Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #105: I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine

Before we delve into some deeper stuff in this post, a few words should be said about the musical arrangement of "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine". To me, the arrangement is one of the best showcases for Dylan's harmonica on the album; he doesn't do too much outside mirror the chords for the song, but he manages to pack a great deal of emotion and power into those solos, holding notes perfectly and acting as counterpoint to his disciplined, straightforward vocal performance on the track. Add to that the gentle tempo the band takes, along with the now-familiar sparse backup (you know it's stripped-down when the rhythm guitar - an acoustic rhythm guitar, no less - gets a lot of play in the song's mix), and you have the perfect backing for the lyrics to this tune.

Much has been made about how much influence the Bible had in terms of the lyrics on John Wesley Harding (which is not to say Dylan didn't incorporate some religious imagery in his previous songs - it's just more overt here), and "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" is the first song in the album order that makes that influence felt. St. Augustine (for those that don't know, including myself before preparing this post) was a Catholic bishop renowned for his contributions to Christian theology and philosophy. He wasn't actually put to death, for the record, although he passed away as his city was being overrun by Vandals. One wonders why it was Augustine who was chosen as the saint mentioned in the song - if you wanted to choose an actual martyr, you certainly have your pick of the litter in that regard. Maybe it was just because "Augustine" rolls off the tongue particularly well in the context of the music Dylan wrote, who knows.

Or who knows, maybe Augustine held something for Dylan at that particular juncture of his life. It's worth mentioning time and again that the Dylan that recorded John Wesley Harding was a man very much at a crossroads in his life; I've made previous mention of his anecdote about staring out into the sky one night and saying to himself "something's gotta change". Augustine, as he wrote about in his famous Confessions, did not come into Christianity at an early age; rather, he was converted at about 30 years of age, after a self-professed lifetime of sin and vice. He talks about how the death of one of his friends caused him to hate many of the things he used to love, because they reminded him of what he had lost. This leads to the realization that it is only the love of earthly things that can cause such a feeling of loss, whereas the love of God never leaves you wanting in that way. Dylan, one can assume, didn't quite feel that way about things (at least, not until '78 or so), but he could definitely identify with a lot of what Augustine was saying about traumatic events rendering what you once loved into something that gives you great pain. Sure, Dylan kept jamming with the Band, but one can only assume he couldn't look at pills or think about hotel rooms in 1967 without a little shudder passing through him. For a man still in a state of flux, Augustine's message had to have a great deal of resonance.

Augustine's Confessions also relates stories about a young Augustine stealing pears, a needless venture when Augustine could very easily get better pears as part of a well-to-do family, and the feeling he had while doing so. The future saint gives a textbook case of group mentality, as he says that he probably wouldn't have had the urge to steal without being in the company of people who would share in the stealing and alleviate him of some of his guilt. That feeling of groupthink ties in beautifully to one of the messages to "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine", the idea of the pain of doing something that causes you grief because other people are doing it ("I dreamed I was amongst the ones/who put him out to death...And bowed my head and cried"). For hundreds of years people have thought and written about group psychology, where something a single person couldn't possibly forgive can easily be committed by a group of people, and the worst things about us are easily dispersed amongst many. Without being much of a psychologist, I'd say that one of the appealing factors of this phenomenon is the idea of deindividualization - we all talk about being our own person and standing out and all that, but we also know that it's goddamn hard to do that, to be a lone voice in a crowd, and to stand up and say "this is bullshit" when need be. We are human, after all; this doesn't forgive us for looking the other way, but the legitimate struggle of human existence can explain why we look the other way. To quote Samuel Johnson (and, by proxy, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), "He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man." It's a lot easier to do this in the company of others.

That quote by Dr. Johnson, it should be mentioned, has to do with what overindulgence in drink can do to you (small wonder it makes sense as epigraph to Fear and Loathing, a book more or less entirely devoted to the "joys" of substance abuse). And I can't help but think about Bob Dylan in 1965-1966, continually blasted out of his mind, playing crazy music that people booed the hell out of him for, withdrawing further and further into himself to the point that he almost certainly would have died if the motorcycle crash hadn't changed things forever. I wrote before about how Dylan was all alone on these tours; I didn't mean in the literal sense, of course, but more in the sense that none of his other companions was encountering the same massive wave of publicity, scrutiny, and pressure that Dylan faced in those years. And in that situation, he basically had two choices in dealing with this wave - he could sit in his room by himself and internalize all that pain, or he could hang with his boys, turnontuneindropout, and allow sweet pharmaceuticals to wash the pain away. It's not hard to see why Dylan made the choice that he did. And it turned him into an asshole at times, to be sure, but even that was okay - hey, it's just the drugs, right? Dylan chose to become as much of a beast as he could, and it made all the pain of the rest of his waking life all the easier to bear.

