Blood On The Tracks and the Quest for Salvation

Michael Gray, in his book Song And Dance Man III, sees in Blood On The Tracks a crucial transformation in Dylan’s quest for salvation.

From Blood On The Tracks onwards, Dylan shifts from woman as saviour: and to trace this process is to hear his slow train in the distance – to find his quest for salvation refocusing itself into a quest for Christ. On Blood On The Tracks, and the next album Desire (1976), Dylan is trying to do a balancing act – trying to fuse God and Woman:

In a little hilltop village
They gambled for my clothes
I bargained for salvation
And they gimme a lethal dose
I offered up my innocence
Got repaid with scorn
‘Come in’, she said, ‘I’ll give ya
Shelter from the storm’…

If I could only turn back the clock
To when God and her were born
‘Come in’, she said, ‘I’ll give ya
Shelter from the storm’.

What has to be said, drawing on the biographical evidence that’s been available, is that the twists and turns between woman and God and trying to fuse the two – all these different focuses within Dylan’s quest for salvation – are, from the mid-1970s onwards, crucially connected with Dylan’s own separation from, reconciliation with and divorce from his wife Sara… Dylan’s struggle to keep Sara ends up as his struggle to renounce her: his conversion to Born Again Christianity is the last step down a long road he’s been travelling for years.

Gray notes the parallels that Dylan draws between himself and Christ on Blood On The Tracks, with betrayal at its centre:

I came in from the wilderness…

She walked up to me so gracefully
And took my crown of thorns…

In a little hilltop village
They gambled for my clothes…

These lines from Shelter From The Storm point clearly to the New Testament – the placing of a crown of thorns on Jesus’s head is cited in three of the Apostles’ accounts, and the gambling for his clothes in all four (eg Mark 15:24 ‘And when they had crucified him, they parted his garments, casting lots upon them, what every man should take’). Lines from Idiot Wind reinforce this image:

There’s a lone soldier on the cross
Smoke pourin’ out of a box-car door
You didn’t know it, you didn’t think it could be done
In the final end he won the war
After losing every battle…
I’ve been double crossed now for the very last time

The box-car door preempts the image Dylan later chooses when he converts to Christianity – Slow Train Coming becomes the title of his first post-Christian album (and in the film Renaldo & Clara, also from 1975, Dylan sings a song popularised by the Staples Singers, in which the image of a train stands for the coming of the Lord: ‘People get ready/There’s a train a-comin’).

Another song that Dylan performed but never recorded in 1975, the year of Blood On The Tracks, reveals more about his state of mind. It is called Abandoned Love (later released on the compilation of rarities Biograph):

I didn’t hear the turning of the key
I’ve been deceived by the clown inside of me
I thought that you were righteous but it’s vain
Somethin’s tellin’ me I wear a ball and chain…

I march in the parade of liberty
But as long as I love ya, I’m not free
How long must I suffer such abuse?
Won’t you let me see ya smile before I cut ya loose…

My head says that it’s time to make a change
But my heart is telling me
I love you but you’re strange…

Let me feel your love one more time
Before I abandon it.

Blood On The Tracks is right on the borderline of this transition, in which Sara is still potentially the woman of his life, the salvation, as is clear from these lines in the album’s bitterest song, Idiot Wind:

Down the highway, down the tracks
Down the road to ecstasy
I followed you beneath the stars
Hounded by your memory
And all your ragin’ glory.

And what listener doesn’t feel the force of his spiritual attachment to Sara in that beautifully sung line, ‘all your ragin’ glory’? The album ends with the slight but heartfelt ditty, Buckets Of Rain, which seems all the more quiet coming after so much emotional turmoil:

Life is sad
Life is a bust
All that you can do is do what you must.
You do what you must do and ya do it well,
I’ll do it for you, honey baby,
Can’t you tell?

Michael Gray sums up:

This is the pivotal theme of all Dylan’s major work of the 1970s. Dylan’s journey is from Sara to Jesus.

One response to “Blood On The Tracks and the Quest for Salvation”

  1. […] Dylan’s “Blood On The Tracks” might be an attempt to fuse God and woman, according to this post. But the post is disappointing since it only regurgitates Michael Gray. Gray’s point that Dylan’s song goes “from Sara to Jesus” is worth pondering. If one adopts a Shekina or Goddess-based symbolism, though, the lyrics might be even more interesting. [The Culture Club] […]

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