Chapter 3
‘Going Through All These Things Twice’


An’ here I sit so patiently
Waiting to find out what price
You have to pay to get out of
Going through all these things twice.

Bob Dylan, ‘Memphis Blues Again’ (1965)

‘DEUS in adiutorium meum intende.’
‘Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen! Would you please welcome Columbia Recording Artist Bob Dylan!’

Figure 3.1: ‘Deus in adiutorium meum intende.’

Two beginnnings – an invitatory from the medieval office services, and the speaker’s voice introducing a concert with Bob Dylan; the two sound-events that are depicted above do not necessarily lend themselves to comparison beyond the fact that they are both beginnings. In the case of the Gregorian invitatory, we ‘know’ that this is about ritual, a Medieval liturgical ceremony. Likewise, ‘Would you please welcome Columbia Recording Artist Bob Dylan!’ is just as obviously an announcement of a rock concert. So what do they have to do with each other?

Or one might turn the question around and ask if there are not fundamental similarities which outweigh the obvious differences between the two actions. One might suggest that they are both formalized ways, repeated exactly the same way every time, of introducing communal actions that involve people in different roles that are more or less fixed (and an architectural space with certain specific characteristics that are fitting or even necessary for the occasion), and they are both laden with meaning which goes beyond the mere fulfillment of the action.

Figure 3.2: ‘Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen! Would you please welcome Columbia Recording Artist Bob Dylan!’

Whether one considers these similarities significant, depends on why one has made the comparison, and on how significant the chosen criteria are deemed. The features I have emphasized in the comparison – formalism, iterativity, symbolism, and the communal function – are some of the features that are most commonly brought to the fore whenever attempts to define ritual are made. This approach to the comparison may already indicate that the similarities may indeed be significant, although significant of what is still an open question. There is a fairly wide agreement among scholars concerned with ritual that to give a definition which covers all actions that somehow can be labelled ‘ritual’ is an impossible task. The consequences that are drawn from this, range from a slight caution to a questioning of the usefulness of the concept of ritual altogether. The idea behind the comparison between a Dylan concert and a medieval vespers service is not to uncover common, inherent traits which unite the two activities under an objective, extra-/supra-empirical concept, ‘ritual’, which will tell us something about them beyond what we know about them individually. My objective is heuristic rather than comparative – to circle around the double question, what may a point of departure with traits that are associated with ritual bring to the understanding of a Dylan show? and vice versa: what may the application of this perspective on a Dylan show add to the understanding of ritual? What is really ritual about a medieval service; and what do we mean by really ritual?

The External Similarites: Ceremony

It is not difficult to find the direct parallels between a Dylan show and a medieval church service, once one starts scraping the surface.1 We’ve already seen the ‘invitatory’. Since c. 1990, this announcement, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, . . .’ has been repeated in exactly the same way at just about every single concert – to the extent that to the audience (or congregation) it is no longer an announcement but an element belonging to the proper order of things – a ‘liturgical’ item.2 But even what precedes the invitatory is fixed: the preparation of the hall with buckets (literally) of Nag Champa incense, and portions of the ‘Hoe-down’ from Aaron Copland’s Rodeo suite from the sound system, while the audience (or congregation) fills up the venue; then houselights off, invitatorium, and then – then the show begins.

Even here there is a ‘liturgy’, an order followed by Dylan and expected by the audience. The most common topos in reviews of Dylan shows is that he is so unpredictable. A brief look at his setlists will reveal the opposite. A Dylan concert always involves fixed and variable elements. During most of the 90s, ‘All Along the Watchtower’ was always played as the third song, and other songs have had similarly fixed positions in the ceremony over shorter or longer stretches of time. Then there is a group of songs that are chosen among the songs that an ‘average listener’ – the ones who have three or four Dylan albums at home – would want to hear: ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, etc. Finally, there is almost always one or two songs for the die-hard fans: a rarely heard song from an obscure 80s album, an old hillbilly standard, or an unlikely cover song. All in all a sequence of songs that could very well be described in terms of the ordinarium and proprium of the medieval mass: some songs that will be heard every night, like a Kyrie or a Credo, and others that belong to the specific feast day, and which will make that particular show unique.

Also concerning the songs themselves, the concert and the medieval service share an important field: that of canonicity. They are both centered around texts which are deeply rooted in their respective societies and which have canonical status of some kind.

During all this, the celebrant(s) and the congregation alike perform certain acts, well aware of their respective roles. A Dylan concert is usually a seated arrangement, but about two thirds into the show there is the so-called stage rush – the moment when, as if on a given sign, in an act of communal attention the initiated rush to the front of the stage to spend the rest of the concert at the Master’s feet – as a latter day equivalent, at least in outer form of action, to the communion. Post-concert talk within this group of people may for instance take up whether or not one got eye-contact with his Bobliness or someone else in the band.

