Sometimes it feels like Bob Dylan says: "I practice a faith that's long been abandoned, ain't no altars on this long and lonesome road"

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Bob Dylan's "Where Teardrops Fall" - an analysis by Kees de Graaf

In ‘Chronicles’- Volume 1- Dylan devotes chapter 4 to the creative process that led to his exquisite come-back album ‘Oh Mercy’ (1989) and where we can find this precious gem ‘Where Teardrops Fall’. Dylan writes in ‘Chronicles’ that in this creative process, it felt as if parts of his soul received messages from angels, there was a big fire burning in the fireplace and the wind let it roar. Dylan writes of another song on ‘Oh Mercy’ , the song ‘Disease of Conceit’ that it ‘definitely has gospel overtones’. We not only believe that ‘Where Teardrops Fall’ has the same gospel overtones, in fact it is a downright gospel song. The song may be read as a solemn prayer to God. As we will outline below, lyrically “Where Teardrops Fall” shows quite some resemblance with Dylan’s “Beyond the Horizon” from the album “Modern Times”. These gospel overtones are not only apparent in the lyrics of the song but can also be subconsciously felt in the heartfelt saxophone solo John Hart plays near the end of the song. Dylan writes about this solo in ‘Chronicles’ Volume 1: ‘John Hart, played a sobbing solo that nearly took my breath away. The man was the spitting image of Blind Gary Davis, the singing reverend that I’d known years earlier. What was he doing here? Same guy, same cheeks and chin, fedora, dark glasses. Same build, same height, same long black coat, the works. … he’d been raised upright and was watching over things, keeping constant vigilance over what was happening……all of a sudden I know that I’m in the right place., doing the right things at the right time… felt like I had turned a corner and was seeing the sight of a god’s face…..”. Dylan was certainly inspired by Gary Davis, the gospel and blues singer and Dylan covered a few songs from him. Let’s see how we can piece all these things together in a detailed analysis of this song.
Verse 1.
Far away where the soft winds blow
Far away from it all
There is a place you go
Where teardrops fall
It seems obvious that by far “far way” the place is meant where God has His residence, far away in heaven.(Psalm 115:3). “Far away” does not mean that God cannot be close by at the same time (Phil. 4:5). It is God’s ultimate purpose to remove this distance and to dwell with man on the new earth to come (Rev. 21:3). Sometimes God reveals himself to man in a soft wind, a gentle breeze, like we find in Genesis 3:8 “When the cool evening breezes were blowing, the man and his wife heard the LORD God walking about in the garden”.(NLT). A “Soft wind” is sometimes no more than a low whisper, just like when God revealed himself to Elijah (1 Kings 19:12). This quiet place in heaven is “far away from it all”, it is far away from society’s every day’s bustle and hustle, far away from a world where there is no compassion. “There is a place to go” where there is “Shelter from the Storm”, (Isaiah 25:4 NIV) - a place “where it is always safe and warm”. “There is a place to go” where you are always welcome and this cannot be any other place than in heaven. In his song ‘Highlands’ – which might well be a metaphor for heaven – the poet calls this place the ‘Only place left to go’ and also the place ‘where I’ll be when I get called home’, that is the place where he will go when he dies. Now the poet qualifies this place -heaven- as the place “where teardrops fall”. At first glance, it may seem odd to qualify heaven as a place “where teardrops fall”. Is heaven not the place where tears are not supposed to fall but are instead dried?, because just like Rev. 21: 4 says : ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” (NLT). However, before tears can be dried, they must first fall. Heaven welcomes these tears. In his song ‘If you ever go to Houston’ Dylan says: ‘Put my tears in a bottle, screw the top on tight’. Dylan exactly echoes in that line what it says in Psalm 56: 8 “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book”. (NLT). Tears are precious in the eyes of God and worthy to be collected in a bottle and to be remembered into eternity for anyone who finds this bottle on some distant shore and reads the book of God. God sheds tears Himself and Jesus shows these tears. In the shortest verse in the Bible (John 14:35) it says: “Jesus wept”. Jesus wept and shed tears because of the death of his dear friend Lazarus. That is how God, how Jesus is, He is full of compassion and therefore He encourages us to shed our tears with him. Therefore heaven is the perfect place for teardrops to fall.
Verse 2.
Far away in the stormy night
Far away and over the wall
