Ranking Bob Dylan Songs, #111: Gospel Plow

Bob Dylan’s religious beliefs have always been a source of mystery and confusion. Most of the controversy stems from his conversion to Christianity in the late 1970s and the three evangelical albums he released before apparently relapsing back to Judaism. It’s hard to deny that his time as a born-again Christian was one of the more perplexing religious awakenings by a musician (right up their with Little Richard, Cat Stevens, Madonna, and plenty of others), but it’s easy to look back at Dylan’s earlier recordings and see evidence of his attraction to Christianity from his nascent beginnings.

“Gospel Plow,” the eighth track off his debut album, is one of the first examples of that. Based on Luke 9:62, the song was a folk standard at the time, and Dylan clearly enjoys embodying the frenetic, passionate spirit of the religious song. Even before Dylan ever converted, though, he understood the attraction and importance of religious symbols and the power of faith. Plenty of his early songs, songs that are by no means explicitly religious, employ subtle uses of Judeo-Christian ideas and stories to add gravity and resonance to his own voice. Dylan had a keen understanding, and was probably attracted to, the way religion can balance personal faith with a communal experience, and his understanding of this allowed him to add more layers to his songs.

At the same time, though, he did this most effectively when he wasn’t dealing explicitly with religion or religious material. “Gospel Plow,” however, is a rather straightforward rip-off of religious music. It sounds rushed through and forced and, most of all, artificial. Two weeks ago I talked about Dylan singing in blackface, and this isn’t too far from that: It sounds like he’s trying to identify with the black Gospel tradition by singing like a black person. In a few short years, Dylan would get much better at embodying the voice of other figures in his songs, but this song sounds a little too much like an all too familiar case of a white kid who wants to sound black.

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