Bob Dylan's 'Roll on John' - an analysis - Part 5 (final part).
In this 5th and final installment we review the final two verse of this song.
The seventh verse of this song: ‘Roll on, John, roll through the rain and snow, take the right-hand road and go where the buffalo roam, they'll trap you in an ambush 'fore you know, too late now to sail back home’ seems to be one of the obscurest verses of the song. The verse seems no tot refer to any event that can be connected to the real life of John Lennon or to the life of John the Apostle, or to any other ‘John’ for that matter. It is as if the poet invites you to evoke moods in you, to feel the mood of the song and to put you in a state of mind in which you draw inferences and make connections, even if these interferences or connections are not actually there in the text of the song. We have to remember that quite often Dylan does not use language in the same way that ‘normal’ people use language. Dylan increasingly makes poetry by borrowing words and making collages, using phrases, images and quotes from other people and sources and then blending them together until in the end they mean something entirely different. Why does Dylan refer to animals in this verse –the buffalo – and to a tiger in the final verse when there seems to be no real connection to any ‘John’?
Although the words "They'll trap you in an ambush before you know" maybe vaguely inspired by Robert Fagles translation of ‘The Odyssey’ which on page 139 has: "Which god, Menelaus, conspired with you to trap me in an ambush?”, one might wonder if there is any lose connection to the American semi-biographical comedy film ‘Where the Buffalo Roam’?This film, made in 1980, depicts Hunter S. Thompson’s rise to fame in the 1970s and his relationship with Chicano attorney and activist Oscar Zeta Acosta. Music in the film included rock and R&B songs by Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, The Temptations, the Four Tops and Credence Clearwater Revival. Additionally, characters played by Bill Murray and Rene Auberjonois sing lyrics from the Sergeant Pepper’s track “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”.
We have to bear in mind that what many people call the American buffalo is actually an animal named the American bison. The Buffalo is an inseparable part of the American history; no other wild animal has played such an important role in human affairs.The tribes of the American plains relied for many centuries on bison for food, shelter, clothing, and also as a powerful spiritual symbol. American bison are associated closely with the American Old West.They once roamed the grasslands of North America in massive herds. In the 19th century, however, they nearly became extinct due to widespread commercial hunting.
So the first mood this verse evokes in me personally is that of the Wild West. Herds of buffalo, gun shooting, cowboys trapped in ambushes etc. It brings back to memory the atmosphere of the western movie ‘Patt Garret and Billy the Kid’ including anti-violence songs like ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’, an atmosphere where the bad memory of ‘they shot him in the back and down he went’ still lingers. You might hear the echo of Steve Tilston’s song ‘Slip Jig and Reel’ where it says: ‘A train to St Louis, just one jump ahead, he slept one eye open a gun 'neath his head, but he dreamed of the green fields and mountains of home while crossing the plains where the buffalo roam’ and further on in the song:’ In the deadliest ambush near old Santa Fe, a young buck was taken, togged up in a coat’.
The second mood this verse evokes in me personally is in what is expressed in the words: ‘too late now to sail back home’. In my imagination I once again see John the Apostle, trapped in his house in the town of Ephesus in 95 AD where he was finally arrested by the Roman Emperor and banished to the island of Patmos. For John the Apostle it was too late then to ‘sail back home’, to his home land Palestine, he had to undergo all the pain and suffering on the island of Patmos to make it possible for the light of the Apocalypse to emerge and to burn so brightly. It is as if in this song two types of violence and suffering are pictured. The one type is ostensibly senseless and at random: the bullets of the Wild West and the bullet of some lunatic shooting you in the back. What good will it do? The other type of violence and suffering seems to be more submissive and meek, the sufferings of John the Apostle.This suffering however has produced something quite good: the enduring light of the Apocalypse that shines forever.
