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"Dear Landlord" is one of Bob Dylan's most enduring songs and it has many messages that can be interpreted from its lyrics. It marks the beginning of a new era of folk music for Dylan and many have interpreted this song to mean something along those lines. Many have stated that there are clues in the songs of John Wesley Harding that give meaning to Bob Dylan's new semi-acoustic folk era. But, I believe that there's something more religious going on here. I know I talk a lot about Bob Dylan's religious aspects and well, I believe he is in conversation with Jesus Christ about his past and present positions. Though John Wesley Harding is known to be pretty religious, I think that there is something special about this song. "Dear Landlord" seems to be, ultimately, Bob Dylan begging for one more chance, something where he'll redeem himself.
Throughout the song, he is constantly asking for the "landlord" character (whom I assume to be Jesus) to do things or not do things. For example:
"Dear Landlord, please don't put a price on my soul..."
He asks the "landlord" not to judge him just yet and wait for what is happening in his present rather than his past. The price on his soul would be considerably lower if he were to be judged at that particular moment in time.
"Dear Landlord, please heed these words that I speak..."
He's trying to get the "landlord" to listen to him now. But he's saying it as if it's a promise of some kind—it's quite formal to tell someone to "heed" the words you speak. It's almost a biblical thing to say and so, Bob Dylan is using that language to connect with the "landlord" character. It could also suggest that he's being formal because he is yet unfamiliar on a personal level with the "landlord"—who is Jesus.
"Dear Landlord, please don't dismiss my case..."
He's now asking for Jesus to give him a fair trial like everyone else. There seems to be a theme of the speaker not wanting to be judged by his past, but rather he's trying to get the "landlord" to wait a little bit longer for the speaker to do something great. To "not dismiss (the) case" would be to accept that the speaker is going to change instead of trying them based on the little evidence of a few years.
There are also some references within the song to the speaker wanting to know that he can be on speaking terms with the "landlord" (Jesus) and wants to know him more personally. At first, he asks the "landlord" to accept him and see what he's been carrying around. He tries to explain his situation as well:
"My burden is heavy, my dreams are beyond control..."
This is referencing the style of songs that he has previously done, the ones on "Blonde on Blonde" and the stream-of-consciousness narratives, possibly relative to "Visions of Johanna." It is because of this particular era that his "burden is heavy" and he is trying to make Jesus see that so that he doesn't get a "price" put on his soul just yet.
But then, he starts to face Jesus and wants to relate on speaking terms. He talks of Jesus's trials and this is almost at the same point as where he talks of his own burden in the previous verse:
"I know you've suffered much, but in this you are not so unique..."
As Jesus was crucified literally by everyone and is now the saviour of the world, the world also metaphorically crucified Bob Dylan and made him out to be something he didn't intend to. He's trying to be relative and show that they may not be on the same spiritual level, but they are definitely on the same level concerning emotional pain at this particular moment.
He states in the last verse that he won't contest his innocence, but he's not going to run away from faith anymore or run away from the goodness of Jesus Christ:
"I'm not about to argue, I'm not about to move to no other place..."
This is very important because when confronted by faith, the speaker knows that he won't go anywhere and now—he knows his future is going to be within faith and with Jesus. He's not going to "move" in terms of his spirit rather than moving literally speaking.
There are a few symbols that are relative to death and how Bob Dylan (the speaker) promises and offers up his soul in exchange for being believed by Jesus about changing his ways:
"When that steamboat whistle blows I'm gonna give you all I've got to give and I hope you receive it well depending on the way that you feel that you live..."
It's a very strange offering and the speaker states that Jesus can only receive his soul after death if he feels that they are both on speaking terms for the course of this song, which is why he states that it depends on the feeling of life. It is not referring to actual life, but the "life" that is lived over the course and in the aftermath of the story of this song. It's like the speaker is trying to make a deal with Jesus; Jesus can have his spirituality in life and soul when he dies if Jesus believes that he and the speaker can be on speaking terms.
The next part refers to the speaker himself:
"All of us we might work too hard to have it too fast and too much. And anyone can fill his life up with things he can see but he just cannot touch."
The speaker (Bob Dylan) refers to himself in 1966, a year before the release of this album in which he was touring and touring and wearing himself down. He was literally working too hard, living too fast and "having too much" is relative to drugs, of course. Bob Dylan talks about how he could accumulate "things" that he could see with his senses, but he couldn't touch with his heart or spirituality. He is making the case to turn to faith as he demeans his own life previously lived.
The next line most definitely refers to Bob Dylan himself yet again, he is making the case for faith and showing the "landlord" Jesus, he has changed his ways most definitely—leaving him with a reminder of the deal they have made:
"Now each of us has his own special gift and you know if this was meant to be true. And if you don't underestimate me, I won't underestimate you..."
Bob Dylan refers to the power that both Jesus and Bob Dylan have in the situation of the piece—they could move an entire nation to believe in them. Bob Dylan is asking for this power to be taken away from him because he no longer wants to be that man since he cannot control it. The fact he says "if this was meant to be true" means that Bob Dylan is still in the zone of "if" when it comes to his grand reputation in music. But, he leaves Jesus with an ominous reminder of the deal they made regarding the exchange of Bob Dylan's spirituality in life and soul in death for being on speaking terms with Jesus:
"And if you don't underestimate me, I won't underestimate you..."
This is meant to say that if Jesus can be on speaking terms with the speaker, then Bob Dylan (the speaker) will not hesitate to give himself up to faith.
The song starts off very dark in terms of putting a price on someone's soul and ends in the very same way. As most songs in the album John Wesley Harding the song ends by making a full circle back on itself and starting at the beginning again. The entirety of the song is connected, but making this connection between the beginning and the end of the song makes it seem very dark and ominous indeed. Other songs on the album that do this are:
- "All Along the Watchtower"
- "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest"
- "The Wicked Messenger"
As a conclusion, Bob Dylan seeks to explain himself to Jesus and strike up a deal of faith which seems fair enough. Many of the songs on John Wesley Harding incur some sort of religious imagery. Whether it be the sin of "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest," the mythical and biblical images of "As I Went Out One Morning," the apocalyptic nightmare of "All Along the Watchtower" or even the crucifixion scenes of "The Wicked Messenger." There is definitely an underlying Jewish/Christian vibe going on in which Bob Dylan professes faith. The question is; could this be Bob Dylan's first album expressed in faith and have we been labelling the gospel era wrong all this time?