Looking Back: Is Bob Dylan’s “Saved” The Greatest Gospel Album Ever?

"Saved" by Bob Dylan

First, there was gospel and the blues; twin cousins each at best privately disavowing and usually publicly denouncing each other. Gospel was a group proclamation of salvation and eternal reward, a fervent celebration by its creators whose ofttimes sole hope in a land of freedom was freedom begrudgingly won not by the shedding of blood fighting external oppressors, but rather those within the nation. The blues were a primarily solo expression of earthly joys and woes, of relationships and lives gone wrong underneath blistering southern sun and big city alley lights. Both were new and fresh and steeped in rhythm, a rhythm simultaneously denounced and surreptitiously adopted by the less stuffy elements of the white church.

Long after their birth, while gospel remained almost solely an American musical idiom the blues followed American military personnel across the pond to England where it found a ready audience among British kids who were already enamored with skiffle, the 1920s-based mix of Appalachian folk and Delta blues that would later be known as Americana. While by the 1950s skiffle had all but disappeared in the United States, the first wave of British baby boomers who were eager to divest themselves of their parents big band and crooners musical mix — some things never change — locked on to skiffle, from there discovering the blues and adopting it as their own voice. Thus, in the 1960s you had a small army of skinny longhaired kids with funny accents from across the pond wowing American kids with their amped up (literally) interpretation of Robert Johnson and compatriots, music their red very white and blue youthful audience had never heard even though it came out of their own back yard. Add to this mix rock‘n’roll, its own roots firmly planted in the blues with some of the earthiness washed out in favor of an upbeat danceable sheen, and you have the 1960s music revolution that to this day echoes throughout popular culture.

Which leads to Bob Dylan, the mystic chronicler who started out as the folk musician’s folk musician, abruptly switching to rock‘n’roll, unceasingly following his own visions be they of Johanna or no regardless of commercial considerations, and in 1979 rocking the world with Slow Train Coming, an unbridled and unapologetic expression of newfound faith in Christ. If Slow Train Coming set off a explosion, Dylan’s 1980 followup Saved raised the furor to a full-blown firestorm.

Looking back, Saved shows how Dylan fully knew and understood both Scriptural fundamentals and gospel music itself. Replete with straight out of the black church backing vocals and swelling organ flourishes, the album is all substance and zero subtlety. Dylan wisely made no effort to mimic gospel singing, leaning on his nasally granular voice to deliver a message that would make any backwoods preacher proud. The songs bring power on all fronts, Dylan exploring every nook and cranny of gospel from the full-on drive of the album’s title track to rich melodic servitude in “What Can I Do For You”. The album’s highlight is “In The Garden,” Dylan illustrating several moments of Christ’s earthly ministry with the bullet point lyric “When He rose up from the dead / Did they believe?” A question remaining on the table to this day.

Calling Saved the greatest gospel album of all time is a personal opinion; certainly many recordings over the years deserve consideration for that lofty title. That said, Saved does stand out, albeit some twelve to fifteen years later, as an answer to the British invasion. The latter brought the blues to public attention. Saved did gospel the same favor.

The album is available on CD, download, and streaming from all the usual outlets.

7 Comments

  1. I suppose there are many great Gospel albums .. who knows? The point for me is that I loved and related to “Saved” from the moment it came out. I am a Jew and Dylan fan, not a Christ-believer, yet “Saved” always brings me to tears. “Covenant Woman” and “What Can I Do for You” are the two hands of beauty, and “Pressing On” and “Are you Ready?” are just the finest music. So thank you for bringing “Saved” into the spotlight once more. The album is usually near the bottom of Dylan “best” lists. While the production could have been clearer, the songs could hardly have been stronger or more lovely.

  2. Very interesting, but for me any compilation album of Blind Willie Johnson songs does it a whole lot better. No need to speak up for Blind Willie, everything is there and coming from a very deep place. But Bob’s “faith” is occasionally almost delusional and rather like a crutch, more of an emotional release for his personal suffering, e.g. “What can I do for you?” – can you address God, or your girlfriend or yourself like that in all sincerity when you are Bob Dylan? These are just a few thoughts on the question, but for me Blind Willie Johnson is in a class of his own. As for gospel music being the genre, I just don’t know, I never thought of Saved as a gospel record, in spite if the appropriation of gospel style.

  3. I love Saved and it is my favorite Gospel record. The songs from the album performed live by Dylan and his excellent band from 1979 – 1981 are extraordinary. I was fortunate enough to see two shows at the end of those tours in Philadelphia and Lehigh, PA in the fall of 1981 when I was a senior in high school.
    Then in the spring of 1982 a bus came by and I got on and then it all began, but that’s another story for another time.

  4. While inclined to give Aretha the nod for Amazing Grace (1972), Dylan’s Saved (1980) is his most underrated album. The cover alone set many critics to sharpening their knives. It is worth noting that the CD has a different painting: Dylan on stage making music. “What Can I do for You?” and “Pressing On” are especially fine, and “In the Garden” was played in concert often in 80, 81, 84, and 86. Dylan certainly knows gospel music, as you point out. The astonishing box set, Trouble No More (1979-1981), is essential. Outtakes, live takes, rarities, and a fabulous film of Dylan in Toronto (1980) make for a premiere release from the Bootleg Series.

  5. I don’t believe “Saved” is even Bob Dylan’s greatest Gospel album. Granted, it has a great set of songs, with “In The Garden” being, perhaps, the greatest. Yet, the album, as recorded, comes off, as sort of still born. Live verisions of those same songs from that era are often amazing. Now that, would have been an amazing album. To my ears, “Slow Train Coming”, is a better sounding album. Does that make the contain better ? No, but the greatest gospel album should sound great too.
    Take, James Brown, Live At the Apollo, great songs, great recording, sounds great too or The Allmans Brothers: Live at The Fillmore East. For examples.

  6. I love it…Saved is a great lp.
    Bob needs to take a stand against the current “vaccine” that is killing more people than it is helping. Good people need to take a stand against this evil that is destroying mankind.

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