Posted by: gdevi | August 2, 2011

Review: Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan (2006)

In the song “Beyond here lies nothing,” from his 2009 album Together Through Life, which I like a lot, Bob Dylan ‘s speaker persuades a potential partner that beyond here, that is, beyond their commitment to each other on earth we have to assume, lies nothing, that is, nothing they can call their own, nothing but moon and stars, nothing but mountains of the past, and nothing done and nothing said. Bleak as this may sound, more an informed warning than a romantic appeal, this philosophy appears to be consistent with Dylan’s overall view of life and what is important in life–the concreteness of our existence and our contracts with each other as human beings.  Right from his earliest work to this latest effort, Bob Dylan’s musical persona and its contributions always remind me of that great poem by Leigh Hunt Abou Ben Adhem: Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase) awoke from a dream and saw an angel in his room writing in a book. What are you writing? Abou Ben Adhem asked the angel. The names of those who love the Lord, the angel replied. Is my name there? Abou Ben Adhem asked. No, the angel said. Abou Ben Adhem felt bold and told the angel, “I pray thee, then/ Write me as one who loves his fellow men.”

“The Angel wrote and vanished.  The next night

It came again with a great wakening light,

And showed the names whom love of God has blessed,

And, lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest!”

In other words, the means and the end are one and the same. It is a sad irony that historically Dylan’s audience has hissed, booed and jeered a musician whose true hallmark throughout his career has been his great love for fellow human beings; he has thought about all of us a lot more than we all have ever thought of him. His audience has been a “Maggie’s Farm” in some respects. You can hear Dylan’s awareness of this connection between between philia, eros and agape even in a seemingly secular love song like “Abandoned Love”: “The treasure can’t be found by men who search/ Whose gods are dead and whose queens are in the church.”  The “above you-below-you” game is not one that Bob Dylan plays; this is what makes even his secular songs fit to be sung in church. Think “To Ramona” for instance.  Or “It takes a lot to laugh it takes a train to cry.”  Or “Oh Sister.” As one of the musicians participating in Gotta Serve Somebody observes, any song by Dylan is fit to be sung in a church–his tone and language are so clean– but the songs from Saved and Slow Train Coming featured in this documentary–Dylan’s explicitly gospel albums–are especially resonant as they consolidate many of the tensions that underlie Dylan’s secular lyrics. There is a beautiful moment in this documentary where Regina McCrary who performs “Pressing On” notes that what is interesting about these songs is that Bob Dylan sang them; a gospel song is a gospel song, after all, who sings them is what counts. That is what is ultimately useful and truthful about this documentary; somehow or the other–and this is not such an easy thing — this documentary succeeds in being a genuine commentary and complement to the vast body of Bob Dylan’s prolific songwriting, religious and secular.

This DVD available for streaming on Netflix follows and tells the story of the making of the 2003 Gotta Serve Somebody tribute album recorded by various gospel singers covering songs from Saved and Slow Train Coming. I have not heard the CD but apparently the CD has a duet with Bob Dylan and Mavis Staples singing “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” which is not included in this DVD, but other than that missing piece, this DVD presents the recording history of these songs, who sang which song and why, how they interpreted the song, the song’s personal relevance to the singer etc. The film also showcases some very nice commentary on the songs and Dylan’s “born-again” period by a couple of music journalists, Alan Light and Paul Williams, as well as interviews with producers Jerry Wexler who calls these songs “immaculate funk,” and Joel Moss, and session musicians Jim Keltner, Fred Tacket, Spooner Oldham et al.  Bob Dylan makes one live appearance singing “When He Returns,” on piano. Songs are words, so what distinguishes a gospel song? It is the singer and you can really feel the power, presence and truth of these songs from Pastor Shirley Caesar with her rendition of “Gotta Serve Somebody,” the full body immersion of Sounds of Blackness singing “Solid Rock,”  the Fairfield Four’s acappella “Are You Ready,” Helen Baylor with that exquisite song “What can I do for You?”, Arlethia Lindsey with another soul-stirring rendition of “Every Grain of Sand,” Regina McCrary’s “Pressing On” with the Chicago Mass Choir and on and on. My favorite moment in the DVD was the recording of “Gotta Serve Somebody”; you can see the migration of the gospel spirit from the singer Shirley Caesar into the body of all the musicians–the drummer, the pianist, the organist–everyone becomes a vehicle filled with the power of this amazing song. This ripple effect of the gospel is evident in all of these songs; very very beautiful. I heard several gospel choirs and singers through this documentary that I have never heard before; Louvinia Pointer and her Great Day Chorale with “In the Garden,” the Mighty Clouds of Joy singing “Saved,” the Sounds of Blackness with “Solid Rock” another highpoint like Shirley Caesar, Dottie Peoples with “I believe in You, and “Rance Allen with “When he Returns.” There is little left to do after you hear these songs other than to pray that you get to sing in a Black gospel choir sometime in your life or a qawwali group, insha’ allah.

Bob Dylan’s spirituals come from the same place that the other spirituals and gospels come from, from the heart of the dignified, the fearless, and the loving.  You can believe Dylan when he sings that when it is time for him to leave this world, he will leave with a satisfied mind.



  1. Amen! I love your final connection with “Satisified Mind”.

    • Yes, it will be, don’t you think? Thank you. GD.

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