You are there in the flickering light
Where teardrops fall
God not only reveals Himself in “soft winds” such as in a gentle breeze -like we saw in the first verse- but also sometimes in a storm, “in a stormy night” just like it says in Job 38:31: “Then the LORD spoke to Job out of the storm”. (NIV).”Far away in the stormy night, far away over the wall” seems to suggest that to reach the place where God dwells, you should first go through a dark and “stormy night” and you should leap “over the wall”. At the same time – amidst all hardship - you may feel God’s presence, power and guidance very close to you, also “when the storms are raging on the rolling seas”(Make you Feel my love”). Isaiah 25:4 sums up the feeling of the poet: “You have been a refuge for the poor, a refuge for the needy in their distress, a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat. For the breath of the ruthless is like a storm driving against a wall” (NIV).
“You are there in the flickering light” refers to the appearance of the glory of God as expressed in Ezekiel 1:27 “From what appeared to be his waist up, he looked like gleaming amber, flickering like a fire. And from his waist down, he looked like a burning flame, shining with splendour”.(NLT) Although like it says in 1 Tim.6:16 “He (God) alone can never die, and he lives in light so brilliant that no human can approach him” (NLT), nevertheless His appearance -majestic as it is - is not terrifying but comforting because at the same time near Him is the place “where teardrops fall”.
Verse 3 and first bridge.
We banged the drum slowly
And played the fife lowly
You know the song in my heart
In the turning of twilight
In the shadows of moonlight
You can show me a new place to start
The words “We banged the drum slowly, and played the fife lowly” echo an old traditional song called “Streets of Laredo” (or ”Cowboy’s Lament”) written by Duane Eddy and recorded a.o. by Johnny Cash.
Some of the lyrics read: “Then beat the drum slowly, play the Fife lowly, play the dead march as you carry me along”. In this song we are taken to a funeral of a cowboy – who knows he has done wrong- and to the accompanying funeral march. At a funeral march, you may here a slow drumbeat, mostly using a bodhran. A bodhran is said to be a goat-skin drum used in the playing of traditional Irish music. According to Wikipedia a fife is a small, high-pitched, transverse aerophone that is similar to the piccolo. The music at a funeral march is usually played in a minor key, in a slow and simple duple metre, imitating the solemn pace of a funeral procession. The slow beat of the drum and the low tones of the fife conveys the feeling of sadness and mourning caused by the death of a beloved one who is laid to rest. In “Beyond the Horizon” the poet basically expresses the same feeling as we find here: “I lost my true lover, in the dusk, in the dawn I have to recover , get up and go on”.
However, it looks as if the following joyful words “you know the song in my heart” are in contradiction with the sad words “we banged the drum slowly, and played the fife lowly” but things are not what they seem. Though confronted with deep sadness -the loss and death of a beloved - yet the poet finds solace in this joyful and comforting song in his heart, a joy that cannot be erased, not even by death and personal loss. This joyful song cannot be erased in his heart because it is a song that God has given to him to comfort him, a comfort that is stronger than any man can give. As his beloved is laid to rest, he feels his personal mortality, just like he says in his song ‘Til I fell in love with you’: ‘Now I feel like I’m coming to the end of my way, but I know God is my shield and he won’t lead me astray’, this line brightly reflects Psalm 28:7 where it says: “The LORD is my strength and shield. I trust him with all my heart. He helps me, and my heart is filled with joy. I burst out in songs of thanksgiving’.(NLT).Likewise, in his song ‘Mississippi’, mourning over paradise lost, cannot prevent the poet from rejoicing: ‘but my heart is not weary, it is light and its free’. The body may die, but the heart, the soul, lives on and on and is immortal. The hope which is drawn from the notion of immortality of the soul makes the poet shout for joy: “you know the song in my heart,” a joy that will never end.
It is “In the turning of twilight and “In the shadows of moonlight”, in the beautiful colours of dawn and dusk that God shows his glory and fidelity over mankind. When night turns into day, and day into night, God reveals himself to be eternally the same, also when times and seasons change. Also, even when “the moon is almost hidden” (Desolation Row) and “the shadows of moonlight” foretell nothing but doom, yet the poet knows that God takes care of him and that he always can come back to God and make a fresh start. It is the reason why he adds: “You can show me a new place to start”. The twilight, the start of a brand-new day symbolizes that -no matter how much you have done wrong - you can always make a new start with God.
