Song of the Day: The Bible in Music (Day Six).

“Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”

Abe says, “Man, you must be putting me on”

God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”

God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but

The next time you see me coming you better run”

Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killing done?”

God says, “Out on Highway 61””

– Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited, from the album Highway 61 Revisted, 1965.

Long before his fully fledged conversion to Born Again Christianity in the late 1970’s, When he released the full on Christian themed albums Slow Train Coming (1979) and Saved (1980), Bob Dylan was already referencing The Bible.

On Highway 61 Revisited from 1965’s landmark album of the same name, he begins the song by referencing the story of Isaac and Abraham.  In the story of Isaac and Abraham, God commands Abraham to kill one of his son, Isaac, in order to prove his devotion to him:

“Some time later, God tested Abraham.  He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am”, he replied.

Then God said, “Take your only son, your only son, whom you love – Isaac – and go to the region

of Moriah.  Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you””.

– Genesis 22.

Adding significance to the use of the story in Highway 61 Revisited, Abram, the original name of the Biblical Abraham, is the name of Dylan’s own father.  The use of the Abraham and Isaac story could also be used as a protest symbol against the Vietnam War.  It is probably no coincidence that the President at the time of the American Civil War was Abraham Lincoln.  Therefore, Bob Dylan may be making a connection between the Bible story and historical events via his own father in order to make a comment about the Vietnam War.  Is Dylan about to be sacrificed as a warning to America not to kill it’s sons by sending them to war in the same way Abraham Lincoln did in the American Civil War?

Highway 61 is the road which runs through Bob Dylan’s home town down to the Mississippi delta and the same road that he wanders down in One Too Many Mornings.  The route passed near to the birthplaces and homes of influential musicians such as Muddy Waters, Son House, Charlie Patton and Elvis Presley and had already been the subject of Roosevelt Sykes’s 1932 song Highway 61 Blues.  It is also the road where Bessie Smith died after sustained serious injuries in a car accident.  But most significantly in terms of music history and relating to the first verse’s religious imagery, it is the road where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil, at the crossroads of Highway 61 and Highway 49.  So therefore, through the song’s Biblical reference, is this God telling Dylan’s father that he has to kill his son at the same place that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil?

Song of the Day: The Bible in Music (Day Four).

“ … wandering stars for whom is reversed the blackness of darkness forever” – Jude 1:13.

Wandering Star from Portishead’s Mercury Music Prize winning album Dummy (1994) takes the ideas of Jude 1:13, in order to paint a picture of intense suffering, as is singer Beth Gibbons’ specialism.  Coupled with a voice which seems to harness all the sadness of the world and spill it back at you with a haunted beauty that is often unmatched, Wandering Star tells a tale of fallen angels condemned to live in hellish pitch black anguish and torment forever more.

Firstly and most obviously, the chorus of Wandering Star is taken verbatim from Jude 1:13.  In the Bible, ‘stars’ often represent angels, with Lucifer and his demons being referred to as “falling stars”.  Take for example: “How you have fallen from heaven, O star of the morning, son of the dawn!  You have been cut down to Earth, You who have weakened the nations!” (Isaiah 14:12).  Lucifer was once an angel of light, “O star of the morning”, with good angels being known as morning stars.  When translated, Lucifer means ‘shining one, morning star’.  Wandering Star is a song about demons being cast into the abyss, written from the perspective of a demon as a metaphor for the suffering of a human being.

By taking on the form of the demon, Beth Gibbons taps into very human emotions.  The line “Those who have seen the needle’s eye” is also a Biblical reference.  See Mark 10:25 which states, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God”.  Essentially, what this is saying is that those in a low condition who suffer on Earth, as opposed to those who are in a high condition and prosperous, are more likely to enter heaven.  Here Gibbons uses the idea of “the needle’s eye” to depict the darkest place that a human being can be in.