I want to give special thanks to Dave Richards (see his comments below|) who pointed out to me that the ‘John’ referred to this verse may refer to John Smith, (1580-1631) who was an Admiral of New England, a soldier, explorer, and author. Smith is said to have played an important role in the establishment of the first permanent English settlement in North America. Apart from the Indian tribes the local weather is said to have been the biggest threat for these early Jamestown settlers. That is why it says ‘roll on John through the rain and snow’. Dave Richardson pointed out to me that ‘ Pocahontas, daughter of the chief of the Powhatan Indian tribe, warned Smith about her tribe’s plot to ambush and kill John Smith in 1608, when this Powhatan tribe invited them to their land on supposedly friendly terms’. This may be the reason why it says: ‘they trap you in an ambush before you know’.‘John’ Lennon and ‘John’ Smith and ‘John’ the Apostle may have in common that their lifetime work was done far away from their home land, across the sea and both Smith and Lennon led a sort of British invasion. The invasion that John the Apostle led was of much greater importance, it hugely set up the invasion of the gospel throughout the entire world.
The final verse: ‘Tyger, tyger, burning bright, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. In the forest of the night, cover him over and let him sleep’ is undoubtedly the most significant and intriguing verse of the song, it gives the impression of some sort of an epilogue and retrospectively colors the meaning of the whole song.This last verse is mainly made up of quotations but we feel that it is the collage of quotations which renders the verse its deeper meaning.
The words ‘Tyger, tyger, burning bright ‘and ‘In the forest of the night’ are literally quoted from the famous poem “The Tyger" by the English poet William Blake. It was published as part of his collection Songs of Experience in 1794. Within the context it says: ‘Tyger! Tyger! burning bright, in the forest of the night, what immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry?
The words ‘I pray the Lord my soul to keep’ are quoted from a classic children's bedtime prayer from the 18th century called:‘Now I lay me down to sleep’.The earliest version is said to be written by Joseph Addison in an essay appearing in The Spectator on March 8, 1711.One of the later versions printed in The New England Primer goes: ’Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, If I shall die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen’.
When the Dylan says ‘Tyger, Tyger’ the first question we have to answer is: who does Dylan address here and why does he address this person as ‘Tyger, Tyger,’ a person who apparently has some of the characteristics of a tiger and is ‘tiger-like’? To answer this question we first take a closer look at the poem ‘The Tyger’. In this poem Blake elaborates on the wide spread and conventional idea that nature is a work of art and consequently nature must in some sort of a way represent and reflect its creator. The tiger is strikingly beautiful and at the same time awesome and horrific in its capacity for extreme violence. Blake implicitly raises an existential and moral issue about the nature of the deity: who is this God and what kind of a God is He who could or would design and create such a terrifying wild beast as the Tyger? In other words: what does the undeniable fact that evil and violence exist in this world tell us about the nature and intentions of God and how should we deal with a world where a single being can at once be full of beauty and full of horror? Blake pictures a tiger which is at once perfectly beautiful and nevertheless perfectly destructive. For Blake it is obvious that only a very strong and powerful Creator can be capable of such a creation. The “forging” of the tiger - as Blake calls it-triggers off also moral questions not only about the presence of evil in this world but also about the origin of evil. The words ‘burning bright’ suggest the creation of destructive fire with all the implications of purification and destruction.
Blake, however, does not resolve the issue of the origin of evil but rather hints at a way to come to terms with this issue. This happens when in the same poem Blake contrasts the tiger with the lamb:
’Did he who made the lamb make thee?’. In contrast with ‘The Tyger’ Blake also wrote a poem called ‘The Lamb’:’ He is meek & he is mild, he became a little child: I a child & thou a lamb, we are called by his name. Little Lamb God bless thee. Little Lamb God bless thee’.
