Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Bob Dylan is hanging in the balance, of a perfect finished plan

I have written on how from a theological perspective Bob Dylan has expressed some of the great truths of Reformational Theology, i.e. the Theology of the great Martin Luther or John Calvin when Dylan demonstrates for example, a sophisticated understanding of "the chosen few, who will judge the many, when the game is through."   Today I want to follow up on that thought with this important lyric change that is found in the following November 16, 2002 performance of a wonderfully reworked version of the masterpiece "Every Grain of Sand."  You can watch it here:

But before you do, consider with me the significance of the lyric change on the penultimate verse of this great tune.   The original release of the song in 1981 is "supposed" to concluded this way:

I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man  * (this half couplet I am calling penultimate)
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand

This great song first appeared on the album Shot of Love and while the critics did not receive this album well, everybody had to acknowledge that this offerring, "Every Grain of Sand" stood apart and bore all the marks of a bona fide Dylan master stroke.

Now in the Boston Fleet Center performance of 2002 which I have provided a link to above, that second to last line of the song, has been significantly altered.   How do I know it has been altered?    You can check your lyrics at the official website of the artist at:

Now what is the lyric change, and why do I think is so significant?   I have blogged about Dylan's trip to China where he was opening with Gonna Change my Way of Thinkin,' not the version from the original Slow Train Coming release in 1979, but the Alternate version, which is now also posted on the lyrics page on the official site, which was released on the Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan  album which received the official imprimatur of the artist by including one of his own contributions.  Here he was changing what used to be:  "I'm going to put my best foot forward"  to "I'm going to put my best friend forward."   It just one word Doug!  Why are you attaching so much significance to it?  Well we know that the artist doesn't do these things for no reason, so we have to try to determine what the reason is.  It seems pretty clear the artist is talking about a personal relationship with a friend that he wants to put forward.   No longer a foot.  But a friend.  Surely the friend that is referred to is the same reference as that described in scripture as "there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother"  i.e. the Lord.

Permit me to comment on one more significant lyric change that I have been noticing in recent years on the well known, and frequently performed tune Tangled Up in Blue. The Song ends on the official site with:

But me, I’m still on the road
Headin’ for another joint
We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view
Tangled up in blue

What I have been hearing in recent years is:  

But me, I'm still on the road
trying to stay out of the joint.....

What is the significance here?   Well in the original 1975 release of the song, there is a clever double entendre that references the artist's use of a certain popular hallucinogenic weed widely used at the time.  Now, it seems, in recent years, the artist wants to distance himself from this possible interpretation, thus the lyric change.

Ok that brings me to my reason for posting tonight, the lyric change on Every Grain of Sand.  Again it is only a small change.  From the original

I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man 
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand


I am hanging in the balance of a perfect finished plan
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand

Again just a couple of words, but thunderous in significance.   In the later version we are confessing that God is in control of everything, the plan is complete.  There are no loose screws.  Not the slightest chance that something could fall outside of the perfect finished plan.  God is completely and utterly sovereign.  He makes His plan, He finishes His plan, He works his plan out in time.   Time is an Ocean, but it ends at the shore....So that "whatsoever comes to pass" it is all part of God's perfect plan.  Which bring me to one of my favorite Bob Dylan lines of all time, from Man in the Long Black Coat:

There are no mistakes in life some people say
It is true sometimes you can see it that way

This brings together comedy and deep philosophical and theological reflection in the space of a very short couplet.   If there are no mistakes in life.... as some people say..... then it can't be true "sometimes"..... it has to be true all the time.   And this truth about no mistakes in life is not some thing that you can "see it that way" in other words, something that is totally subjective to the interpreter.  This must be an objective fact.  So this way of putting things cracks a joke, and interjects some uncertainty at the same time.   We have to be a bit humble and reveal our uncertainty when we talk about these deep mysteries of God's sovereignty and the way it interoperates with man's responsibility.

So small lyric change, large significance.   No mistake.  At least some people say so.  And everything written above, is true sometimes, at least "you can see it that way."




  1. "everything written above, is true sometimes", but the lyric change actually went the other way with the "Shot Of Love" version not being the original line; the line "I am hanging in the balance of a perfect finished plan" (which Dylan usually sings in concert) was also the original line in the demo version from September 1980 (with the dog in the background), which was released in 1991 on the Bootleg Series Vol.1-3

    Markus Prieur

  2. Mark is right, but your piece is still a wonderful read. We should be praying for Bob, that he would remain strong, rest his voice (a true miracle), and be used mightily for the Kingdom to come. I go through phases lately when I can't listen to him because of the constant ambiguity, but then phases where I can really dig the beautiful noise and I realize and hope that this ambiguity is the only way anything can get through to the few who are opening up to the truth.

  3. Thanks for that additional information Markus. So the lyric "change" from the official website is quite ancient, maybe going back before the "original." So this alternate lyric is ancient, maybe as ancient as the "the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea." And who can forget that wonderful contribution from Dylan's dog, in the Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3. The dog adds his blessing to the message of this great song which so wonderfully describes the beauties of the created world, reminding us of the Artist --the Master's hand -- who stand behind all of this creative beauty.

  4. I forgot to mention earlier, I have a detailed performance history, and more than a dozen mp3 links from recent years to this gem of a song on my EVERY GRAIN OF SAND page -->

  5. I don't remember the name of the author that has written on every Dylan song (except the most recent), but he confirmed that the "original" lyrics were "of a perfect finished plan", but that Bob wasn't satisfied with it and the studio recording ended up with "the reality of man", which Bob wasn't satisfied with it either, but went ahead and used it. Most live performances he has used the "perfect finished plan" version.