Is Bob Dylan A Genuine Gospel Songwriter?

Gotta Serve Somebody - The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan

By Stephen Pate – The coming release of Bob Dylan’s Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Vol. 13 has renewed the discussion of Bob Dylan’s Christian Gospel period.

Twenty years later in 2003, Gotta Serve Somebody – the Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan set out to prove Dylan created real Gospel music that stands the test of time. Bob Dylan lent his support to this independent production including two videos and one audio track. The project produced a DVD video and accompanying CD. They are slightly different.  This article covers the DVD.  A separate story will cover the CD.

No period in Dylan’s career is more controversial. Bob Dylan’s conversion to Christianity, subsequent albums and performances of Christian music were booed by audiences. Critics panned them.  People picketed his concerts. However, Dylan  gained new fans who appreciated the message.  He also won his first Grammy for the song “Gotta Serve Somebody.”

Dylan’s Music Sung By Real Gospel Singers

The Gospel music community was quick to see the value of Dylan’s new Christian music.  Grammy winning Gospel artist Shirley Caesar recorded “Gotta Serve Somebody” in 1980.  She made the song a regular part of her repertoire since then.

Gotta Serve Somebody – the Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan has 7 songs from “Saved” and 3 from “Slow Coming” and 1 from “Shot of Love“. The singers are top Gospel performers and choirs including Shirley Caesar, Dottie Peoples, Aaron Neville, Helen Baylor, Mighty Clouds of Joy and the Chicago Mass Choir.

The combination of Dylan’s songs and real Gospel performers is powerful music. Gospel music moves you. It raises the hair on the back of my neck.

The singers riff on the Dylan lyrics. They personalize them like they would in church.  Gospel music is openly emotional, reverential, with call and response between the lead singer and the backup singers. As expected, the harmonies are heavenly.

The video has three programs: 1. the documentary about making the CD; 2. the  documentary with uncut music performances of each song, and 3 – complete songs performed in sequence, a concert.

Gotta Serve Somebody Music Performances

The music starts with Bob Dylan’s video of “Gotta Serve Somebody”, a powerful song with the solid Muscle Shoals rhythm section.  The video is marred by gratuitous barnyard and other sound effects.

The one thing that Gospel music has is emotion and conviction in the saving grace of Jesus Christ.  “Gotta Serve Somebody” is what you expect in gospel music.

Gospel singer and 11-time Grammy winner Shirley Caesar delivers a powerful, preaching performance of “Gotta Serve Somebody” that eschews Dylan’s irony for a direct call to faith. She infuses the song with power and conviction.  Shirley Caesar recorded “Gotta Serve Somebody” in 1980 has made the song a regular part of her repertoire since then.

Arlethia Lindsay courageously sings “Every Grain of Sand” a Capella in a noisy NYC subway to mix response. The performance is street preaching in the raw.


Dottie Peoples belts out her faith and hope in the redemption in a church worthy performance of “I Believe in You “.  Aaron Neville’s “Saving Grace” is a personal confession, quiet and soulful in his trademark high falsetto.

Helen Baylor puts her heart and soul into “What Can I Do For You” as a thrilling and humble testament that can bring me to tears.  The famous Gospel quartet The Fairfield Four sing “Are You Ready” a Capella with their legendary close harmonies.

Great Day Chorale sing “In The Garden” in a church where the song makes sense. It sounds beautiful with the choir.  3-time Grammy Award winning Might Clouds of Joy rock an up-tempo “Saved” with true gospel call and answer.

“Pressing On” is a joyful tour de force for former Dylan backup singer Regina McCrary backed by the Chicago Mass Choir. McCrary is a member of the McCrary Sisters, and a daughter of Reverend Samuel H. McCrary, one of the founders of The Fairfield Four. She was also one of the background singers from the “Slow Train Coming” and “Saved” sessions when she went as Regina Travis.


When He Returns – Rance Allen

Gotta Serve Somebody DVD

The DVD has commentary about the music, Bob Dylan’s Christian period and the reaction to it from Dylan writers like Paul Williams, the musicians and from people who experienced it with Dylan like producer Gerry Wexler, guitarist Fred Tackett, organist Spooner Oldham, drummer Jim Keltner and backup singer Regina McCrary.  Their first-person accounts come off as authentic.

Bob Dylan is not interviewed for the DVD, but we see his 1980 Toronto performance of “When He Returns.”

Bob Dylan’s Christian Period

Saved by Bob Dylan

Saved by Bob Dylan

Following a reported conversion from Judaism to Christianity, Dylan released 3 albums with overtly Christian themes – Slow Train ComingSaved and Shot of Love.

During this period, Dylan stopped performing his old songs and began to promote his new Christian songs along with some fierce apocalyptic preaching from stage.

For hipster Dylan it was another seemingly about-face for the darling of 60’s protest, rock and counterculture. Fans protested his concerts, booed and generally expressed their disapproval.

Notwithstanding the controversy, Dylan won the Grammy for Best Male Rock Performance in 1980 for “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “Slow Train Coming” reached #2 in the UK and #3 in the US.

Where To Buy Gotta Serve Somebody

The DVD is out of print and originals are going for stratospheric prices. I recommend you shop around and consider good quality used copies.

I found it on Amazon.com at Gotta Serve Somebody – the Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan at $20 for a used copy and $74 for new.

In the UK, the used DVD is only $7.12.

In Canada, Gotta Serve Somebody DVD is $19 for used and $147 new.

The CD is only $4.99.  In Canada the CD is $14.

Track-list – Gotta Serve Somebody – the Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan

1. Arlethia Lindsay – Every Grain Of Sand
2. Shirley Caesar – Gotta Serve Somebody
3. Dottie Peoples – I Believe In You
4. Aaron Neville – Saving Grace
5. Helen Baylor – What Can I Do For You?
6. Fairfield Four – Are You Ready
7. Great Day Chorale – In The Garden
8. Mighty Clouds Of Joy – Saved
9. Sounds Of Blackness – Solid Rock
10. Chicago Mass Choir – Pressing On
11. Rance Allen – When He Returns

Bonus Tracks
1-1. Bob Dylan – Gotta Serve Somebody (Animation)
1-2. Arlethia Lindsay – Every Grain Of Sand
1-3. Shirley Caesar – Gotta Serve Somebody
1-4. Dottie Peoples – I Believe In You
1-5. Aaron Neville – Saving Grace
1-6. Helen Baylor- What Can I Do For You?
1-7. Fairfield Four – Are You Ready
1-8. Great Day Chorale – In The Garden
1-9. Mighty Clouds Of Joy – Saved
1-10. Chicago Mass Choir – Pressing On
1-11 Rance Allen – When He Returns

Backing Musicians – Gotta Serve Somebody – the Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan

Drums – Jim Keltner
Guitar – Fred Tackett
Organ [B3] – Billy Preston
Organ [B3] – Spooner Oldham
Piano – Gary Smith

For a track-by-track listing of musicians, see Discogs

Click HERE to read more.

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