Verse 4.
I’ve torn my clothes and I’ve drained the cup
Strippin’ away at it all
Thinking of you when the sun comes up
Where teardrops fall
To tear one’s clothes” is a Biblical expression. Sometimes this expression indicates bewilderment, exasperation and anger, just as in the case of the high priest in Matthew 26:65. Jesus – during his trial - declared Himself to be the Son of God and this is how the high priest responded to this statement: “then the high priest tore his clothes and said, "He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy”. But more often and especially in the Old Testament “To tear one’s clothes” is an expression of deep sadness and mourning. This is how king David reacted when he heard the news that all of his sons were slain by Absalom: “The king stood up, tore his clothes and lay down on the ground; and all his attendants stood by with their clothes torn”.( 2 Sam. 13:31NIV). Within the context of the song “I’ve torn my clothes” may be a metaphor to express all the damage he has suffered, all the pain of mourning and regret, all the hardships the poet endured and which still show, presumably because of the loss of some beloved one. Likewise , “I’ve drained the cup” is another metaphor for ultimate suffering. “To drink the cup” is also a Biblical expression expressing preordained suffering e.g. John 18:11 where it says “Jesus commanded Peter, "Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?" “To drain the cup” instead of “drink the cup” pictures an intensification of suffering. We find that in Rev. 14:10 where it says: “they, too, will drink the wine of God's fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath”. Therefore, when the poet says: “I’ve drained the cup” he intends to say that he has experienced suffering over a long period of time and descended to great depths of suffering. This personal and existential agony is best expressed in Dylan’s song ‘Not Dark Yet’, even to such an extent that he says ‘that behind every beautiful thing, there’s been some kind of pain’ a pain which afflicts both body and mind to the effect that he says: ‘every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb’. Only a person who has drained the cup of suffering to the bottom is entitled say such things.
According to the Cambridge Dictionary “to strip away something” means “to gradually reduce something important or something that has existed for a long time”. Therefore, within the context of the song, when it says “stripping away at it all” he intends to say that although he has gone through a long period of pain and suffering, he now, as time goes by, has more and more learnt to let things go and to come to terms with the situation he is in. They say that time cures all things and this is what at least to some degree has happened to the poet. But it seems clear the poet would never have come this far if he would not have received help from the powers above, from God. Therefore, the “you” in “thinking of you when the sun comes up” can best be understood as addressed to God. The poet finds great comfort in God’s presence and he is especially aware of this presence “when the sun comes up”. When the poet sees the beautiful colours of the sunrise in the sky, he is reminded of God’s continuous faithfulness, in the same way as when Noah saw the rainbow in the skies as proof of God’s faithfulness to his promises. “Thinking of you”, the “you” being the same God with whom Dylan made a covenant, just like Dylan cryptically hinted at in his 2004 CBS interview: ‘’It goes back to that destiny thing. I mean, I made a bargain with it, you know, long time ago’’. This contemplation of God fills him with great comfort and consolation because his tears are welcomed at a place “where teardrops fall” and which is also a place where tears will ultimately be dried.
Verse 5 and second bridge.
By rivers of blindness
In love and with kindness
We could hold up a toast if we meet
To the cuttin’ of fences
To sharpen the senses
That linger in the fireball heat
Remember what we wrote in the introductory remarks above about the spiritual presence in the studio of the late Blind Gary Davis, the singing reverend. While recording “Where teardrops fall” it felt as if Blind Gary Davis was there in the studio. Dylan writes in ‘Chronicles’ …..”like he’d been raised upright and was watching over things, keeping constant vigilance over what was happening”. Does this verse express a sub-consciousness longing to meet Blind Gary Davis “at the rivers of blindness” in the hereafter?. The late Gary Davis once wrote a song about the hereafter called "Going' to Sit Down on the Banks of the River". Some of the lyrics of this song read: “I'm gonna sit down on the banks of the river, and I won't be back no more, we're gonna have a good time when we all get there”. Note that in a way this resembles: “By rivers of blindness, in love and with kindness, we could hold up a toast if we meet”.
