The Word of God Inspires American Songwriters

Author: Luca Miele

The Word of God Inspires American Songwriters

Luca Miele

The Good Book: source of good American song

"The king commanded them bound and thrown into the fiery furnace that day". The king in question is Nebuchadnezzar and the furnace awaits those who do not adore the "golden image" (Dn 3:5, 13). These are the lyrics of Johnny Cash's song, "The Fourth Man". The fiery furnace to which the text refers, before being a commonplace of the American novel — traces of which are to be found in Melville's Moby Dick and in Hawthorne's short stories — is taken from a biblical passage.

In order to recount his personal (and anguished) redemption, Cash chose to interpret a passage from the Prophet Daniel. As happened to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, Cash felt that he had walked through flames and emerged unscathed, with the help of a mysterious "fourth man".

This one-on-one grappling with the Sacred Scriptures is not only the poetical fare of the singer who died in 2003 but also a recurrent topos in American pop songs.

Mediated by the great African American heritage of Gospel music into which Christianity poured its figurative, lexicological and symbolic patrimony, the American song drew freely from biblical text, in some cases to the point of literal citation.

In short, if there is a pre-text that runs through the entire world of American song — pop songs and those by songwriters, it is precisely the Bible. The Bible has supplied images, symbols, an entire language, as befits a fundamental text adopted by some of the more meaningful American voices.

Traces of this appropriation can also be discerned in figures who critics have always described as distant from the faith. One such is Woody Guthrie, one of the most intense figures on the American musical scene, a singer of the disinherited, of the victims of the Great Depression, of those excluded from the American dream.

Well, Guthrie dedicates a song to Jesus ("Jesus Christ"), in which he draws from the Gospels with great philological attention to make of his personal Messiah an incarnation of the fight for justice.

"Jesus", Guthrie sings, "travelled through the land" (cf. Mt 8:20 and Lk 9:58), "he was a carpenter by hand" (cf. Mk 6:3), who did not come "to bring peace, but a sword" (Mt 10:34), who taught people to give everything to the poor (cf. Mt 19:21, Mk 10:21, Lk 18:22). The conviction that "one day the poor will inherit the earth" expressed in this excerpt is based on the Sermon on the Mount.

Bruce Springsteen is deeply indebted to the poetic world of Guthrie. To him we owe a rewriting of the figure of Tom Joad, the protagonist of John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath, of which Guthrie himself had sung.

Springsteen's music is spangled with biblical symbols, motifs and citations, particularly in an expression of salvation and the longing for redemption. Throughout his now 30-year career, Springsteen's characters have told of a journey that is in fact a gradual abandonment of darkness to arrive in a place of light.

While in his youthful lyrics, the singer draws from Exodus and images of the wilderness to proclaim his faith in the Promised Land ("The promised land"), in a song of maturer years —"Across the border" — salvation is declined, as Antonio Spadaro noted, with the words of Psalm 23.

In his career, Springsteen met with the musical patrimony of another American historical singer, Pete Seeger, whose piece: Turn! Turn! Turn! is a re-write of passages from Ecclesiastes (3:1-8).

The author who has contributed more than anyone to revolutionizing more than simply the musical language of rock to the point of shattering the limits of song form and forcing the boundaries between poetry and music, rock and popular tradition is Bob Dylan.

Alessandro Carrera wrote: "It would be too little to say that Dylan reads the Bible, he quotes from the Bible, he is inspired by the Bible. Dylan is literally pervaded by the Bible, is drowned in the Bible and resurfaces with the Bible. There is almost no obscure allusion in his songs that cannot be traced to a biblical reference".

For example, the exegetic work done by Carrera, let us examine one of Dylan's most famous songs, "All along the watchtower" shows that the lyric "There's too much confusion / I can't get no relief" is taken from the Book of Isaiah which refers to a "city of confusion" and a "watchtower" (cf. 24:10 and 21:8). He also indicates that a reference can be found in Matthew (cf. 24:4:2-43) to the time growing late and to the duty to keep watch.

Also into Dylan's writing suddenly appear a "wildcat", the howling of the wind, the approach of two riders signs of impending destruction. The reference is to the fall of Babylon.

Allusions to the Bible are also present in other compositions by Dylan. Only think of the famous verses of "Blowin' in the wind" in which he recalls the image of the dove (Gn 8:8) or to those of "Highway 61 revisited" in which the sacrifice of Isaac (Gn 22:3), is carried out on Highway 61.

Permeated by the obsession with death and the fall, an excerpt of Tom Waits' "Dirt in the ground" contains a reference to Ezekiel 37:4:

"Now Cain slew Abel /
He killed him with a stone /
The skies cracked open /
and the thunder groaned /
Along a river of flesh /
can these dry bones live?

"You are dust, and to dust you shall return" (Gn 3:19), also echoes in a composition by Steve Earle, "Ashes to ashes". It appeared in the controversial album Jerusalem, in which there is also an allusion to the Tower of Babel episode (Gn 11:9) .

"But it's always best to keep in mind/ that every tower ever built tumbles/ no matter how strong, no matter how tall/ someday even great walls will crumble/ and every idol ever raised falls...

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
26 November 2008, page 15

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