Dylan's Beautiful Calvinism: "Every Grain of Sand"

Bob Dylan has been through many phases and stages (to lift a phrase from Willie). None has been more bewildering and disconcerting for fans than his born-again Christian phase, which was represented in the late 70s, early 80s, by the album trilogy Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love. But this move actually made sense, I think, and a song title from Slow Train -- "Gotta Serve Somebody" -- gives us an inkling why. It's hard to believe now, but during the 60s rock stars were treated like gods,* and none more so than Dylan. People actually thought that Dylan could tell them the meaning of life. Dylan described how he felt about that in the song "Idiot Wind" on his masterpiece Blood on the Tracks.
People see me all the time and they just can’t remember how to act
Their minds are filled with big ideas, images and distorted facts
Even you, yesterday, you had to ask me where it was at
I couldn’t believe after all these years, you didn’t know me better than that
Sweet lady
If people want to treat you like a god and you are relatively sane, what do you do? Well, you can submit yourself to the God of the Ages, the God of the Scriptures. Not the choice many counter-cultural heroes might make, but understandable.

The typical Dylan fan didn't really want to hear songs about Jesus, but Dylan being Dylan, people, myself included, gave him a listen. And there was good stuff to hear. For example, Slow Train, the first of the albums, featured Mark Knopfler, who didn't know what the songs were about when he signed on, but brought a wonderful, warm guitar sound to the project. Knopfler went on to produce Dylan's stellar post-born-again release Infidels, in 1983.

In terms of the songs, the greatest to emerge from this period was "Every Grain of Sand." Some theology: The Protestant Reformation featured two great figures, Martin Luther, who kicked the whole thing off in 1517. The other strand was represented by John Calvin, who was a proponent of the doctrine of predestination. The Puritans were Calvinists, so when they saw the indigenous people in the New World dying of disease they figured it was a matter of divine providence (thus the city in Rhode Island).

It's easy to see how this is problemmatic, tempting one to cede responsibility for one's actions. Yet there is sense, isn't there, that there might be layers of existence. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna counseled Prince Arjuna not to worry about waging war against his own cousins, since he must fulfill his destiny, and that, at any rate, all things have already happened.

This what I think of when I hear Dylan sing, "In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand / In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." I'll post the entire set of lyrics** here, since they are that good. I like the demo / bootleg version of the song best, because of the raggedness and immediacy. And also because of the dog barking at 2:15 like it was meant to be. Oh, and the sparrow reference is to Matthew 10:29.
In the time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need
When the pool of tears beneath my feet flood every newborn seed
There’s a dyin’ voice within me reaching out somewhere
Toiling in the danger and in the morals of despair

Don’t have the inclination to look back on any mistake
Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break
In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand
In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand

Oh, the flowers of indulgence and the weeds of yesteryear
Like criminals, they have choked the breath of conscience and good cheer
The sun beat down upon the steps of time to light the way
To ease the pain of idleness and the memory of decay

I gaze into the doorway of temptation’s angry flame
And every time I pass that way I always hear my name
Then onward in my journey I come to understand
That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand

I have gone from rags to riches in the sorrow of the night
In the violence of a summer’s dream, in the chill of a wintry light
In the bitter dance of loneliness fading into space
In the broken mirror of innocence on each forgotten face

I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand

* This is why punk happened. They meant to take the piss out of the whole rock-star-as-deity trip, to flatten the hierarchies a bit.

** All Dylan lyrics are posted at his website. They are searchable in a nifty spreadsheet format that shows how many times Dylan has performed each song live. For the record, "Every Grain" has been performed 185 times. The song has been covered a lot too. And Emmylou Harris and Sheryl Crow performed it Johnny Cash's funeral, in 2003.


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