However, what fits much better we think is, that in the mind of the poet, this verse hints at an encounter between Jesus and the apostle Paul in the hereafter when they “hold up a toast” and look back on their work here on earth. During their first encounter here on earth as described in Acts 9:3-9, the apostle Paul – on his road to Damascus to persecute Christians - was made blind by Jesus for a period of three days. Now they meet again in the hereafter “by rivers of blindness” which is a poetic expression to remind the apostle how it all started with this blindness and how his blindness was healed and Paul subsequently became the elected apostle to spread the gospel of Jesus all over the world. As we learn from Rev. 22:2 a ‘river’ is a symbol for ultimate healing. It is as if at this river Paul is cured from his lifelong thorn in his flesh – a messenger from Satan who harassed him all his life (2 Cor.12:7)-. But now cured from this satanic teaser, Jesus and Paul meet again “in love and with kindness”, which means that they meet in a state of perfect – sinless- mutual love and kindness. Jesus’ and Paul’s work is now finished and they now hold up a toast to celebrate victory. The poet sees it all happening in his mind, that is why it now says: “We could hold up a toast if we meet”. It may sound weird that Jesus would “hold up a toast” when he would meet with his people but it is no so weird when we consider a text like Matt. 26:29 where Jesus says: “Mark my words—I will not drink wine again until the day I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom.”(NLT). By the end of his stay on earth Jesus -for the sake of his followers - subdued his joy in such a way that he voluntarily refrained from drinking the communal wine with his disciples until his work would be finished in his father’s kingdom. But when his work will be finished he will meet again with Paul and all of his brothers and sisters and start the eternal wedding by “holding up a toast” of new wine.
The following words “To the cutting’ of fences” elaborates on this theme. It is as if Paul is still in Jesus’ presence in the hereafter and that Jesus now looks back on his work on earth. It is Paul who – in different words - in Ephesians 2:14 elaborates on this ”cutting of fences”: “For Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us”(NLT). It was Jesus himself who broke down the wall, who“ cut the fences “of hostility between the Jews and the gentiles, blending all people, all races and sexes, into one peaceful nation and “holding up a toast” in celebration of this unification. But Jesus not only came “To the cutting’ of fences” but subsequently also “to sharpen the senses that linger in the fireball heat”. “To sharpen the senses that linger in the fireball heat” may hint at the descent of the Holy Spirit on all people during the Jewish Pentecost, on Whitsuntide (Acts 2:1-13). To understand what is meant here, it may be useful to take a look at another song where Dylan also alludes to the work of the Holy Spirit. It is in his song “Summer Days” Dylan would again refer to the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost as described in the book of Acts. “Summer Days” says: “Well, I’m leaving in the morning as soon as the dark clouds lift, Yes, I’m leaving in the morning just as soon as the dark clouds lift, gonna break in the roof—set fire to the place as a parting gift”. When it says: I’m leaving as soon as the dark clouds lift”, it seems obvious here that the poet speaks of Jesus’ Ascension into heaven as described in Acts 1:4-11. It alludes to Acts 1:9 where it says: “After saying this, he (Jesus) was taken up into a cloud while they were watching, and they could no longer see him” (NLT). Jesus had promised that after his Ascension into heaven he would send the Holy Spirit (e.g. John 14:15-17,25) as a “gift”. Acts 2:38 confirms this: “Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”. The Holy Spirit is Jesus’ ‘parting gift’.
The Bible tells us that the Holy Spirit usually reveals Himself by means of wind and fire. We read of wind in Act 2:2: “Suddenly, there was a sound from heaven like the roaring of a mighty windstorm, and it filled the house where they were sitting”(NLT). This wind “filled the house”, the windstorm and the fire- so to say -broke through the roof of the house, that’s why “Summer Days” says: “gonna break in the roof”. We read of fire in Acts 2:3. We see the Spirit descend into the house in the shape of “tongues of fire”. Acts 2:3: “then, what looked like flames or tongues of fire appeared and settled on each of them”(NLT). This very much corresponds with “set fire to the place as a parting gift”.