Like many of Portishead’s songs, Wandering Star is about being in the midst of depression and the need to escape.  Take for example, the lines “And the time that I will suffer less, Is when I never have to wake”, referring again to those who have suffered on Earth entering the Kingdom of God.  The line “For it’s such a lovely day” is very telling as if we look at the etymology of the word ‘Lucifer’, a demon, we find that it is derived from the Latin word ‘Vulgate’ which translates as ‘the morning star, the planet Venus.  If we take Pluto to be a Dwarf Planet as opposed to a Planet, there are seven Planets.  Similarly, it took God seven days to create the Earth and finally, there are seven days in a week.  Seven is the divine number of God and therefore, Wandering Star is a song which uses the image of a demon in order to talk about the emotions felt by a human being on Earth who is suffering great pain, battling their demons, questioning their life and looking to make it into Heaven.  Discussing her lyrics and persona within Portishead in the 1998 documentary Welcome To Portishead, she said:

“Nothing is always as it seems, I think that’s the main thing and the one thing I would like people to realise (is) that, even, it’s like me laughing when we’re doing this, it just goes to show how different it is on the outside to the inside.  Human beings are brilliant at pretending to be something they might not be … most of us live under a charade of a personality but underneath, we’re all the same.  Most of us feel paranoid or lonely or unlucky in life or past heartbreaks or other family problems.  You know, normal things that … things aren’t what they seem.  So, however I come across, I might not be a good portrait of what I am”.

Song of the Day: The Bible in Music (Day One).

The Pixies were never shy of writing songs about subjects you wouldn’t expect a rock band to touch and their song Dead, from their 1989 album Doolittle, is no exception.  There are a number of biblical references on the Doolittle album, including the assertion in Monkey Gone To Heaven that “If man is 5, Then the devil is 6, Then God is 7” and the retelling of Samson and Delilah in the album’s closing track, Gouge Away.  Dead is another Biblical retelling, this time of the story of David and Bathsheba from 2 Samuel 11.  The fascination with Biblical themes on the Doolittle album can attributed to Black Francis’ teenage years, during which he and his parents joined an evangelical church linked to the assemblies of God.

Dead is written from the perspective of King David.  In the first verse of Dead, David seduces Bathsheba (“You crazy Bathsheba, I wancha”).  The song goes on to tell of how after Bathsheba tells King David that he has impregnated her, David sends for Bathsheba’s husband Uriah the Hittie, a soldier in David’s army.  David tells Uriah, “Go down to your house and wash your feet”.  David asks Uriah to do this in order that he will go home and sleep with his wife, thus covering up the pregnancy.  Unfortunately for David, Uriah, being a faithful servant refuses and sleeps outside the entrance to the King’s palace.  The song is called Dead in reference to the way in which David sends Uriah to the front line of battle, where he dies.  The incredibly quotable line “Uriah hit the crapper” refers to the death of Uriah, with “hit the crapper” being a crude way of saying ‘died’ and “hit” also being a reference to ‘Hittie’, Uriah’s ethnicity.

If we were to take the way in which the French refer to the orgasm as ‘the little death’, then the use of the word ‘dead’ in the song could also be making the connection between the themes of death and sex in the story of David and Bathsheba.  This can be seen in the following verse:

We’re apin? rapin? tapin? catharsis

You get torn down and I get erected

My blood is working but my

My heart is, dead, dead.

Further to this, following the death of Uriah, thus covering up Bathsheba’s infidelity and David’s dishonesty, David and Bathsheba’s baby dies.  This could to be the inspiration for the song Hey on Doolittle, where Black Francis sings “Uh is the sound that a mother makes when the baby breaks”.  Also included in the song Hey are the lines “Whores in my head, Whores at my door, Whores in my bed” and “whores like a choir” before Black Francis asks, “Mary ain’t you tired of this”, which could infer that this song is also Biblical and that this song is a continuation of both Dead and the Pixies retelling of the David and Bathsheba story.

Dead is a suitably dirty song for a dirty Biblical tale, one of illicit affairs, extramarital sex, pregnancy, betrayal and death.  Due to Black Francis’ religious background, the Pixies had a longstanding fascination with religion.  This fascination was first seen on 1987’s Come On Pilgrim with songs such as Caribou, Nimrod’s Son, The Holiday Song and Levitate Me, all of which feature either religious references or language.  On Doolittle, these references and language are expanded into full songs, tiny bite size retellings of Black Francis’s favourite stories from The Bible, told in only a way that the Pixies could.