As I have anticipated the first Dylan song I’d be writing about, never once did I consider this one. For the record –I thought maybe ‘Gates of Eden’, one of the first that I learned to play; ‘When the Ship comes in’, the one I played most in folk clubs, or songs I have just formed a close affection for –‘Lay down your Weary Tune’ and even the much slighter ‘One more cup of coffee’… But on the ol’ ipod shuffle, yesterday, Judy Collins’s version (what, her again?) of this song came on, and I remembered Dylan’s original, and I knew that I wanted to write about it.
When Victor and I flew back into Heathrow Airport after three weeks of travels on Greyhound buses in the States, we must have had some spare moments in between connections to mooch around in the Airport’s newspaper and magazine kiosks. Shameful to confess, on this occasion media and music news caught my attention more than the news of world events and political issues. Joni Mitchell was on the cover of Rolling Stone, with the infamous curly perm – and –was this hinted at on the covers of NME? Melody Maker? Or was it just alluded to in the Joni Mitchell interview? -Dylan had found God, and was talking openly, and writing, playing and singing, about his newfound Christian faith!
Vic, a most fervent Dylan fan, said we shouldn’t be surprised –Dylan had been a chaser after truth all his life. And yes, it was the case: he’d been unwilling to settle for easy answers, clichés and platitudes, but had maintained integrity even when, unpopularly, he had refused the pigeon holing of trendy genres (consider ‘Our Back Pages’ – a comment perhaps on the oversimplifications of ‘protest’ singers) “So it was just a matter of time,” Victor suggested, “till he arrived at Truth.” (something like this. hope I haven’t misrepresented the younger you/us, Vic. But that’s who and where we were then).
The first ‘Christian’ album (the first of three, basically) was an unequivocal underlining of this new commitment –‘Slow Train Coming’- and perhaps surprisingly met with much critical approval despite (or because of?) its authentic gospel tones. Our camp, our church community of twentysomethings and even younger, were quietly thrilled. It graced all our turntables; Colin even taught ‘Man Gave Names To All The Animals’ to the Sunday school.
It was a time when –with that wonderful youthful energy and idealism which needs no apology or regret –we wanted to express ourselves in every possible artistic medium and genre; so, as a church, we had several evenings of ‘offering our gifts to each other’, expressing praise and blessing in song, poetry, drama, music, story and dance. I can’t remember whose idea it was, but on one of these occasions a few of us prepared, rehearsed and performed an interpretive dance to ‘I Believe In You’. This is hard to believe now! Hard to imagine what range and variety of movements sustained us through its full five minutes of recorded song!
But I do vaguely recall the joy, the excitement of doing it, and of course that the experience of performing and interpreting the song in a different medium made one inhabit the song in a different way, listening and living through each phrase. While it starts off on an almost defensive note, a sort of almost sorry whine from a misunderstood believer –‘they don’t want me around… Because I believe in you…’ it moves to something that is very much like real praise,all this very close in tone and content to many an honest, raw Davidic psalm: the affirmations of ‘I believe in you even on the morning after/… When white turns to black/… Even though I be outnumbered…’And so, also psalm-like, the content moves not just from complaint to faith affirmation/praise, but also then to the imperatives of prayer/plea –‘Don’t let me drift too far…’, ‘Don’t let me change my heart…’
And each one of those stages, each one of those lines and phrases of self pity, solid commitment and plea is echoed with total conviction by the nuances of Dylan’s extraordinary voice – agonized in places, plaintive in others (and against which Ms Collins’s rendition sounds…sorry, Judy…somewhat bland) – and to each of these stages, we danced, we moved, we tried to inhabit it with our hands, feet, gestures, expression and our own faith.
It’s not surprising, then, that others have wanted to cover this song. Whatever your stance on spirituality, the song has an obvious authenticity of feeling, and integrity, and it is beautifully structured too. It lives on –beyond what we now call Dylan’s ‘Christian period’. My heart lifts to remember it today, my faith – gladly -still making that same arc of psalmic responses..