In the same way, “fire” in the “fireball heat” in is a poetic allusion to the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit- seen at Pentecost as “tongues of fire”- is seen here as a “fireball” that has been rolling all over the world since Pentecost. The “heat” in the fireball represents the zeal of the Holy Spirit to distribute al which Jesus has accomplished to all his followers.
Therefore, when it says “to sharpen the senses” that linger in the fireball heat, the poet may refer to the gift of discernment which the Spirit gives to the believers, just like Paul says in Phil.1:9,10: “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent”(RSV). It is the Holy Spirit who sharpens the senses of the believer to discern between right and wrong, good and evil. This gift of discernment “lingers” in the fireball heat. “To linger” may mean that this gift abides in the Holy Spirit and is continuously waiting to be given to all who pray for it.
Verse 6.
Roses are red, violets are blue
And time is beginning to crawl
I just might have to come see you
Where teardrops fall
According to Wikipedia "Roses Are Red" can refer to a specific poem, or a class of poems inspired by that poem”. Wikipedia also states that “The origins of the poem may be traced at least as far back as to the following lines written in 1590 by Sir Edmund Spenser from his epic The Faerie Queene (Book Three, Canto 6, Stanza 6.”, where it says: “In a fresh fountaine, farre from all mens vew, She bath'd her brest, the boyling heat t'allay; She bath'd with roses red, and violets blew, and all the sweetest flowres, that in the forrest grew”. “Roses are red and violets are blue” has appeared in all sorts of nursery rhyme and here in this song it presumably expresses the beauty of these flowers, a beauty for which the poet stands in awe of its creator. It reminds us seeing Dylan meticulously examining a rose on the sleeve of the album “Shot of Love”. Likewise, on that same album, in his masterpiece “Every Grain of Sand” Dylan observes: “I can see the Master’s hand in every leaf that trembles and in every grain of sand”.
“And time is beginning to crawl” means that time is beginning to pass by slowly. When you have good time, time seems to go by very fast. When you are in great pain, times seems to go by very slowly. Dylan expresses both notions in his song ‘Standing in the Doorway’: “Yesterday everything was going too fast, today, it’s moving too slow”. Here, the poet has “drained the cup” of suffering and he just can’t wait to be released and relieved and meet his Saviour and Creator. In “Can’t Wait” the poet is “standing at the gate” of heaven and as if in despair cries out “I don’t know how much longer I can wait” but here it is not so much despair but rather resignation and joyful surrender because he knows that at any minute he can be released and meet God. This notion is expressed in “I just might have to come see you”. These words express both necessity and longing. Necessity on the one hand because as 2 Cor. 5:10 says “For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ (RSV)”. And longing on the other hand because the poet is not afraid for this encounter, he longs to see God because it is also the place “Where teardrops fall”. It is the place where mercy prevails.


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Published on: 06-03-2020 16:50:32

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David Freeman01-08-2020 02:08

I'm teaching an adult Sunday School Class on Dylan and I find some of your analysis very useful. Can you share just a bit of your background that might help set your analysis in context. I am a retired Presbyterian (Reformed) minister in the United States. I served small churches for 35 years. I'm a chaplain to the Kerrville Folk (Music) Festivals and have interpreted Sacred Images in Secular Music for more than 40 years. Thank you for your response. I plan to borrow from you next Sunday (12 July) from Jokerman. Interestingly, I too began the "Christian period" with a focus on "Street Legal" and see "Infidels" as a continuation of the same stream.


Walter Lee04-07-2020 15:10

Yes it can be so interpreted, but the words 'Jesus' and 'God' are not used in the song - there's also a tension between the the Old and New Testament view of God that can be detected in these lyrics - and others - that are certainly not reconciled from an orthodox Jewish point of view.


Larry Fyffe07-03-2020 10:15

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