In 1979, Bob Dylan encountered Jesus and ticked off a generation. For this modern-day secular prophet to find his own answers in organized religion—in something so conventional as Christianity—felt to many like betrayal, or the ultimate lunacy. The man didn't even have the decency to acquire his own guru.
"To sell your soul to the Devil is fascinating, to sell it to God is boring," writes Steve Turner in Hungry for Heaven: Rock 'n' Roll and the Search for Redemption. The post-conversion Dylan could, in fact, be tedious. The audiences at his live shows at the time just as often encountered Bob the preacher man as Bob the singer/songwriter. His sermons—and that's what they were—were met with boos and heckling and shouts for "rock 'n' roll!" At a November 1979 show in Tempe, Arizona, Dylan responded to the crowd, "If you want rock and roll, you go down and rock and roll. You can go and see Kiss and you can rock and roll all the way down to the pit!" He never was one to mince words.
During this time, as always, the words poured forth. They landed on two Dylan albums, Slow Train Coming (1979) and Saved (1980). The better songs from this era have been recorded by leading gospel artists and are featured on a new release from Columbia, Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan. Suddenly, Dylan's songs sound as if they were crafted for a full-gospel tent revival—the kind of songs that pierce through a muggy summer night and wring every ounce of sweat from the choir singing them and the church folk swaying in their seats and throwing their hands toward God.
Shirley Caesar, the queen of gospel, launches the album with a solid, if not particularly noteworthy, rendition of the title track, probably the best-known song here (which, incidentally, won Dylan his first Grammy award). Dylan's lyrics put forward the dichotomy that tore at him after his own conversion: "Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord/But you're gonna have to serve somebody."
With consistently heavy doses of electric guitar, strong bass lines, and backing choirs, some of the songs here can begin to feel a bit too uniform. The tracks that reach beyond that pattern are the standouts.
The Mighty Clouds of Joy bring exactly that to their raucous performance of "Saved." Backed by a Hammond organ and great percussion work, the singers proclaim their thanks, knowing they've been saved "by the blood of the lamb." Where Dylan sounded almost smug singing those lines, this version conveys pure jubilation and praise. The Sounds of Blackness produce the same feel on an earlier track, "Solid Rock."
A cappella singers the Fairfield Four have been performing together for more than 70 years—longer than Bob Dylan has been alive. Here they contribute a four-part harmony version of "Are You Ready," peppered with interesting vocalizations. Their deep voices reverberate straight to the soul—they could propel many a sinner down the altar call aisle.
THE ALBUM WOULD be worth its price for the closing song alone. That semi-intelligible rasp tearing into "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking" can belong only to one man. After one verse, Dylan interrupts the song to say, "Why, look, someone's coming up the road, boys…Hey, it's Mavis Staples" of gospel's legendary Staples Singers. They talk:
Dylan: Mavis, I've had the blues.
Staples: Oh, Bobby, don't tell me you got the blues.
Dylan: Yeah, I've been up all night, laying in bed, having insomnia, reading Snooze-week.
Staples: Snooze-week? That ain't gonna get rid of no blues. Let's do some singing. Sing about it.
Then, over the searing guitar work of Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton (current members of his band), Dylan and Staples launch into the song, with new lyrics. The canned banter between them is bizarre, like an outtake from a lost Muppet Show episode. The song, on the other hand, is driving and furious and fantastic, a performance that would fit well on either of Dylan's last two albums. It's another reminder that he is now making some of the best music of his career. And Staples more than holds her own with Dylan, improvising at times and keeping to the feel of this "spontaneous" performance.
The imagery in the lyrics is zealous, unswerving, apocalyptic—like that of a recent convert immersed in the Bible and his own redemption. Twenty years later, though, in the hands of performers who know how to sing the gospel, they are undergoing their own born-again experience.
Kimberly Burge is senior writer and editor at Bread for the World in Washington, D.C., and a Sojourners contributing writer.