Bob Dylan: The Gospel Years, Part 1 – Awakening

This is the first part in a new series of posts about Bob Dylan 1979-81: “The Gospel Years”.  We will look at the albums, the tours (each leg), timeline, etc..

For obvious reasons, too many Dylan fans seems to ignore this period. That is sad, because it´s an interesting period with many great performances and 3 strong albums. You don´t have to be religious to enjoy such great art.

The next “Bootleg series” release will be about “The Gospel Years”:


..Yes, but I know in my head
That we're all so misled,
And it's that ol' sign on the cross
That worries me.

.. You might think you're weak
But I mean to say you're strong.
Yes you are, if that sign on the cross,
If it begins to worry you.
-Bob Dylan ("Sign on the Cross" - 1967)

Bob Dylan started to embed religious hints in some of his lyrics 1967.

In the peace of Woodstock [1967] he stayed relative drug free, raising a family, playing music with his friends that had a vibrant, natural sound, and spending part of each day reading the Bible and the Hank Williams songbook.
-Howard Sounes (Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan)


The last song on his 1978 album “Street Legal” – Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat) – ends with:

There’s a new day at dawn and I’ve finally arrived
 If I’m there in the morning, baby, you’ll know I’ve survived
 I can’t believe it, I can’t believe I’m alive
But without you it just doesn’t seem right
Oh, where are you tonight?

It is therefore only the tone, one of uncompromising certainty, that should surprise us on coming to the Slow Train Coming album
-Michael Gray – referring to “Where Are You Tonight?” (The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia)

Here is a grandiose version of “Where Are You Tonight?” from Columbia – December 9, 1978:

Thank you. We’d like to do a song from the new album called Street-Legal. This was a single. I know it sold about 100 copies. Anyway, I think it just sold 25, but I guess that we can play it anyway.
-Bob Dylan (Introducing the song)

The Cross

Something happened @ Sports Arena, San Diego, California on November 17, 1978.

Towards the end of the show someone out in the crowd … knew I wasn’t feeling too well. I think they could see that. And they threw a silver cross on the stage. Now usually I don’t pick things up in front of the stage … But I looked down at that cross. I said, ‘I gotta pick that up.’ So I picked up the cross and I put it in my pocket … And I brought it backstage and I brought it with me to the next town, which was out in Arizona … I was feeling even worse than I’d felt when I was in San Diego. I said, ‘Well, I need something tonight.’ I didn’t know what it was. I was used to all kinds of things. I said, ‘I need something tonight that I didn’t have before.’ And I looked in my pocket and I had this cross.
-Bob Dylan (1979 interview)

Tangled Up in Blue – Bible version

Dylan began to hint that he must have undergone some kind of conversion to Christian faith halfway through the North American (last) leg of his 1978 world tour, when Street Legal was his current album. This section of the tour ran from October 28 (Carbondale, Illinois) through to December 16 (Hollywood, Florida). On November 24 (Fort Worth, Texas) he wore a metal cross around his neck, which had been thrown onto the stage for him from the audience in San Diego on the 17th. On the 26th (in Houston), he began to perform what became a series of re-writes of a passage in “Tangled Up in Blue”: instead of’she opened up a book of poems and Hand ed it to me / Written by an Italian poet from the thirteenth century”, Dylan sang’she opened up the Bible and started quotin” it to me / Gospel According to Matthew, verse 3, Chapter 33.” This was either a mistake or a tease: there is no Chapter 33; nor does it work the other way round: there is no verse 33 in Chapter 3. But at the next concert, two nights later, Dylan cited a passage that made a most pertinent sense, singing’she opened up the Bible, started quotin” it to me / Jeremiah Chapter 31, verses 9-33.” This passage states Jeremiah’s prophecy of a new covenant.
-Michael Gray (The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia)

And in Houston, November 26, he made a lyric change in “Tangled Up in Blue”; the book of poems the woman shared with him was no longer the work of an Italian poet from the 13th century. Instead: “She opened up the Bible, and started quoting it to me!The Gospel according to Matthew, Verse 3, Chapter 33.” There is no such chapter, and the next night he changed it to Jeremiah, but the Bible stayed in the song right up through the last show of the tour, Hollywood, Florida, December 16, later im- mortalized in “Caribbean Wind” (“I was playing a show in Miami in the Theater of Divine Comedy”). A change was in the air.
-Paul Williams (Bob Dylan: Performing Artist, Vol 2: The Middle Years 1974-1986)

Here is one “Bible” version of “Tangled Up In Blue”:

Charlotte Coliseum
Charlotte, North Carolina
10 December 1978

She lit a burner on the stove, wearin' a dress made up of stars and stripes
"I thought you'd never say hello," she said
"You know you look like you could be the silent type."
Then she opened up the Bible
And she started quotin' it to me
Jeremiah chapter seventeen
From verses 21 and 33.
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin' coal
Pourin' off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you,
Tangled up in blue.


Do Right To Me Baby (Do Unto Others)

On the last date of the 1978 tour in Miami on 16 December 1978, Dylan performed a new song that spoke of his religious conversion,  Do Right To Me Baby (Do Unto Others). This song would later appear on his first “Gospel” album “Slow Train Coming” (Aug 20, 1979).



8 thoughts on “Bob Dylan: The Gospel Years, Part 1 – Awakening”

  1. Wonderful news! As a huge fan of His Born-Again Bobness, I’ve been waiting for something like this box set for the past 3 decades. One of my colleagues is also a big fan of that period of Dylan’s music. Six months ago, he put together a playlist featuring lots of unreleased recordings. You can find it here:
    Dylan fans should also enjoy the music in a more recent post, presenting the best available soundboards from the 1965-66 ‘Going Electric’ tour, here:
    Feel free to share these links with anyone who might appreciate them.

  2. I rare where are you tonight as one of his very best
    I believe he says
    I left town at dawn
    my self and St John
    2 mighty men

  3. Even as a committed humanist, I have always loved this era and I look forward to the rest of your blogs in the series (and the speculated next volume of the BS)

    However, I only ‘discovered’ Bob in 1984 and so I have always seen it retrospectively. It must have been a terrible shock at the time and I wonder if I would have been as accepting if I’d lived through it.

    Similar to 1966, I am haunted by the thought that I might have boo-ed !

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