The tiger and the lamb have been created by the same God. “The Tyger” consists of unanswered questions and leaves us to awe at the complexity of creation, the sheer magnitude of God’s power, the combination of the horrific and the beauty. The lamb on the other hand represents innocence, tenderness and submissiveness. The Lamb is God’s gift to a fallen world.The Lamb is His offering of reconciliation, to reconcile what would otherwise be irreconcilable, to conceive what would otherwise be inconceivable. We are invited to accept this great gift of God and we can do so, not by trying to understand but to accept what we cannot understand and to flee to the Lamb for comfort.
Dylan wrestles with the same problem of the origin of evil in this world elsewhere on this album, particularly in the previous song ‘Tempest’. When depicting the sinking of the Titanic Dylan first writes: ‘When the Reaper’s (Matt. 13:39) task had ended, sixteen hundred had gone to rest, the good, the bad, the rich, the poor, the loveliest and the best’. But then Dylan writes something very significant: ‘They waited at the landing, and they tried to understand, but there is no understanding for the judgment of God's hand’. We see this same phenomenon in this final verse of ‘Roll on John’. We are invited not to try to understand what we cannot understand but to find comfort in the arms of the Almighty:’ I pray the Lord my soul to keep. In the forest of the night, cover him over and let him sleep’.
Therefore,‘Tyger, Tyger, burning bright’ may first of all have the connotation that the good and the evil, the beauty and the ugly exist side by side in this fallen world and senseless violence may lash out, ostensibly at random, as we have seen in the case of John Lennon when he was shot in the back.Yet,‘Tyger, Tyger, burning bright’ opens up another perspective.This may happen when the person addressed here as ‘Tyger, Tyger, burning bright’ is not John Lennon but in fact John the Apostle.
We already noted that John the Apostle is called the ‘Apostle of Light’ and that much of St. John’s work – both his gospel and his letters - is suffused with light encountering darkness and overcoming it.Quite rightly one may therefore say that John was a light ‘burning bright’. It is also not without reason that the phrase ‘You burnt so bright’ appears eight times in the chorus of the song and it now repeated in the final verse of the song. It is meant to bring things to a conclusion and to combine the strength of the ‘The Tyger’ with the intensity of the light. And there was certainly tiger like strength and determination in John the Apostle. Jesus called John and his brother James ‘boanerges’ which means ‘Sons of Thunder’. (Mark 3:17). John and James had an explosive and destructive temper just like a tiger, as we may read in Luke 9:54 when John and James said to Jesus: "Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?". But it would not stay like that because, after walking with Jesus for a lifetime, the “Son of Thunder” earned a new nickname: the “Apostle of Love.”The meekness and submissiveness of the Lamb (Christ) overwhelmed John the Apostle and softened and subdued his’ tiger like’ characteristics. The contrast between strength and weakness - the Tyger and the Lamb -, a prominent motif in Blake’s poetry, is also a prominent motif in the Gospel and Apocalypse of John the Apostle. In the Book of Revelation John no less than 25 times refers to the Lamb. It all has to do with the fact the forces of strength and power on the one hand (represented by the lion), and meekness, submissiveness and surrender on the other hand (represented by the Lamb) are perfectly united in the person of Jesus. John testifies of this notion in Revelation 5:5-7, when in a vision John sees Jesus having both the shape of a lion and a lamb. John the Apostle has taught us that the issue of the existence and origin of evil can only be resolved and be laid to rest if we flee to the Lamb for comfort and that is exactly what the poet is now going to do. It is the very reason why Dylan goes on to say ‘I pray the Lord my soul to keep’.