Whenever Dylan has commented upon his role, it has always involved a certain amount of dualities and ambiguities; they seem to be unavoidable in all the areas where he, as an artist, meets the audience. One peculiar aspect of this is possibly to be traced to his double role, being both the celebrant and the object of veneration. On stage he acts with the unemotionality of a celebrant who performs an office he knows goes beyond himself, thereby underlining the ‘objective’ character of the ceremony/concert, and downplaying the personal: he hardly ever speaks on stage; he does move – not with the normal ‘look-at-me’ gestures of your average rock star, but with quirky knee-bends and awkward dance steps, looking like a cross between Elvis and a shy kid from Hibbing, Minnesota. He is just up there, doing what he happens to do best: being ‘just a song-and-dance man’.3

At the same time, he is well aware that every movement he makes is being monitored and interpreted by 7,000 pairs of eyes. One of his more mysterious songs, Dark Eyes (1985), ends with the phrase ‘A million faces at my feet, and all I see are dark eyes,’ which most immediately can be interpreted as the performer’s reflection on how idolization looks from the idol’s point of view. But two other phrases in the song open up for the possibility to regard the whole song as something heard more specifically from high up on a cross: ‘A cock is crowing far away and another soldier’s deep in prayer,’ and ‘The French girl, she’s in paradise’ – a possible allusion to the thief on the cross.

If the preceding paragraphs have served to suggest that, given a certain (common-sense) set of criteria for ritualness it is difficult to exclude one and include the other of the actions, this does not mean that the differences between a rock concert and a medieval service are not equally significant. Especially two such differences seem particularly important. One is the dependence on a religious framework. The other is the role of artistic production. Whereas the vespers service has a clear function related to the hereafter and to interaction with the godhead, it would be difficult to claim that a Dylan show entails religious observance in the strict sense – there are no ontological overtones, no dogmatics, no ‘theology’ (or ‘bobology’4 ). Depending on how important one considers the religious aspect, this may or may not be a problem for the ritualistic reading of a concert: the mere presence of outer similarities is no guarantee for the usefulness of comparing religious observance with secular entertainment. But one might instead weigh the similarities more positively and consider them to go deeper than mere coincidences of common surface traits; an activity like a rock concert – inscribed in the modern world of art presentation and transmission and given a formalized frame in such a context – may be seen to fulfill functions and needs that, in earlier ages, have been covered by religious ceremonies, without for that reason necessitating an explicitly religious explanation.5

Apart from the notion of the transcendent in a very general sense, and the role of artistic production, there is one aspect of Dylan’s production and its reception which more immediately lends itself to comparison with medieval liturgy: the ample occurrence of elements which are closely connected to a traditional conception of religion in a Christian context, such as the prophetic, divine inspiration, the high priest, the vocation, and the chosen who sacrifices himself for others. These elements have, to various degrees, been present both in the way Dylan has been received by the public ever since the sixties, and in his own relationship to his role. Let me just point to three examples.

The Rolling Thunder Revue

During the late 1975 and the early 1976, Dylan with friends went on the road with a show that was called the Rolling Thunder Revue. The grand idea behind the tour was that it was supposed to be a never-ending touring circus, where the artists on the bill would change all the time. The Revue would also be self-served with sound equipment and all the other practical aspects of a tour, so that they could make landfall here and there without much prior planning, and without having to go through the administrative treadmill of managers, concert organizers, etc. In this respect, the Revue was yet another expression of Dylan’s wish to be nothing out of the ordinary, just another musician, at any time replaceable with any other member of this creative community.6


I picked up his body
and I dragged him inside,
Threw him down in the hole
and I put back the cover.
I said a quick prayer
just to feel satisfied.
Then I rode back to find Isis
just to tell her I love her.

One striking element of these concerts was the use of masks, facial paint, and symbols of various kinds. Dylan would frequently come on stage with his face painted white. A powerful scene from one of the concerts shows Dylan holding his hands crossed in front of him, with clenched fists. The song he is singing is ‘Isis’, a mystical treasure hunt story which is ultimately about love and death. The song is full of references to religious symbols and concepts, directly or indirectly: ‘a high place of darkness and light’ is where the protagonist meets his partner in crime; they make a covenant (‘I gave him my blanket, he gave me his word’) and set out ‘to the cold and the north’, to find the treasure by the ‘pyramids, all embedded in ice’. Then, in the quick sequence of events that is the dramatic climax of the song, his friend dies, he finds the tomb – but the treasure is not there – he drags his partner inside and leaves him in the tomb along with the missing treasure, and then: ‘I said a quick prayer just to feel satisfied. | Then I rode back to find Isis just to tell her I love her.’7

The song is a masterly example of Dylan’s lyrical art – the play with various symbols and meanings, with time, and with his own life; merely as a set of lyrics it opens up a lot of interpretational possibilities: the double partnership (or double incarnation of the idea of partnership), one based on love, the other on friendship, trust, and material gain, the latter of which must be sacrificed in order to reach – which is also a return to – the first partner; the transformation he goes through, as evidenced in the concluding dialogue between man and wife:

She said, ‘Where ya been?’ I said, ‘No place special.’
She said, ‘You look different.’ I said, ‘Well, I guess.’
She said, ‘You been gone.’ I said, ‘That’s only natural.’
She said, ‘You gonna stay?’ I said, ‘If you want me to, Yes!’

and the eery treatment of struggle and death, madness and joy, pain and pleasure, which may or may not be connected with the programmatic introduction to the song at several of the shows: ‘This is a song about marriage.’ None of the interpretations are clear, but all are open.