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Kilter said...

I think the mention of St. Augustine in this song is much simplier than what you make it. Dylan was beginning to search in earnest for the ultimate, which culminated in his embrace of Jesus as the Messiah in 1979.

But good commentary, man. I'm glad I found this website.

Brandon said...

Hi. I always see your blog linked @ expectingrain.com, and I think it's terrific. A few comments:

Augustine was famously almost poisoned by his followers, maybe that could be part of putting him out to death. Also the song is based on some folk song (I dreamed I saw joe hill?). Choosing Augustine over some other mayrtr doesn't make sense because in the song it is Augustine who says there are none amoung you now, nothing is said of Augustine himself. On that album, Allen Ginsberg said that Dylan was making every word count, not one wasted just for a ryhme. I like his Rolling Thunder version with Joan. They start off and Dylan says (ironically) that Joan has a habit of changing things, to which she responds "yeah, I remember rehearsing this song backstage in 1965." In that video Dylan's voice is so powerful, you can barely hear Joan; no small feat. At the end she says something like, "by far the craziest genius I collaborate with." I think much if the album were songs he had left over from the pre-rock days. And maybe this is way Baez has never covered, to my knowledge, any song from Highway 61 or Blonde, but seemed to love JWH.

One more note. Dylan had a huge bible in his living room and constantly referenced it.

Anonymous said...

the music and the shape of the song was actually based on the 1930 ballad Joe Hill. Luke Kelly of the Dubliners does a great version of this song

Pete said...

"Joe Hill" is the first reference that would come to any folkie's mind, and I'd say the whole song is a variant or commentary on that one. Joe said, "Don't waste any time in mourning. Organize." (the song lyric adjusts this for rhythm). In this one, Augustine tells the crowd not to rely on martyrs but to "go on your own way, but know you're not alone." I'd say a sub-text is Bob himself not wanting to be a leader (or a martyr) ... "Trust yourself," as he wrote less poetically later. Also: "Don't follow leaders." But people do, and Dylan can relate to that; hard advice is not easy to take. (It's more subtle than that, I'm trying to be brief!)

At this point in his development, I'd say the religious reference speaks more to a love of the language of the King James Bible than to a specific yearning for Judeo-Christian belief. But the song is commenting on the need for a spiritual approach to politics, or more accurately life.

Thanks again for the blog; it's fun to think about these things,

John Domini said...

Good post, thoughtful, but it must be added that the song was composed, polished, & then recorded during a terribly violent couple of years, 1967-68, when Vietnam was on fire, a number of American cities suffered race riots, and both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were in fact "put out to death." That is, it's not entirely a personal song, addressing Dylan's own changes & faith issues. It's a social commentary, using the dream of St. Augustine as a metaphor for shared social ills ("I was amongst the ones...").

With that in mind, *nota bene,* St. Augustine was black. He was born in North Africa, in what is now Tunisia. His family was native, having lived there for centuries.

So Dylan addresses his times via a brave & prophetic black man, "in the utmost misery," crying for an end to hypocrisy, & for community. Brilliant.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for your work here, a fine song on a fine album.

Kilter said...

Also, I must be one of the 5% of people who didn't first hear of Dylan via "Highway 61 Revisited."

He first caught my attention in 1970 on the New Morning album, when I was 16.

I worked my way backward from there.

Anonymous said...

Very good post. I would like to point out that St. Augustine also wrote a treatise called, "On Free Choice of the Will." To me Dylan has always represented what each one of us could do if we were true to ourselves and our values, without wavering under the pressures of outside influences. The work explores freedom of choice and doing God's will. Take a look at it.

andrew! said...

Vic Chesnutt does an excellent cover of this song, as does the fella on the I'm Not There soundtrack, & this is one of the few covers that Joan Baez does that I don't mind. My favorite version comes from Boston in 2005, though. I love the way he shouts "Arise! Arise!".

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