he is still on his way. Darkness, misery and pain is all around him and no matter how hard he tortures his mind, he is unable to understand or to come to terms with all this misery and hardships he encounters in this world. He has no alternative but to walk that lonesome valley, the dark pathways of life which are so puzzling and uncertain.
“Each invisible prayer is like a cloud in the air”. It was Paul Simon who once wrote: “Prayers are the constant memory of God”. There is a constant flow of prayers to the throne of God, like a continuous flow of clouds through the air. Prayers are not visible but yet very powerful. They resemble clouds of incense. Clouds of incense are mingled with the prayers of all the saints and the smoke of the incense rises with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God. (Revelations 8:3-4). Invisible prayers from the saints spark off a lot of heavenly action: peals of thunder and flashes of lightning coming down from the clouds and even earthquakes (Revelation 8:5).
“Tomorrow keeps turning around”. This line is also inspired by Henry Timrod’s poem “A Rhapsody of a Southern Winter Night”: “I am so happy! That is all my thought. Tomorrow I will turn it round and round”. Things will take a turn for the better tomorrow. The effect of prayers is often invisible to the naked eye but yet behind the scenes these prayers are answered and they turn things around.
“Tomorrow keeps turning around” may also mean the same things keep on coming back over and over again. For everything there is a turn, for everything there is a time in a seemingly never ending cycles. That is what Dylan had in mind when he read Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 from the Bible in his Theme Time Radio Hour Broadcast .
Everything and everybody seems to be trapped in fires of time when we read: “We live and we die, we know not why”. Also here the lyrics seem to lean heavily on the Book of Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes 8:17:”Then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the son. However a man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out”. Ecclesiastes 3:19-20: “For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over beasts; for all is vanity”. Ecclesiastes 1:13: “And I applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to the sons of men to be busy with”. When a man is left to himself he cannot find any purpose in all that happens under the sun. Left to himself a man is unable to look beyond the horizon to understand why he was born and why he will die. For the bewildered poet there is only one consolation left now: ‘all I have and all I know is this dream of You which keeps me living on’. The confidence that at the end of the trail, when the deal goes down, he will be with God, keeps him going on
B. Verse 2
We eat and we drink, we feel and we think
Far down the street we stray
I laugh and I cry and I'm haunted by
Things I never meant nor wished to say
The midnight rain follows the train
We all wear the same thorny crown
Soul to soul, our shadows roll
And I'll be with you when the deal goes down
The words “We eat and we drink” are reminiscent of what Dylan once wrote in ‘Standing in the Doorway’: ‘’I’ll eat when I’m hungry and I drink when I’m dry, and live my life on the square”.” We eat and we drink, we feel and we think” seems to demonstrate that every human being, no matter what higher calling he or she may or may not have, is tied up to the earth. Our earthly existence, demands that our material and physical needs are met. Nobody can live without eating or drinking. In this respect we are like any other living organism, including animals. Although animals can feel, they cannot think logically, in the same way as human beings do. Man was created as a rational being. This enables man to feel and to think and to make his own decisions, whether right or wrong. It also makes him responsible for his deeds and for the choices he makes. At the same time there is some tragic and painful in these words. Although man was created with this beautiful and pure gift of reason, he chose to use this gift against his Creator and Maker. Man fell into sin and dragged down all mankind in his fall. This is the biggest catastrophe that ever happened to mankind. Everything is broken. This may be the reason why the poet cries out: “Far down the street we stray”. Man is lost in dead and empty streets. Man is walking in the middle of nowhere in streets which are filled with people, who have lost all ray of hope. The call of the poet: ‘Look up, look up, seek your Maker before Gabriel blows his horn’ (Sugar Baby, see I Thessalonians 4:16) seems to sound hollow and empty in this desolate and forlorn world. The poet goes on to say:
“I laugh and I cry and I'm haunted by things I never meant nor wished to say”. Whereas ‘feeling’ and ‘thinking’ may be predominantly inward human emotions, ‘laughing’ and ‘crying’ are more outward, extravert, emotions. As the poet grows older and wiser and comes closer and closer to the moment when the deal goes down, he is more and more marked by all the things he experiences in life. These may be joyful and humorous things: “I laugh”, even some sort of resignation or complacency, when you start to realize that there is no sense in trying to change the world all on your own and that it is no use bothering too much about it: “I used to care, but things have changed” shows this kind of resignation. But in life there is not only a time to laugh but also a time to cry. Like in the Broadcast we mentioned above, when Dylan read Ecclesiastes 3:4: “There is a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance”. Dylan’s songs are full of the pain and distress, the alienation and estrangement of his existence on earth; rolling and tumbling and crying all night long. Often he feels lost in the crowd, feeling wretched to such an extent that all his tears are gone.