The stage enactment of the song, as evidenced on the recent album Live 1975,8 adds to this openness – and to the uncertainty of meaning. The white face (‘death mask’?), the crossed fists (‘power’? ‘Christ’?), the outstretched arms (again: ‘power’? ‘Christ’?)– they are hardly random movements, they all seem to mean something, but what? The concerts involved a play with symbols of various kinds, symbols that are easily associated with religious ritual, but which lack a clear symbolic background in the specific context in which they were used. The gestures thus appear as signs removed from a sign system that can render them immediately understandable (which, on the other hand, does not preclude that they can still be meaningful, in the sense of being charged with meaning). Also the quasi-religious connections made throughout the tour to settings such as Gypsy mythology and Indian shamanism, can be regarded in this light.

While the symbols that are used can be related to religious spheres of understanding, they are arguably not religious in content. The eclecticism which brings together pyramids and prayers, crosses and canyons, precludes any connections with a narrowly defined symbol system; they are used precisely in their general sense, evoking images of human conditions and relationships. Thus, the cross – if interpreted in conjunction with the text that it accompanies, the climactic verse which sees the switch from the partner-friend to the partner-lover/wife – becomes just as much a symbol of human as of divine love.


All this is closely related to the fact that these concerts weren’t just concerts, and the band wasn’t just a group of musicians. Dylan had brought a film crew on the road, and just about everything that happened, on stage and behind it, was filmed. The outcome of this was the nearly four hours long cinema verité opus Renaldo and Clara, which was released – as an immediate commercial and critical failure – in 1978. Be that as it may, the meaning of the actions on stage go beyond that of a rock concert; the movie, the songs that were newly written before the tour, as well as the ‘drama’ that was enacted on stage, all and together brought up the ‘eternal themes’: love, death, marriage, divorce, violence, trust, children, identity, dreams. This is enacted in a meta-narrative taking place both on stage and in some sort of reality, but the lines between the world as lived and the world as enacted (to paraphrase C. Geertz)9 are blurred – every statement takes on a meaning which goes beyond the statement itself, because it belongs in all the different contexts at the same time: both in the ‘real’ and in the ‘transcendent’ media-/hyper-reality.10

The Gospel Years

Three years later, Dylan ‘went Christian’. For a period, he was associated with the extreme evangelical Vineyard Fellowship in Tarzana, CA. During the ‘gospel years’ 1979–1981, Dylan mostly performed new songs, filled with evangelization and images of end-time and apocalyptic cataclysm. In one sense, his concerts from these years are directly connected with Christian ritual, by virtually having been turned into Christian services, including ‘raps’ – mini-sermons – between the songs. In another sense, however, the concerts from his born-again period may, paradoxically, serve as an example, contrasting with the Rolling Thunder Revue, of a period which from a ritual perspective is the least interesting. The main reason for this assessment is that the message was over-explicit, in the well-established tradition of evangelical preaching; there was little left of the transcendental message of the earlier tour – i.e. the message which transcended what was physically presented on stage – only a message about the transcendental, which is a completely different thing. What had previously been a play with symbolic elements, which then took on a meaning beyond their contents, was now a mere use of them, as traditional elements with a fairly clear meaning, used in a general way in a conventional context.

The Voice of a Generation

The epithet that has stuck most stubbornly to Dylan through the decades is probably that of ‘the Voice of a Generation’: the one who said things that many felt. One way of gauging the quasi-religious importance of this role is to watch the reactions when he stopped saying what at least some of his followers wanted him to say. The world tour of 1966 was a tour de force in a literal sense: while the first half of the concerts still had the bard standing all alone on stage, with nothing but a microphone, a glass of water, and a spotlight to distract the attention, the second half of the concerts was an outburst backed by The Hawks (later The Band), with the loudest sound-system anyone had ever heard. This betrayal of his former art was famously greeted with the shout ‘Judas!’ at the show in Manchester, May 17, 1966. Hand in hand with this musical betrayal of the folk idiom went the fact that he had left out the political message from his songs; the step from ‘Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call’ to poetic imagery like ‘Upon four-legged forest clouds the cowboy angel rides’ was a bitter pill to swallow for many.

But in fact, Dylan has always claimed to be uninterested in politics. Already in 1963, before his break-through album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was released, he could be heard talking disparagingly about the folk movement in a radio interview with Bob Fass,11 and in 1968, in connection with his first public appearance in two years, he almost irritatedly answered questions about his recent reluctance to address political issues:

Dylan: You check your old newspapers, you won’t be able to find too many statements I’ve made on those issues.

Press: What exactly then is your position on politics and music?

Dylan: My job is to play music. I think I’ve answered enough questions.12

Again, it is the ‘Just a song-and-dance man’ speaking, the artist-as-craftsman who goes to work with what he is best at: ‘Basically, I’m just a regular person. I don’t walk around all the time out of my mind with inspiration. So what can I tell you about that?’13

But his renouncement of his own ability or even desire to project a ‘profound’ message also takes on an almost opposite character, where this very renouncement becomes important. In an interview from 1978 where Dylan comments upon Renaldo and Clara, we find the following discussion about what he wants to do or not:

Dylan: Let’s say you have a message: white is white. Bergman would say ‘white is white’ in the space of an hour – or what seems to be an hour. Buñuel might say ‘white is black and black is white, but white is really white’. And it’s all really the same message.

Interviewer: And how would Dylan say it?

