Listen to this track by gospel music fan and one-time “topical” singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, who recently had another birthday; he’s 74! It’s “Gotta Serve Somebody”, his 1979 hit single that would represent the last time to date he’d have a song in the top 40. This one reached #24 on the Billboard 100 upon its release in August of 1979.
The song was also featured on his new record, Slow Train Coming, a work that reflected his philosophical shift toward evangelical Christianity. It was the beginning of the Gospel Bob period! As such, it was something of a controversial release, with many of the songs on the album taking on a strident and spiritually polemical tone, tinged with a religiosity that seemed to be antithetical to the rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic. Dylan had always been something of a mercurial figure who seemed committed to undercutting expectations at every turn. But, even the session musicians who played on this track, and producer Jerry Wexler, were taken aback by Dylan’s new worldview. It was something of a surprise to Dylan’s peers, too. John Lennon of course wrote “Serve Yourself” in direct response to this tune. Many fans held the same point of view as Lennon on Bob’s gospel trip.
Yet, with this song that won him a Grammy for Best Male Vocal that year, there are elements here that had been a part of Dylan’s songwriting style all along, even celebrated in his earliest work.
Bob Dylan is so venerated by music fans, critics, and peers that it’s sometimes hard to remember that he’s a music fan too. Among his earliest influences, besides Woody Guthrie and the folk traditions he represents, is gospel music. From Reverend Gary Davis, to Blind Willie Johnson, to Washington Phillips, to Mahalia Jackson, gospel music grew up alongside the blues, and certainly alongside country music from the early twentieth century. Whether you buy Bob’s story of a personal visitation from the Big J himself or not, this much is true; the songwriting you’re hearing here didn’t come from nowhere. It has roots that go back for over a century. Bob is a student of roots music even now. He knew exactly what he was doing here as far as the traditions of gospel music in general and gospel blues specifically goes. The inspirational component of this song is well-founded, historically speaking.
Structurally and stylistically too, “Gotta Serve Somebody” isn’t much of a departure from what Dylan had always laid out for listeners. The generous number of verses, the repeating patterns at the end of each that bring everything back to the central statement (see also “Desolation Row”) is in place. Here, he uses a biblical tone. But the same can be said of “All Along The Watchtower”, and indeed the whole of John Wesley Harding, which he’d cut over a decade previous to this one.
Another area that must be considered is Dylan’s history as a social commentator and political singer. If you feel like this tune has an air of the sermon, with maybe a little bit of judgement thrown in, remember that it was written by the same guy who wrote “The Masters Of War”. Even if the content and perspective that drives it is quite a bit different to that earlier song, the delivery and fervour behind it is not.. The point is, fans shouldn’t have been all that surprised by Bob cutting a gospel record, even if he is culturally Jewish.
What could be considered different here is how downright funky the whole thing sounds, rooted in the R&B trends that pervaded at the end of seventies. Amid all of what many might consider to be lyrical sanctimony, there are some sweaty grooves to be had with this tune that make it one of the most soulful songs in his catalogue, and not for reasons of the soul specifically as he perhaps intended. This track boils over with physicality, the best Dylan track to dance to. Maybe this was the main objection in the end; that Dylan isn’t meant to be heard on the dance floor. But, that’s another thing; Dylan loved R&B too, just the same as he loved folk music. Jerry Wexler, the very one who coined the phrase “rhythm & blues” produced this. Dylan knew what he wanted there, too; to make important musical connections, as well as to present new ideas that reflected his personal journey. That’s what any artist does when making a record.
Even if this particular song is actually something of a throwback to the approach he’d taken from his early career despite superficial appearances, the main difference with this “born again” period in his songwriting journey was that he’d taken the ineffable truth which is at the centre of his best work and made it into an absolute instead, this time with very clearly defined ideological lines. Christian rock stations tend to celebrate this approach even if secular music fans do not, and Dylan enjoyed some radio play in those quarters with this tune. I’m sure they were thrilled to be able to claim him. But, that route was always going to be a blind alley to an artist so prone to avoid being so sharply defined. After two more records in Saved and Shot Of Love, the gospel period would come to an end.
This period and this song would continue to be an important step in Dylan’s career, reconnecting with the gospel connections in folk music, the blues, soul music, and rock music by association. It would even result in a 2003 album of covers by the likes of Mavis Staples, Sounds Of Blackness, Aaron Neville, and The Fairfield Four, among others entitled Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs Of Bob Dylan. Bob and Mavis, two former civil rights singers with Mavis having a solid track record in gospel singing, even duet on “Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking”.
Despite an initially head-scratching shift, it seems that Bob had brought it all back home, stylistically and artistically speaking in the end after all.
To learn more about Dylan’s “God” period, read this article from The Guardian.
And not forgetting the first time he was born, happy belated birthday, Bob!