As the poet comes closer to the moment when the deal will go down, he also becomes more and more aware of his own fragility, weaknesses, sins, and shortcomings. The urge and necessity to repent knocks on the door of his soul and shatters the broken mirror of innocence when he says: “I'm haunted by things I never meant nor wished to say”. ”Things which you neither meant nor wished to say” is taken from and inspired by Sonnet 13 of the poet Henry Timrod (1828-1867). In the context of this song these words sound like a penance. In the Bible this is called the process of inward renewal (Romans 12:2) which produces repentance, like it says in 2 Corinthians 7:10: ‘for godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation”. At the same time there is something tragic in this. You cannot unring the bell. “You can’t turn back, sometimes you push too far” (Sugar baby). It is like Dylan says in Mississippi: “So many things that we never will undo, I know you’re sorry, I’m sorry too”. If a man cannot make amends for the things he has done wrong, if he missed the mark and overstepped the line, the only thing he can take refuge to is the saving grace of God.
“The midnight rain follows the train”. In Dylan’s “Chronicles” we read that from his earliest childhood Bob Dylan had been familiar with trains and the spectacle and the sound of trains had always given him a feeling of comfort and security. Dylan writes that in the place where he was born, you couldn’t go anywhere without having, at least for a part of the day, to wait at grades and crossings for long trains to pass by. The sound of trains in the distance made him feel more or less at home, as if wanted for nothing, as if he were on some sort of neutral terrain, freed from any danger and as if everything had settled down in the right place. However, if the midnight rain follows the train, the train too must be a midnight train. A midnight train however, has a negative connotation. The word has a connotation of loneliness and desolation. In a midnight train there are usually only few passengers, if any, on the train. The almost empty trains and deserted platforms at midnight may easily give you some kind of a spooky, unsafe feeling, like Dylan once said in “Standing in the Doorway”: “I’ve been riding the midnight train, got cold ice water in my vein”. With a few exceptions – e.g. “I fold my hands and pray for rain” in Maggies’s farm’-rain usually has a negative meaning in Dylan’s works and expresses pain and distress, e.g. ‘’Buckets of rain, buckets of tears”, I’m back in the rain and you are on dry land”.
“We all wear the same thorny crown”. ”Thorny crown” is a reference to a.o. Matthew 29:19 where it says :”And when they had platted a crown of thorns they put it on his (Jesus’s) head and a reed in his right hand and they bowed the knee before him and mocked Him saying Hail King of the Jews”. The Crown of Thorns was woven of thorn branches and forcefully placed on the head of Jesus before his crucifixion, to humiliate and to mock Him. According to the Bible Jesus now reigns as King over this world, (see e.g. I Corinthians 15:24,25).Seen from this point of view, Jesus was quite correctly referred to as “The Commander in Chief” by Dylan in his 2004 CBS interview.(Referring to Matthew 28:18). The Bible also says that accession to the throne of Jesus went through suffering, crucifixion, death and resurrection (see e.g. Philippians 2:5-10). The thorny crown forms a part of the road of suffering, the Via Dolorosa, which would in the end bring Jesus from suffering to glory. In this sense the expression is related to “wisdom grows up in strife”. The road to true wisdom is paved with pain and struggle and strife.
The poet says:” “We all wear the same thorny crown”. Again, from a Biblical point of view this is a correct statement of the poet. Not only Jesus, but also his followers will, in a figurative sense, wear that same thorny crown. Romans 7:17 confirms this when it says that if we suffer with Him (that is Jesus) we will also be glorified with Him. 2 Corinthians 1:5 says “For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds by Christ”. The Bible makes it clear that all the followers of Jesus will suffer and wear the same thorny crown as long as they live on this earth. The Bible also says that it will not stay that way .One day the thorns on the crown will not be longer there and from that day on they shall reign with Jesus (Revelation 22:5). ‘Some sweet day I’ll stand beside my King’, then I’ll be with you, when the deal goes down’.
“Soul to soul, our shadows roll”. I read somewhere that ‘the eyes of our souls only then begin to see, when our bodily eyes are closing’. The poet now takes us (like he also said in the 2004 CBS interview) to ‘a world we can’t see’, but which nevertheless does exist. When a man dies his soul is separated from his body. The Bible says that whereas the body of a man returns to dust, his soul is lifted up into heaven. In Revelation 6:9, 10 we read that souls rest under the altar, waiting anxiously for the Day of Judgment, the restoration of all things. Modern Times, more than any previous album, is heavily immersed in Biblical imagery taken from the Old Testament. Death is in the Old Testament referred to as a shadow. A ‘shadow’ in this sense means that it is not clear yet what exactly will happen after a man dies. In the Old Testament this is not as clearly expressed as in the New Testament. That is why the word ‘shadow’ is used in the Old Testament in connection with ‘death’. See e.g. Psalm 23:4: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil”.
Having said this, the best interpretation we can come with for “soul to soul, our shadows roll” is that the soul of the poet, together with the souls of fellow believers, drives, impels and rolls forward like a shadow, waiting anxiously, both in this life and in a world we can’t see, for the great day when the deal will finally go down.
Next time we will deal with verse 3 and 4. Your comments will be appreciated, please press the link ‘reacties’ below.