Dylan: Dylan would probably not even say it. He’d assume you’d know that.14

If this is a way of saying that he does not have a ‘profound’ message, it is at the same time as if this rejection itself is part of the message; ‘not even saying it’ – or rather, not in principle having to say it, because it is already known, latently, if not patently – is precisely what he wants to say. The statement does, after all, fall during a discussion of a film the meaning of which is anything but obvious. It might also be related to the following, from an interview in 1984, which plainly contradicts the faith in the audience’s ability to understand, at least if the ‘He’d assume you’d know that’ is taken at face value:

I don’t think I’m gonna be really understood until maybe 100 years from now. What I’ve done, what I’m doing, nobody else does or has done.15

The same notion of the uniqueness of what he is doing in bringing out songs that are true and that live, independently even of Dylan himself, is expressed in a recent interview:

I don’t get bored singing the songs because they have a truth to them. They have a life to them [. . . ] I don’t think there is anybody playing the type of songs that we’re playing.16

This could be interpreted as an ideology concerning meaning in artistic production, where the artist is no structure-erecting craftsman, whose production is food for thought in an intellectual, modernist way. Rather, it is the Romantic image of the artist-genius, the intuitive medium, who, thanks to his special gift, is able to pick up wisdom where others just see everyday reality – who sees the answer that is blowin’ in the wind. He nods in recognition to a statement from Woody Guthrie, that all the songs are already written, floating around in the universe, ready to be picked up (Mojo Magazine, february 1998). He uses a similar phrase to describe his own writing of Desolation Row:

Dylan: I don’t know how it was done.

Kurt Loder: It just came to you?

Dylan: It just came out through me.17

In principle, his message is unneccessary because what he says is simply what is just lying around to be picked up by anyone who cares to look, plainly for anyone to see who has the ability. But at the same time his role as the medium through which this wisdom can be channelled out among others, puts him in a special position, similar to Schopenhauer’s description of genius, as ‘the capacity for knowing the Ideas of things – in the platonic sense of Ideas – and for revealing these Ideas in works of art for the benefit of the remainder of mankind who, borrowing as it were the eyes of genius, may behold through these works what the genius beholds directly.’18 In an interview from 1984, these two opposing approaches appear in the same part of the discussion:

I mean, if I didn’t have anything different to say to people, then what would be the point of it?

[. . . ] Anybody who expects anything from me is just a borderline case [. . . ] You can’t keep on depending on one person to give you everything.

It does not seem like an exaggeration to say that Dylan sees himself and his role vis-à-vis his audience in the light of religious notions, whether they are explicitly presented as such or not. Even though he has never (to my knowledge) explicitly called himself a prophet, the statements above – about universal truths coming out through him and him alone – only lack the outspokenly religious aspect and the ability to look into the future, and both these are present in a comment during a concert in 1979, during his ‘religious years’:

I told you ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’ and they did. I said the answer was ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and it was. I’m telling you now Jesus is coming back, and He is! (Albuquerque, December 5, 1979)

Even though his religiosity is less outspoken these days, he keeps referring to what he is doing in religious terms, even in the latest interviews. Concerning his currently ongoing ‘Never-ending’ string of tours, which has kept him constantly on the road since 1988, he describes its beginning in terms of a religious experience on stage:

It’s almost like I heard it as a voice. [. . . ] I’m determined to stand, whether God will deliver me or not. And all of a sudden everything just exploded. [. . . ] After that is when I sort of knew: I’ve got to go out and play these songs (Newsweek October 13, 1997).

Consequently, although his task may be fulfilled through a craftsmanlike performance of a job no different than any other, in the larger perspective the outcome of the job is conceived of in a higher order:

I don’t feel like what I do qualifies to be called a career. It’s more of a calling (Rolling Stone Magazine, November 22, 2001).

Secular Ritual

The preceding discussion of Dylan’s role, its contents and its form, can be summed up in the suggestion that Dylan is seen – both by himself and by his audience19 – as a secular prophet, performing a secular ritual, for a modern world. This would in turn imply a notion of ‘secular religion’, but what is that, if anything at all?

In one sense, it is a meaningless juxtaposition of opposing terms. But at the same time it seems like an apt term to describe Dylan. First, because it captures a certain paradox in Dylan’s self-appreciation, in that he fundamentally conceives of a religious framework for the transmission of a message which, however, is not in itself religious.20 Second, because it opens up for an understanding of the way in which a Dylan concert can meaningfully be regarded as a ritual. We are, thus, back to the question implied in the introduction: is a Dylan show ‘really’ a ritual?

This is not the place to define ritual, nor to survey the existing definitions, but a few words still need to be said about the premises for my understanding of ritual.

First, I consider ritual a historical concept. This has a positive and a negative side. The negative determination of ritual entails a rejection of various phenomenological definitions of ritual – that ritual refers to something with constant contents, whether one discusses the chinese li, medieval liturgy, Balinese initiation rites, or modern, secular rituals. I will also disregard biologistic and psychologistic explanations, that e.g. take behaviour in birds and animals into consideration in order to explain human ritual, or regard ritual as a response to fundamental needs – psychological or even physiological – inherent in the human nature.

