Courting religious controversy

Bob Dylan has been at the heart of quite a few seminal moments in music.

Now one of those controversial moments is about to take centre stage with a comprehensive multi-volume retrospective.

The seismic event usually cited with regard to Ol' Bob is the moment he pitched up with electric guitars at America's Newport Folk Festival in 1966 and shattered whatever notion people had about folk and rock being two disconnected things.

To understand the outrage it helps to remember that folk music was far more central to popular culture back then. In the charts and on the radio folk and pop sat side by side but rarely met.

If you liked folk, pop was an anathema.  

Dylan followed that confrontation by touring the world, being booed everywhere (except Australia!).

It is now regarded as one of the greatest and most influential tours in modern musical history.

But people often forget that less than two decades later Dylan did the same thing: changed his style so radically that audiences around the world booed him. In retrospect, it provides an interesting window into society's views and intolerance.

Even before social media.

Gospel backlash

Because in 1979 and for the next couple of years, Bob Dylan was rounded booed and widely derided for becoming a Christian.

It actually seems pretty weird now. Why would people, and what right did they have to react so extremely about something as seemingly personal and harmless as a singer being born again?

As with the folk/rock incident you have to remember that Bob Dylan fans were particularly passionate.

He was someone who many regarded as their voice; their avatar through the turbulent late 60s and 70s.

And that voice was known for a certain skepticism about society's institutions, be it courts, governments or churches. This was the Bob Dylan who derided religious consumerism with sneering lines about “Flesh-coloured Christs that glow in the dark”.

So it was something of an about-face...

Secondly, Dylan didn't embrace the ‘love your brother' sort of Christianity. People might have accepted a religious version of ‘All You Need Is Love'.

But, no, he went straight into full on ‘believe right now or you're going to hell' mode, possibly not the most attractive face of religion. And thirdly, with the conviction of a true believer, he changed his live sets to include absolutely nothing written before his conversion. No ‘Blowing in the Wind', no ‘Like a Rolling Stone'.

It was Gospel Bob or nothing.

A new release

That turbulent period is about to be documented in Bob Dylan's latest instalment of the ‘Bootleg Series', Volume 13 to be precise. And while last year saw the monumental release of a 36-CD set of every single show on the tumultuous 1966 world tour, this one, ‘Trouble No More', covering 1979 to 1981, comprises a mere eight CDs and one DVD. The problem with last year's release however was that Dylan played the same set every night in 1966. Those 36 discs included a mere 18 different songs, each played many times. Volume 13 contains more than 100 songs, 14 of them previously unreleased. Actually, nothing here has been released before. And if you order it from you get a bonus double CD with a full extra concert from 1979.

Looking back now it's hard to work out what all the fuss was about, yet at the time it was treated as about the most important and potentially disastrous thing happening in the music world. Even Cat Stevens converting to Islam was better received, but then he didn't immediately tour singing solely Islamic songs. But, baffling as it is to try and comprehend society's shocked reaction, it is reassuring to look at Dylan's gospel output and see that over the course of three intensive years the initial didactic and rather repugnant fundamentalism that pops up on 1979's ‘Slow Train Coming' expanded to the point that the third album in that group, ‘Shot Of Love', included ‘Every Grain Of Sand', possibly the pinnacle of philosophical religious songwriting.


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