Bob Dylan Countdown #126: “Oh, Sister”Posted: February 13, 2012
I can’t be sure, because, sadly, I wasn’t in the room with Bob Dylan and Jacques Levy when they wrote this song. But I have the distinct feeling that this is the one song on Desire where Levy’s contributions amounted to little more than exclaiming “Beautiful!” a la George Costanza to Jerry when they were writing their ill-fated sitcom pilot on Seinfeld.
In other words, “Oh, Sister” feels like a Dylan song without any theatrical leanings or cinematic flourishes, a Dylan song without much input from any co-writers. Steeped in Biblical seriousness and allegorical trappings, the only clues you have that the song isn’t from, say, Infidels or Shot Of Love, are Scarlet Rivera’s mournful violin and Emmylou Harris’ heartfelt harmonies.
I’ve never felt like there is anything romantic going on here; mixing up the spiritual and sensual is more Leonard Cohen’s bag. The capitalization of the words “Father” and “His” in the official lyrics tend to favor the interpretation that Dylan is talking about something more than an immediate family; everybody has to answer to the patriarch he is referencing here.
In that context, “Oh, Sister” is a deceptively simple plea for human kindness from one person to another. In fact, despite the title’s implication that they’re siblings, these two people might even be strangers to each other in the sense of two people who haven’t met. Yet the narrator suggests that their bond is implicit because they have both endured the same spiritual trials: “We grew up together from the cradle to the grave/We died and were reborn and then mysteriously saved.”
The final verse projects a sense of desperation. When Dylan sings, “You may not see me here tomorrow,” it feels like a warning that the opportunity to come together is quickly fading, and that failure to connect on this individual level represents a rupture at the core of human relations writ large. “Oh, Sister” is a personal song that nonetheless has implications as vast as the universe.