On the positive side, this standpoint connects with a certain branch of historicism, not in its Rankean form with the aim to establish ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen’ (or, more narrowly concerning the content of texts, that it ‘receives its intelligibility from its connection to the social conditions of the community that produced it or to which it was destined’21 ), but rather by claiming that a concept can only be meaningfully used and understood in the light of its history. Most immediately, this involves the historical continuity of the term itself. The usage of the word ‘ritual’ has progressed from its Roman Latin etymological origin, through its various medieval applications (none of which correspond directly either with the Ancient or the modern usage) and its widened use in early anthropological and religious studies, to the every-day application of the term to beer-drinking rituals and shoelace-tying. As with other terms that have been used over long periods of time, the use of the same term is no guarantee of co-extensiveness between early and late instances, but their belonging to the same terminological strand enables us to trace the changes that have occurred.

It also involves the importance of the historical continuity between the various activities that are or have been characterized through the term, for our understanding of them, in the sense that the historical continuity between a medieval vespers service and a modern church ritual shapes our understanding of both to a radically higher degree and more directly than either of those shape our understanding of ‘rituals’ outside of this historical thread, such as the Chinese li and Balinese initiation rites.

Just as important as the immediate historical continuity, is the fundamentally historical character of concept formation. Any concept will be meaningful only through its use within the community of users, and is, thus, historical insofar as it goes beyond the lifespan and memory of the single users. Whether it refers to events that took place yesterday or six hundred years ago, is insignificant concerning its historical character; it must in any case be incorporated into the individual user’s language world and resonate with notions that are already processed, or prefigured, to use Hayden White’s term.22

This stance involves an opposition towards a structuralist understanding, in favour of an orientation towards practice: the structure has no existence of its own and no primacy in relation to practical experience. A general, abstracted concept carries less explanatory force the farther it is removed from the experience and recollection of a concretely lived life (memories) or one’s appropriated ‘memories’ (history). In this sense, the ‘surface level’ is all there is. A corollary to this is that surface similarities may be of importance – such as the surface similarities between the Dylan show and the medieval service alluded to in the introduction.

Second, I side with those who consider a concept of ritual which does not in some way or another take into account a notion of religion to be too much deprived of what has formed the definition of ritual outlined above.

‘The religious’ can be approached in various ways. A narrow definition centering on the relation of one’s understanding of the important issues in life – such as death, suffering, other human beings – to some divine being, and (especially with respect to ritual) channelled through a more or less fixed set of observances based on canonical texts, will only be part of the understanding underlying the present discussion – albeit importantly so. As an example of phenomena where av sharp line between religious and non-religious is difficult to draw, one might mention the suggestion, building on Freud’s comparison between ritual and neurotic behaviour, that the dramatic increase in cases of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder over the past fifty years is related to the decreasing importance of the traditional forms of religious rituals in the West, as a consequence of the disappearance of established and accepted frames for addressing or even answering the unanswerable questions.23

‘The religious’ can also be taken to refer to a system of thought concerning a wider notion of ‘the transcendent’, regarded as something with an existence in reality, but still principally lying beyond the grasp of human sensory experience and rational capacity.24 With this definition, the transcendent, and hence the religious, can be extended to the self’s experience of something outside of the self, which can only be known via a perspective outside of the self, because it in principle is determined and presented to the self from the outside, independently of the self.

More specifically, the notion of the transcendent is central to the approach from language philosophy. There will always be something beyond oneself which determines language, and hence also oneself. Derrida’s difference and the blind spot,25 and Wittgenstein’s rejection of private experience are both expressions of the fundamentally transcendent character of language and thought.

The criteria which are usually brought forth as central for ritual – repetition in a formalized form and within a certain community of actions with a certain symbolic character – have interesting parallels to Wittgenstein’s philosophy. His tenet that a word’s meaning is its use,26 can be expanded to say that the constitution of meaning is based on repeated exposure to a certain linguistic act, and the discovery of, appropriation of, and establishment of tacit knowledge about the formal(ized) system of rules behind, valid within the community of language users.27 In this sense, one might say that all meaning depends on ritual activity.

Community is thus central both to the historical and to the religious or transcendental approach to ritual, as the precondition for meaning as well as for the formation of the self and of identity. A community is necessary for our process of defining our identity as historical beings, as well as for conceptualizing this identity, both to ourselves and to others.

Such a perspective does not presuppose a concept of the divine or the sacred, but it is certainly open to include it. Conversely, it provides a way of borrowing notions that are central to a modern, Western understanding of religion and of applying them to matters which are usually not considered to belong to the religious sphere.

I have so far been reluctant to give a definition of ritual, other than the general use I have made of it – for the reasons that are implied in the foregoing paragraphs: the need for a historical connection, and the discussion of the transcendental. The latin word ritus has two different meanings. The first definition (as given in the Lewis-Short dictionary) is relatively unproblematic in relation to a medieval service: ‘the form and manner of religious observances; a religious usage or ceremony, a rite.’ The second definition is significantly wider: ‘a custom, usage, manner, mode, way,’ and it corresponds more closely with the modern everyday usage, where just about any action that is repeated the same way every time, and where some kind of meaning is ascribed to the way it is done, can be called a ritual. Ritual, then, is no longer exclusively a religious term.

For the purposes of the present article, however, it does not seem necessary to operate with such a wide definition: it is my contention that a Dylan show lies closer to a medieval service than to toothbrushing, however properly performed. The initial descriptions of a typical Dylan concert, and the analyses of the religious element in Dylan’s production were meant to demonstrate some of the reasons for this closeness.

