A few notes on "God Knows" by Bob Dylan


God Knows, one of Bob Dylan's best songs in the modern era, is featured on 2008's "Tell Tale Signs", a collection of unreleased songs and alternative versions cut by Bob from 1989 to the (basically) present (the song is also on 1990's Under a Red Sky, but the Tell Tale Signs version is much better).  I made the decision to include this song on my list of the best of Bob Dylan songs in the modern era. If you'd like, you can review that list here and here.

In my initial "blurb", I wrote that God Knows "details the variances of feelings on earth from the perspective of  an eternal and unchanging sun". True enough, maybe, but I began thinking more about the phrase "God Knows". 

FIRST: Oftentimes, the phrase "God Knows" is meant as a verbal prelude to a statement regarding desperate need. "God Knows" I need a job. "God Knows" I need a change of scenery. And so on. In fact, there's even a song called "God Only Knows" by the Beach Boys. It's a beautiful song about yearning for love. "God Knows" could also be a sarcastic, self effacing aside. "God knows" I need a new bow tie one of these days. As Bob says "God knows I need ya, God knows I do, ain't nobody gonna take the place of you". It could be romantic, or on the other side of the coin, sarcastic. 


SECONDLY: The phrase "God Knows" could be taken as a concrete statement regarding the certainty that their is a grand force of love the universe, in other words, God. 

Rabbi Harold Kushner teaches that God does not create problems, but gives us the capacity to deal with them. God is a thing that happens, an abstract idea, not a person with a gender. Thus, the 4th commandment discourages the creation of images of God, because doing so would distort the way we think about the idea of God. Kushner goes on to state that when we ask "where is God?" we are asking the wrong question. Rather, we should ask "when is God?".  

In this sense, Bob could be saying that God knows what we need and what type of choices and possibilities we can pursue in order to live a life that is healthy and fully human. Even when circumstances are bleak, God knows that we can "rise above the darkest hour in any circumstance" if we seek access love and spiritual understanding. Again, God shows up providing the tools to deal with the problem, not the problem itself. 

At the end of the song, Bob states that God is aware he out of our sight, but we can "get all the way from here to there even if we got to walk a million miles by candlelight". There's definitely something lurking here about an understanding of the action that is God, unknown destinations, and the choices we make that propel us there. 

CONCLUSION: The phrase "God knows" is both playful and a sound theological statement at the same time. The power of the song lies in this ambiguous area, I think. It's somewhere between an aw-shucks common phrase, intense sarcasm, and profound spirituality. 

ON A SIDE NOTEThe song also reminds me of two other songs he wrote during this period: Everything is Broken, for its list of faulted humanity (God Knows is a list in some way), and Most of the Time, which contains a repeated, thought provoking phrase as well. As I wrote previously, "most of the time" is interesting phrase in and of itself, in that it has the unique ability to amend a previous statement, properly reflecting the complexity that exists in all of us.

ALSO: Sorry, this song is not on youtube! Bob has played it live 188 times.

Comments

  1. The original release of "God Knows" was on "Down In The Groove."

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    1. Check your record or cd - it's on Under the Red Sky.

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    2. I listened to that version again-although I still prefer the alternate take both are fantastic. I bought TTS when I was 20, and it was the first time I heard those songs, so my attachment is probably sentimental.

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  2. Interestingly, Rabbi Kushner wrote a book that I read early in my career, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. He wrote this book explaining his reactions and thoughts about having a son with Progeria - - - a rapid aging condition. I found his words quite informative and he left a very positive impression with me.

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