By Stephen Pate – The video documentary Bob Dylan: 1975-1981: Rolling Thunder & The Gospel Years explains the wherefore and the why of Bob Dylan’s Gospel years.
Through dozens of first-person interviews, the documentary captures people who knew Dylan during his Gospel years and who witnessed the events.
In 1979 Bob Dylan studied the Bible with an evangelical Christian church. Dylan got baptized as a Christian. He wrote music that qualifies as some of the best gospel music of our era. On stage he preached to the audience.
This was shocking to many Dylan fans who knew him as a person of the Jewish faith and an anti-establishment hipster.
In 1981, Dylan began to de-emphasize the Armageddon evangelical message and returned to songs that reflected his previous points of view.
Interest in the Dylan Gospel years has been revived with the release of recording outtakes and live concert performances from that time.
Bob Dylan’s Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Vol. 13 was released on November 7th, 2017.
Why Did Bob Dylan Convert to Christianity?
Why did Bob Dylan convert to Christianity is the question that many asked? Dylan’s change from hipster to believer astounded most of his audience; however, it’s logical and the video does a great job of explaining how it happened.
Producer Joel Gilbert lets the interviewees who knew Dylan personally or who witnessed the events tell what they saw. The interviews are credible, explaining the conversion process and context of the time and Dylan.
Pastor Bill Dwyer of Valley Vineyard Church explains the mood in Los Angeles in 1979 and how Dylan approached their church. Dylan studied the bible with the Vineyard for 3 months. He was baptized and had a born-again experience.
“I didn’t know it was going to be wall-to-wall Jesus” said Wexler. The music was “religious but always funky.” When Dylan commented at a dinner that he was refraining from drinking and drugs due to his faith, Wexler quipped “I’ll drink to that.”
Other witnesses to Bob Dylan’s Gospel years
Gospel singer Regina McCrary sang back up on “Slow Train Coming”, “Saved” and “Shot of Love” and joined the gospel tour. She talks about calling her dad to get inspiration for the SNL performance that followed the recording of “Slow Train Coming.”
Muscle Shoals keyboard player Spooner Oldham followed Dylan from the studio to the road tour. He does a slow drawl on audience reaction to the new music.
Song writer Al Kasha was a member of the Vineyard and a fellow Jewish person. Dylan’s long-time friend Rambling Jack Elliot joined the church around the same time.
Rob Stoner and Scarlett Rivera from the Rolling Thunder Tour are interviewed. Milt Glaser from surprising group called “Jews for Jesus” explains how a Jewish person can accept Jesus. That was a revelation to me.
The video has a first hand account from Joel Selvin, rock reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle who attended the first Dylan concerts in San Francisco at The Warwick. Audiences were shocked at the revival tent atmosphere.
One of the stranger interviewees is the somewhat weird Dylanologist A.J. Weberman. You don’t have to agree with his point of view.
Unlike commentaries by Dylan critics such as Clinton Heylin, this Dylan documentary is not jaundiced by cynical critical remarks.
As the title Bob Dylan: 1975-1981: Rolling Thunder & The Gospel Years suggests, the 240-minute video covers The Rolling Thunder tour and the Gospel years. In context, the first part of the documentary makes sense. “Rolling Thunder” is a prelude to the dramatic move by Dylan.
The only downside is that Joel Gilbert is not a charismatic interviewer. That said, he has put together the best documentary I’ve seen of this period in Bob Dylan’s life.
Bob Dylan: 1975-1981: Rolling Thunder & The Gospel Years is available on DVD from Amazon.com.
Bob Dylan’s Gospel Years and Evangelical Millennialism
Dylan fans were was flabbergasted at Bob Dylan’s obvious conversion to evangelical millennialism.
I understood those beliefs since I was brought up to believe the world was ending soon. I was just leaving those beliefs behind as Dylan was taking them up. I had zero interest in Dylan’s conversion. “Been there” as they say.
Based on some passages in the Bible book of Revelation, millennialists believe Christ is going to return, fight the battle of Armageddon with the Devil and his evil forces.
According to Revelation, Christ will set up his kingdom on earth, generally thought to be in Jerusalem. The belief is as old as time. Modern variants include 7th Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and small sects like the Vineyard Christian Fellowship Church.
By the mid-1970’s, there was a small but strong belief the world was about to end. Five million Jehovah’s Witnesses prepared for Armageddon. Out in California, disillusioned hippies and artists were planning their own end-of-the-world scenarios. Dylan obliquely referred to this movement on the 1974 Before the Flood tour.
“And when the sand was gone and the time arrived
In the naked dawn only a few survived
And in attempts to understand a thing so simple and so huge
Believed that they were meant to live after the deluge” (copyright Jackson Browne)
Earlier on the album in the song “The Road and the Sky,” Browne uses the flood metaphor again “Can you see those dark clouds gathering up ahead/They’re gonna wash this planet clean like the Bible said.”
Bob Dylan The Gospel Preacher
Christ told his followers to go to the corners of the earth and preach the gospel. That’s evangelism.
Bob Dylan became an Gospel preacher at his concerts from 1979 to 1981. The video has some classic fire and brimstone preaching that sounds odd for Dylan but right at home in an evangelical church.
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