As a first step, I will therefore take as my point of departure in the criteria already listed in the introduction – repetition, in a formalized form and within a certain community, of actions with a certain symbolic character – with the explicit qualification discussed in the two previous sections: the need for a historical understanding, and for some notion of religion.

Functions and means

My suspicion towards a concept of ritual based on abstraction, away from the level of practical experience, does not imply a discarding of any talk about the function of ritual, or a philosophically based approach – on the contrary. The most explicit statement of such a standpoint is probably Frits Staal’s claim that ‘ritual has no meaning [. . . ] ritual is pure activity, without meaning or goal. [. . . ] Ritual is for its own sake.’28 Although Staal’s argument has strong merits, it also serves to demonstrate the dangers this approach may run into.

Hans Penner has pointed out some of these, primarily that Staal’s discussion is based upon a notion of syntax and a theory of meaning which are obsolete, and, furthermore, that the idea of ‘ritual for its own sake’ comes strikingly close to the Romanticist ‘Art for Art’s sake’, only in reverse: ‘Staal thinks that because ritual is for its own sake it is therefore meaningless. For the romantics art for its own sake entailed a superabundance of meaning.’29

Penner sums up his article with a comparison – as an alternative to Staal’s thesis that the origin of syntax in language, and hence of language itself, is ritual – between the ways in which language and ritual can be considered meaningful, quite in line with the Wittgensteinian perspective I have hinted at above:

Although the performers of the ritual may not be able to explain the rules, they do know when they are broken and they also know what is to be done when the rules are broken. [. . . ] There is a sense in which performers of ritual learn to perform a ritual as we learn how to speak our language in spite of the fact that we cannot explain the rules upon which both are based.30

To Penner’s criticism, one might add that the reason why Staal can reach the conclusion he does (‘ritual is meaningless’) is that he fails to distinguish between the activities he is describing (the Vedic Agnicayana ceremonies) and the theoretical framework (‘ritual’) in relation to which he performs his search for meaning (or rather: lack of meaning).

This failure has the immediate consequence that because Staal has as his point of departure in a Western concept of ritual (with references to van Gennep, Levi-Strauss, and others), chances are that this is a different theoretical framework than that which informs what the participants in the ‘3000-year-old Vedic ritual’ think about what they do. When he claims that ‘the majority [of the participants] would not be able to come up with an adequate answer to the question why they engage in ritual’ (p. 3), one might as well say that they would not even know that what they engage in is a ritual, at least not in the sense in which Staal uses it in the rest of the article.

But the main failure lies in the commixture of two different kinds of meaning. When he asks about the meaning of the Agniacayana ritual, he asks for a meaning which is explainable in words, a reference to symbolic activity or to a specific function – a semantic meaning. But his conclusion about the meaninglessness of ritual is based on the kind of meaning that Penner describes in the quotation above, which sees rites as activities which are based on rule-following in a way which resembles that of other systems of activites where it makes sense to talk about meaning – such as language – but without necessarily having semantic or conceptual meaning.31 This is implied in Staal’s conclusion that ‘ritual, then, is primarily [. . . ] an activity governed by explicit rules. The important thing is what you do, not what you think, believe or say’ (Staal, p. 4), but since Staal operates with a referential theory of meaning, he still – despite his attempt to avoid the problem of logocentricity by placing the origin of language in ritual – preserves the primacy of conceptual meaning.

Based on these considerations, we can modify the qualifications of the general approach to ritual theory given above even further by adding the principal distinction between the functions a rite may have (including what a participant or an observer may think about this function, be it symbolically, economically, religiously, etc.) and the concrete means used to fulfill that function in each particular rite. I will elaborate on this in four stages.

First, the connection between function and means can be described as arbitrary, in the sense that the means may not necessarily have had the aim of fulfilling a certain ritual function; they may have come to be used in a certain ritual for many different reasons, including reasons that do not necessarily belong within a ritual definition. Likewise, the function need not be explicit, or even recognizable, in the means. The same function can be fulfilled by many different means, and the same means can fulfill different functions in different contexts. Once the specific means have been incorporated in the system of rules that defines a certain ritual action, however, it is no longer possible to talk about arbitrariness; although there are many means through which one could have encountered a certain function, the specific means that make up a ritual action are the only way one in fact encounters it. Ex post facto, there is no arbitrariness, and there is nothing ante factum.

Function     Means    

Second, any talk about the function of ritual will be an abstraction, a theorizing (whether it takes the form of a philosophy, a religious doctrine, or a cultural theory) about the conditions of man and ways of influencing them. This applies even when a function is explicitly stated (by the participants) as the foundation of a certain ritual; functions are never absolutely defined, they always belong within the realm of philosophy in a wide sense. The means, on the other hand, are concrete actions in specific historical settings, and should be studied as such, with whatever help the various scholarly disciplines of textual and historical criticism can bring. When a historical perspective is applied to ritual, then, what is studied will usually be either theoretical systems concerning functions (e.g. Amalar’s explanations of the liturgical items of the mass), or specific activities, significant only – but significantly so – in their historical situatedness. This distinction is meant as an aid to avoid the possible pitfall of treating the function or the conceptual meaning of a ritual – such as bringing salvation or rain, upholding social systems, or fulfilling basic human needs – as inherent traits of the means.

