From a 21st-century perspective, it seems extraordinary that a rock star announcing a new-found belief in Jesus could ever have been controversial. Most popular hip hop and R&B stars end their album acknowledgements with a thank you to God, and even alternative musicians with an interest in the darker side of life (such as Nick Cave) are vocal about their religious beliefs. Yet when Bob Dylan turned to Christianity at the end of the 1970s, it was seen by many fans as the most shocking thing he could possibly have done.
It’s strange to imagine a time when listeners identified quite so strongly with a singer, but Bob Dylan fans have always been alert to their hero betraying them. Whether it’s changing genre, hiding out in the countryside or simply releasing records they don’t like, many baby boomers often take things that he does as a personal attack.
Dylan’s response is simply to keep moving. But in recent years he and his management have returned to former periods to provide more context with new out-takes, unreleased songs, rehearsals and live recordings. The main outlet for this has been his Bootleg Series, the 13th volume of which – Trouble No More – has just been released. It tackles the period from 1979 to 1981, when Dylan put out three albums of largely Christian music: Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot of Love.
The oft-told story of Dylan’s conversion to Christianity begins in San Diego in November 1978, when an audience member threw a silver cross onto his stage. He pocketed it, and the next day in an Arizona hotel room Dylan believed he felt Jesus put his hand on him and knock him over. Soon after he started attending meetings of a small Evangelical group known as the Vineyard Fellowship, a church later dismissed by the British journalist Neil Spencer as a “dumb Sunday school for addled cokeheads”. (Years later Dylan played four songs for Pope John Paul II in Bologna, who responded with a sermon based on the lyrics to Blowin’ in the Wind.)
Dylan’s conversion prompted not just these three albums, but also a series of tours where (at least to begin with) he played nothing but his new Christian songs, interspersed with apocalyptic “raps” that dismayed much of his old audience while delighting new followers.
Available in four LP, two CD, eight CD or (direct from his website) 10 CD versions, this new box set provides a fascinating way of revisiting the era.
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