Looking Back: “Rough And Rowdy Ways” by Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan is that rarity among artists: a living myth. Scores of scholars have cashed in on penning a thousand words pouring over each one he has sung or, very occasionally, said. His lyrics are credited with being a moving force in the ‘60s cultural revolution. He has proved immune to all fashions and trends, doing whatever strikes his fancy at the moment and letting his audience decide for itself whether it wishes to follow. Such was the case with Rough And Rowdy Ways, his 2020 album that in its release came both as an utter surprise and as a surprise in and of itself.

Musically, Rough And Rowdy Ways is anything but. There is an occasional bluesy snarl, but the vast majority is carefully assembled quiet layers, all instrumentation well blended and deliberately indistinct. In lesser hands such an approach could easily lead to tedium, but Dylan and company make it compelling.

Dylan’s voice has been reduced over the years to a lower register growl befitting a lion in winter. It isn’t pretty; Dylan’s nasally projection has never been pretty. Yet despite its limitations Dylan’s voice remains approachable without being inviting.

Lyrically, Rough And Rowdy Ways finds Dylan at his multilayered best, surface interpretations available but inevitably inviting deeper dives. Those wishing for references to his straightforward Slow Train Coming era faith proclamations will find an occasional tantalizing hint such as this brief nugget from “False Prophet:”

Oh you poor Devil — look up if you will
The City of God is there on the hill

Elsewhere Dylan slyly leaves the listener wondering. In “I Contain Multitudes,” is he referring to each individual’s multifaceted persona or a manipulator’s ability to chameleon their way into controlling others via channeling elements of their nature? All is not open to multiple interpretations; “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You” is a straightforward love song begging to stand alongside “Make You Feel My Love” in the catalog of Dylan songs eagerly covered by others.

The album’s pinnacle is “Murder Most Foul,” an eighteen minute tone poem finding Dylan musing on John F. Kennedy’s assassination in a stream of consciousness vibe that weaves characters as disparate as Wolfman Jack and Stevie Nicks into the story while offering one final moment for Christians to ponder:

The day that they killed him, someone said to me, “Son,
The age of the anti-Christ has just only begun.”

Rough And Rowdy Ways isn’t background bubblegum music for pop poppers. It commands and demands careful listening. Short attention span sufferers will be left cold. But for the initiated thinker, the individual seeking challenge and meat from art, there have been few albums in recent times offering this much substance. The world has long known Bob Dylan is a visionary genius. With Rough And Rowdy Ways, he’s shown he doesn’t mind proving it once more.

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

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.

Cephas Hour of Peace
Episode Twenty-Two
Air Date: December 27, 2020

Last show of 2020. I will not miss this year.Continue reading “Cephas Hour of Peace
Episode Twenty-Two
Air Date: December 27, 2020″

Cephas Hour of Peace
Episode Eighteen
Air Date: November 22, 2020

More musings on broken hearts, a broken society, and a bloody Savior.Continue reading “Cephas Hour of Peace
Episode Eighteen
Air Date: November 22, 2020″

Cephas Hour of Purpose
Episode Fifteen
Air Date: November 1, 2020

Did some archive digging for this one.Continue reading “Cephas Hour of Purpose
Episode Fifteen
Air Date: November 1, 2020″

Cephas Hour of Peace
Episode Eleven
Air Date: September 27, 2020

Little of this, little of that. A lot on different aspects of forgiveness and dreams.Continue reading “Cephas Hour of Peace
Episode Eleven
Air Date: September 27, 2020″

Cephas Hour of Peace
Episode Three
Air Date: July 5, 2020

Not exactly the most high energy show in history, but it was and is from the heart. (Click the “Read More” button to pull up the show on demand link.)Continue reading “Cephas Hour of Peace
Episode Three
Air Date: July 5, 2020″

Cephas Hour of Purpose
Episode One
Air Date: June 14, 2020

New show name, new show logo, same ol’ lovable me. Got my rock on for this one. (Click the “Read More” button to pull up the show on demand link.)Continue reading “Cephas Hour of Purpose
Episode One
Air Date: June 14, 2020″