When Dylan says ‘I pray the Lord my soul to keep’, we see something decisive happening in the song. ‘I pray the Lord my soul to keep’ is much more than a recitation of a classic children's bedtime prayer from the 18th century called: ‘Now I lay me down to sleep’. First of all there is a change of subject. Dylan no longer speaks of John Lennon, John the Apostle or any other ‘John’ for that matter, but turns to himself and instead of saying: ‘I pray the Lord HIS soul to keep’ he prays: ‘I pray the Lord MY soul to keep’. It is as if he now says: ‘I do know what happened to the soul of John the Apostle and I do not know what happened to Lennon´s soul. But what about me? What will happen to my soul? In the end this question is much more important than how history will look back and judge on my life and my achievements, and no matter how much I may have achieved in this life, I cannot redeem myself, therefore I humbly flee to God for redemption of my soul and ‘I pray the Lord my soul to keep’. Dylan confirmed the answer to this question himself in his 2012 RT Interview. When asked, "Is (touring) a fulfilling way of life?” Dylan replied,"No kind of life is fulfilling if your soul hasn't been redeemed."
When in the final line of the verse, it says: ‘In the forest of the night, cover him over and let him sleep’, the perspective changes again into a more generic direction. It is not ‘cover me over and let me sleep’ but cover him over and let him sleep’. It seems that the focus is now again shifted to John the Apostle but its generic use also includes the poet himself as if he invites his audience to say this prayer also for him personally.
William Blake’s poem quoted above:‘Tyger! Tyger! burning bright, in the forest of the night’, evokes yet another image of the tiger. Not the image of the tiger as a strong hunter but of the tiger being hunted down. Not the image of the tiger as a destructive killer but as victim of poachers. In your imagination you see those poachers who seek to trap and kill the tiger in the forest, not only for sport of game, but also to sell the skin of this beautiful, almost extinct, animal just for financial benefit. It seems like a primordial instinct of man in this fallen world, to kill what is strong, proud and strikingly beautiful, to create a world where beauty goes unrecognized. How can you survive in such a world? The only way out of ‘the forest of the night’, the darkness of this fallen world, is to pray to God: ‘cover him over and let him sleep’. Just what John the Apostle said in his Book of Revelation Chapter 14 verse 13: “And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this down: Blessed are those who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, says the Spirit, they are blessed indeed, for they will rest from their hard work; for their good deeds follow them!” They will be covered over and sleep peacefully in the arms of God till finally the Latter Day will arrive at the end of times. One day the contrast between the destructive power of the tiger and its beauty will be wiped out as we read in Isaiah 11:6 “In that day the wolf and the lamb will live together; the leopard will lie down with the baby goat. The calf and the yearling will be safe with the lion, and a little child will lead them all”.
If ‘Tempest’ would be Dylan’s last album and ‘Roll on John ‘his has last official song, this final verse would be a very worthy ending. It says it all.
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That it's the same person who penned Revelations who is called the Apostle is open to question, but in any event the connection of Lennon to St. John relies too much on the analyst's own beliefs rather than on "evidence" taken from the song lyrics - it's not very convincing to those who are not dogmatized believers.
The huge flood of words unnecessarily drowns out the lyrics of a relatively simple song. Opinions can get out of hand if not held in check by the words written on the page - figurative though they may be.
— Larry Fyffe04-05-2019 00:35
Its vise blog, very vise, keep on thinking.
My friend has a degree in theology, and he just said '' He knows what he is writing about''
He said that around may, 2013.
And after a while I played Imagine and I realized...
Little riff on F to C in Imagine remained me of something ... yes, of Roll on John.
Imagine 3 note riff is a base for Roll on John.
I heard it that way.
It must be Dylan's game.
— Hrvoje Jergovic22-10-2014 18:40
Is the "buffalo" verse about John Smith & his encounters with Pocahontas' Powhatan tribe? The early Jamestown settlers biggest enemy before the Natives was the weather. Hence, the rain & snow reference. Pocahontas warned Smith about her tribe's plot to ambush & kill him in 1608 when the Powhatan invited them to their land on supposedly friendly terms. Sailing back home could refer to his European home across the ocean.
— Dave Richards05-05-2013 21:16
the buffalo reference is not so obscure as you suggest - Buffalo, Dakota the land where they roam and the Dakota apartment block outside which Lennon was ambushed and shot - Dylan's meaning seems pretty explicit
— Nick05-05-2013 00:43