Function     Means     theoretical historical

Third, as implied above, I treat ‘the religious’ as a category of ‘the philosophical’, both as abstract systems of thought, and in the more general sense concerning notions of ‘the transcendental’. The distinction has to do with essentials: whereas the essence of ‘the transcendent’ has been the problem that has ridden philosophy since Plato, from the religious perspective it is not a problem at all – it is assumed. Likewise, the aesthetic experience may be regarded as a category of the experience of a formalized action, in this case a ritual action. They are both experiences of rule-bound activities having meaning as such (in the Wittgensteinian sense of ‘use governed by an internalized understanding of the underlying rules’), but dependent upon a ‘philosophy’ in order to be meaningful in a conceptual sense (or: susceptible to translation into conceptual meaning through a ‘philosophy’). The bringing together of aesthetic and ritual actions is a concession to the primacy of sensory experience (over theoretical speculation) in both, as well as to their historical interconnections.

Function     Means     theoretical historical religious aesthetic

Fourth, if the dichotomy between ‘function’ and ‘means’ has been upheld so far, there is an interesting cross-connection between the aesthetic and the religious, which unites the philosophical and the historical approach and illuminates the importance of the aesthetic means in ritual (historically speaking), and of ritual connections for the development of aesthetic thought (theoretically speaking). As I have discussed at greater length elsewhere,32 the conflict between physical reality and rational thought has been solved in aesthetic theories in ways which approximate the religious: Plato’s ‘divine madness’, the mysterious presence of the divine in a Byzantine icon, the ‘non so che’ (‘I-don’t-know-what’) of early modern theories of art, and the Romantic genius – they all have the experience of physical reality as their point of departure, but in each case this experience is supplemented by a notion of something transcending that experience, something which lies beyond the grasp of rational thought. It is striking how, throughout the history of Western civilization, aesthetic thought and religion have related to similar phenomena and to the same ranges of experiences and given them explanations that overlap and interconnect.

Function     Means     theoretical historical religious ←→ aesthetic

Dylan and ritual revisited

It is time to return to Dylan again – to the interplay of functions and means and the historical continuity, across the centuries, between medieval service and modern rock show, which may or may not add to our understanding of both.

I have presented the ‘surface layer’ of the two kinds of activities in such a way as to bring out the similarities between them; they can both be regarded as ‘rites’ – as means to fulfil a ritual function, or as self-contained, ‘meaningless’ activities, the meanings of which are understood by the participants, regardless of whether these have been explained, theologically or not, and whether such an explanation is understood or known by the participants.

One example of an area where there are elements of continuity, both of functions and of means, is the concert genre itself. This way of presenting music has firm roots back to medieval ritual. The polyphonic mass of the late Middle Ages defended its place only insofar as it fulfilled its liturgical function, essentially indistinguishable from its medieval counterpart, but despite its functional basis, there is evidence that it was often enjoyed primarily for aesthetic reasons; the Abendmusiken and the church recitals in seventeenth-century protestant cities seem to have fulfilled a similar function, being primarily entertainment, as forerunners of the public concert, but, significantly, usually performed in church before or after the ordinary church services; and, last but not least, the public concert in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, of which modern ‘classical’ concerts are heirs, was closely related to the cult of the genius and his ability to bring out the sublime, a notion akin to the transcendent – summed up in the notion Kunstreligion. These are all practices where it is hard to draw sharp lines between the religious and secular functions of the music – between worship and enjoyment.33

When it comes to Dylan, this general aspect of Kunstreligion inherent in the concert genre itself is brought together with popular culture, in its two incarnations as folk culture – a tradition which until the twentieth century has mostly remained on the outside of the line of continuity sketched above – and mass culture – the commercial exploitation of entertainment-as-commodity. Dylan – together with other artists – has started over again, so to speak: out of a genre which was originally functional in a way similar to medieval ritual music – only fulfilling other functions, such as dance or the ‘news reports’ of a folk ballad – a new concert genre has evolved, in a way that is comparable to the aestheticization of the functional mass music in the fifteenth century. This is a genre that spans the whole continuum from mindless entertainment – noticable both in the commercial mass appeal, as evidenced by the blatant advertisement of the Columbia Recording Company in the ‘invitatory’, and in the dancing in the aisles and visits to the bar (and, consequently, to the restroom), vestiges of the traditional functions of popular music making – to the deepest seriousness, which encompasses meaningfulness, world view, and ideology, no less profound than that of a classical concert. For the most part, a Dylan audience is completely quiet, hanging on to every word that comes from the stage, and such has been the case ever since his break-through in the early sixties. As a genre, the transformed, ‘serious’ pop concert takes its raison d’être from the common understanding among the audience that something is offered which goes beyond entertainment – that the actions carry a level of meaning which transcends the surface level of the actions themselves.

The same ritual aspect can be discerned in the way the songs are used in his current live repertory; their effect is partly based upon the assumption that words that were laid down a long time ago can transcend their own historical situation and can even transmit an esoteric meaning, or at least a meaning which goes beyond the words themselves and the acts of performing and listening to them. Seen in a ritual perspective, it is not primarily the songs and the texts themselves which are meaningful, but the context to which they belong as meaningless – arbitrary – elements. I am reluctant to call this a complete arbitrariness (cf. the discussion above), but would rather call it a meaningfulness which is disjunct from the primary function of the songs, historically and generically speaking.

