Song of the Day #678: ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ – Bob Dylan

In 1978 and early 1979, following the negative critical reaction to his recent work and the personal turmoil stemming from his divorce, Dylan was at the end of his rope and looking for answers.

When a fan threw a silver cross onstage during one difficult show, Dylan pocketed it.

He found himself holding onto it during the next show and its deeper meaning began to sink in. So began the conversion that shook up his fan base even more than the moment he went electric: Bob Dylan, evangelist and Christian rock musician.

1979’s Slow Train Coming was the first Christian album Dylan released, and it’s a doozy. This is the third album I bought for this project and the third I’m sorry to have missed out on for all these years.

I fully admit that my reticence to own this album stems from my bias against organized religion. I don’t like being preached to, in person or in song. But reviews for Slow Train Coming, and effusive fan praise, piqued my interest enough for me to give it a shot.

My first impression is that had Street Legal had the production and instrumentation of this album, it would be a classic. Musically, Slow Train Coming is sublime. Mark Knopfler plays lead guitar on most tracks and delivers his signature elegant sound. The background vocals that were laid on too thick on Street Legal are used sparingly and appropriately here.

If you can look past the lyrics, the songs are pretty great too. Overt references to Jesus kind of freak me out, but set against a sweet bluesy background they’re just about bearable. And to be fair, most of these songs aren’t all that evangelical… they’re certainly spiritual but some play more like a general comment on morality than a specific endorsement of Christianity.

‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ was the album’s biggest (and only) hit. It kicks off Slow Train Coming with a theme that resonates throughout… the idea that nobody escapes ultimate judgment.

You may be an ambassador to England or France,
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance,
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world,
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

You might be a rock ’n’ roll addict prancing on the stage,
You might have drugs at your command, women in a cage,
You may be a businessman or some high-degree thief,
They may call you Doctor or they may call you Chief

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

You may be a state trooper, you might be a young Turk,
You may be the head of some big TV network,
You may be rich or poor, you may be blind or lame,
You may be living in another country under another name

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

You may be a construction worker working on a home,
You may be living in a mansion or you might live in a dome,
You might own guns and you might even own tanks,
You might be somebody’s landlord, you might even own banks

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

You may be a preacher with your spiritual pride,
You may be a city councilman taking bribes on the side,
You may be workin’ in a barbershop, you may know how to cut hair,
You may be somebody’s mistress, may be somebody’s heir

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

Might like to wear cotton, might like to wear silk,
Might like to drink whiskey, might like to drink milk,
You might like to eat caviar, you might like to eat bread,
You may be sleeping on the floor, sleeping in a king-sized bed

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

You may call me Terry, you may call me Timmy,
You may call me Bobby, you may call me Zimmy,
You may call me R.J., you may call me Ray,
You may call me anything but no matter what you say

You’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody.
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

5 thoughts on “Song of the Day #678: ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ – Bob Dylan

  1. Dana says:

    I always found this song rather compelling, notwithstanding my similar aversion to all things religious.

    From what I understand, however, the next several albums of Dylan through the 80’s were both religious AND awful. Are you going to drag us through those, or can we skip to his resurgence in the 90’s?:)

  2. Clay says:

    I’m grouping the next two albums on one weekend… praise Jesus!

  3. bill says:

    I saw BD perform about 20 times since the concert for Bengladesh ( ’71), but never saw him give as compelling performance as his Slow Train / Saved tours. Luckily they have been preserved on film – the clip of When He Returns that had been on – is it gone? – Youtube bears testament to that ( no pun intended).
    Also…. how can you call any album which contains Every Grain of Sand or Covenant woman awfull? I’ve gotten the impression lately that among dylanites the gospel albums have been undergoing a well deserved reassessment. It’s generally great music.

  4. Clay says:

    I haven’t heard Saved or Shot of Love in their entirety but I agree that, based on what I have heard, they shouldn’t be dismissed as awful.

  5. Will says:

    Perhaps the best singing of his career is during this phase. See past your own biases and Wake Up.

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