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Bob Dylan Hits the Big Themes, From Religion to the Atomic Age

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Do you find yourself being a more religious person these days?
A religious person? Religion is supposedly a force for positive good. Where can you look in the world and see that religion has been a force for positive good? Where can you look at humanity and say, "Humanity has been uplifted by a connection to a godly power"?

Meaning organized religion?
Corporations are religions. It depen is what you talk about with a religion. . . . Anything is a religion.

At one point, you took on Christianity in a very serious way, and then Judaism. Where are you now with all that?
Religion is something that is mostly outward appearance. Faith is a different thing. How many religions are there in the world? Quite a few, actually.

What is your faith these days?
Faith doesn't have a name. It doesn't have a category. It's oblique. So it's unspeakable. We degrade faith by talking about religion.

When you write songs where you say you walk in "the mystical garden," there's a lot of religious imagery.
In the mystic garden. That kind of imagery is just as natural to me as breathing, because the world of folk songs has enveloped me for so long. My terminology all comes from folk music. It doesn't come from the radio or TV or computers or any of that stuff. It's embedded in the folk music of the English language.

Much of which comes from the Bible.
Yeah, a lot of it is biblical, a lot of it is just troubadour stuff, a lot of it is stuff that Uncle Dave Macon would sing off the top of his head.

What do you take faith in?
Nature. Just elemental nature. I'm still tramping my way through the forest, really, on daily excursions. Nature doesn't change. And if there is any war going on on a big level today, it's against nature.

On Modern Times, it seems like you're dealing with the forces of reckoning.
Reckoning? You mean every day is a judgment? That's all instilled in me. I wouldn't know how to get rid of it.

How is it instilled in you?
It's instilled in me by the way I grew up, where I come from, early feelings. . . .

Is it something you see as coming or something that's happening right now?
We really don't know much about the great Judgment Day that's coming, because we've got nobody to come back and tell us about it. We can only assume certain things because of what we've been taught.

What do you assume is happening in the world around us when you walk in the mystical garden?
Mystic garden.

You see things closing in, you see the darkness coming.
I could have come up with that line thirty years ago. This is all the same thing from different angles.

It's like the landscape of "Desolation Row," only you've changed from outrage to acceptance.
I think as we get older, we all come to that feeling, one way or another. We've seen enough happening to know that things are a certain way, and even if they're changed, they're still going to be that certain way.

Therefore, we have to accept it?
I've always accepted that. I don't think I've thought about things any differently in the whole time I've been around, really.

You've resisted talking about your past for years. In Chronicles and No Direction Home, you're writing about your legacy. Why are you doing it now?
Well, it probably was because enough things have resolved themselves, and I had an editor who was a good ally. I could have probably done it earlier, but I just didn't have the encouragement.

Did you enjoy it?
When I did it, I did, yeah. What I didn't like about it was the constant rereading and revising, because I'm not used to that. A song is nothing compared to some kind of literary thing. A song, you can keep it with you, you can hum it, you can kind of go over things when you're out and around, you can keep it in your mind. It's all small. But you can't do that with a book. If you want to check it, you have to reread what you've done. It's very time-consuming, and I didn't like that part of it.

If I wasn't inspired to do it, I wouldn't do it. So great flashes would come to me. These waves would come, and I would have to either mark things down or have to go back to where I could write things and keep typewriters here and there and do that. But it was enjoyable in that I only did it when I was inspired to do it and never touched it when I wasn't. I never tried to manufacture the inspiration.

I was struck by your account of coming to New York when you were young, going to the public library, and by the very deliberate and methodical fashion in which you went about learning your craft and building your knowledge.
But I was learning everything I needed to learn from real live people who were really there at the time, so I was in it firsthand. I think that's where my feelings came from, in terms of all of them early songs. Even songs at later dates, it's "What is human nature really like?" Not "What am I like, what do I like, what don't I like, what am I all about?" Not that kind of thing, but "What are all these invisible spirits all about?" I think that's where songs like "Blowin' in the Wind" come from. It's a more ancient struggle than what might currently be seen as the fulcrum of where the lyrics are coming out of.

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Song Stories

“Madame George”

Van Morrison | 1968

One of the first stream-of-consciousness epics to make it onto a Van Morrison record, his drawn-out farewell to the eccentric "Madame George" lasted nearly 10 minutes, combining ingredients from folk, jazz and classical music. The character that gave the song its title provoked speculation that it was about a drag queen, though Morrison denied this in Rolling Stone. "If you see it as a male or a female or whatever, it's your trip," he remarked. "I see it as a ... a Swiss cheese sandwich. Something like that."

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