If the concert genre, thus, is an example of a continuity of means which also go beyond the obvious similarities, the question of a possible continuity also in function is more complex. One might for instance, claim that religiously charged concert music fulfills certain basic human needs, regardless of the external frames, or that several of the functions that a medieval liturgy fulfilled, in a society where the doctrine that had shaped the rituals also dominated every other aspect of society, will remain unfulfilled by that particular ritual in a society where the doctrine is no longer universally acclaimed, and must instead be fulfilled by other ‘ritualized’ actions, such as a Dylan show.

That such a functional aspect is possible in the case of a Dylan show, is indicated, e.g., by the emphasis Dylan places on performing his songs live (and not just let them ‘speak for themselves’ on the albums), and the importance for the audience to attend it in person.34 What is meaningful about it, is not only the contents of the lyrics (important as they may be), the person (thrilling as it may be to see a cultural icon in the flesh), or the concert genre, but all these taken together.35

One problem is that it is not indisputable which functions a medieval ceremony has fulfilled; we may have some access to the practical means (prayers, chants, texts, etc.), but both the unconceptual understanding the participants have had of these means, through their repeated participation in them, and the connections they have made between the actions and the wider conceptual system are, in principle, beyond the reach of the modern scholar. The same basic problem applies to the modern ritual – in one sense to an even higher degree, since there is no over-arching theoretical system comparable to medieval christianity against which a means is tied to a certain function. Thus, the question of functions, and even more of functional continuity, must remain open to interpretation, and the answers will vary depending on which theoretical vantage points one chooses.

The comparison between a medieval church service and a Dylan show has been made not only as a test case of a theoretical model, apt precisely because they they appear to be worlds and centuries apart. On the contrary, the idea originated in the practical experience of a similarity, paired with the conviction that Dylan is probably the artist today who is best suited for such a comparison: that there are good reasons to make the connection. As a way of summing up and tying together the various threads that run through this article, I would like to point out three main areas where Dylan’s role approaches that of religious services.

One is the notion of a transcendental truth, revealed and administered by the artistic medium, as emphasised in the discussion of Dylan as the ‘Voice of a Generation’. The second is that of creating a community and a sense of connection between the individual and the community around a canon of texts and facts informed by the medium’s revelation – a canon which is potentially of vital importance for one’s life. This relates to what has previously beensaid about historicity and the transcendent. The third, which also relates to the discussion of historicity, can be described with a cliché which has often been used about Dylan: that he serves as the ‘soundtrack of our lives’ – as the one whose music has ben allowed to shape our experiences of the important things in life (perhaps even to define what have been important experiences); as the one who points out those things that define our identity as historical beings, through which our individual experiences are anchored to the continuum of societal time. Dylan fans range from those with a deep appreciation of his musical and lyrical artistic production to those who are almost religiously obsessive about everything related to him. But common to both extremes are the sense of community created by repeated, communal activities, and the resonance of one’s own experiences with expressions – musical, literary or others – that have acquired a canonical status.


The fact that surprisingly many people go surprisingly far beyond the stage of nodding symphathetically to the words of Dylan’s songs, but also lead their lives, make their choices in life, and form their outlook on life in accordance with, or at least with an eye on, what Dylan says, does, sings, and means, indicates an approach which borders on the religious.

The advantage one has in this field as opposed to medieval studies, is that one can ask the participants what they think. I published an earlier version of this article at the website Some of the reactions were posted at the Dylan Pool, currently the most popular and widely used website for day-to-day banter about Dylan, where people from all around the world with an over-average interest in Dylan gather. The following is a selection of the responses:36

The performance of the thing is key. I would love Dylan’s music if I sat at home and listened to his officially released albums. But it’s up on a whole other level when you are there for the performance. [. . . ] I have often thought of Bob’s concerts in terms of the Catholic Mass. [. . . ] Something special, something extraordinary happens. And only an ordained priest can do this. It’s the Consecration and the event of Transubstantiation. That bread and wine are transformed. Christ does not change. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. But this miracle happens at each celebration. And this is what Bob does with his music. It is not just singing an old crowd favorite. The song is called forth in a new way. It’s creation, it’s transformation. [. . . ] Maybe I sound like I’m going over the top, but I don’t know how else to convey the sense I have of his music and performance. Just like at Passover.

I’ve always felt that there is a shared consciousness at Dylan concerts that the performance has some significance beyond its own entertainment value. It’s not just what Dylan does – it’s the audience responses, the antiphonies.

And the following, from an article in New Statesman (January 6, 2003) by Will Self:

I suspect that, like a good many fans of Bob Dylan’s work (the silent but sympathetic majority if you will), my communion with his work is a link between the intimate minutiae of my personal life and a moiety which, while non-specific, is still a great deal larger. [. . . ] When I listen to Dylan’s music, I subconsciously apprehend this connection, although at the same time I am transported to a place where, vis-a-vis with my own wellspring of feeling, I am alone. This sense of being a communicant at an altar rail that is shared by millions has always inclined me to limit the amount I know about the artist himself, or even the wider context of his work. For lyrical music to conjure up such a powerful level of identification, it is better that it be shrouded in numinous ignorance.