Bob Dylan Countdown #126: “Oh, Sister”

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.

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7 Comments on “Bob Dylan Countdown #126: “Oh, Sister””

  1. Singing Bear says:

    One of Dylan’s ‘minor’ classics and a personal favourite. I think he actually enjoys confusing the issues of romantic love and spiritual need and, in this way, ‘Oh Sister’ points towards songs like ‘Precious Angel’ and ‘Covenant Woman’. For me, however, ‘Oh Sister’ works more successfully than those later overtly ‘religious’ songs for the very fact that one cannot be sure where the yearnings of the flesh and those of the soul depart (if they do at all). I agree with you when you say it’s hard to find Levy’s fingerprints anywhere in the song but who knows?

    • countdownkid says:

      I agree that the ambiguity totally helps this song, but I wonder if people would have felt it was ambiguous if it were released on Slow Train or Saved. Context is everything sometimes. Anyway, great to hear from you and I hope you keep reading.

  2. Surely given the concerns of the time on one level it’s some kind of attempt to address a resurgent feminism (remember Rita Mae – that was also a humourous take on the same subject). He tried it again with Licence To Kill – a disastrous mis-hearing of what he thought feminists were saying..

  3. paul kirkman says:

    In Nigel Hinton’s Father’s house there is many compartmentalizing – just as in Karl Erik’s house there are many mansions: some for news; others for opinion; others to pretend that opinion never features or is never insidiously mixed with news.

    Hinton in The Telegraph in the late Eighties, ‘Into the Future, Knocked Out and Loaded’:

    “So, since 1979, I have found Dylan’s work to be largely lacking in that quality that put him in another class from everyone else. Even when his songs in this period had been clever (and many of them have been clever and beautiful) they have always been explicit. The meaning is all there on the surface and there has not been that elusive, ambiguous quality with which he used to manage to invest even simple words so that they would suddenly open up to a new meaning. Even rich and complex songs such as ‘Jokerman’ are rich and complex only on the surface – they do not have resonances that suddenly bloom to reveal something previously unthought of by the listener. There has been no mystery in his art and, simultaneously, he has been less musically and vocally inventive.”

    Having dismissed Infidels as Dylan crowing about their fate, Hinton then proceeds to wax lyrical about the love-soaked magnanimity of Knocked Out Loaded:

    “Put a capital letter on ‘Father’, of course, and there are all kinds of other resonances there. For, above all on this album, Dylan has miraculously rediscovered the ability to make points with discretion and subtlety. He makes his lines ring with mysterious possibilities: where one level works perfectly but where, if you switch contexts, the whole thing works on another level too.”

    Ain’t gonna get lost in Hinton’s current, I don’t like playing cat and mouse with the Dylan world.

    There are fingerprints on Oh Sister other than Levy’s; call them Blind Willie’s. As for the rest of the album, there are indeed Levy prints not yet uncovered and of which Levy himself might be glibly albeit ironically unaware. After all, in an interview with Derek Barker he downplayed the influence of Conrad’s Victory as being nothing beyond the title. Derek correctly spotted more but there are things in the album Derek didn’t spot. Such is Dylanology, which features no small amount of glib complacency.

    The whole tone of your post chimes perfectly with something I am soon to upload (but I’d hate to have a typo in it – people will use that): at least 20 pages long (out of much more). In fact what you have said would make a great quote.

    But then again, time is an ocean it ends at the shore (and life is worth its wait in gold). Karl Erik may not have time to ask me for permission to link to my work, “the Scribdures”, tomorrow.

    Whatever comes to the top of the pile, yet my stats show that anything over 2.5 mins . . .

    So yours was just right. If it’s not in the media it’s not happening.

    Paul Kirkman

  4. paul kirkman says:

    2 July 2010:

    Re: Phil, Judas and the Spector of Anti-Semit​ism – read it small

    “Hey Paul,

    This is not really the kind of news I am looking for.

    Rather it is an opinion, one which is left uncontested, since noone else has the opportunity to post an opinion in connection with your Scribdures.

    Comparing the number of hits is an unsatisfactory measurement method, which you use to accuse my readers of being more interested in Dylan taking a piss, when it is you who chose it as your subject.

    I would think it would be better for you to join an online forum (Expecting Rain or somewhere else) and hang out your opinions to be shot at there.

    Did I say or write what you quote as “All the Dylan news you could ever need”?

    You offer it as a quote with my name following in the next sentence, but I don’t recall having made such a bastant claim.

    It is not likely that I will continue to offer you a pulpit when the whole internet is there for you: Rather, let the cream rise to the top, whether you choose to publish on the internet or in book form.

    Karl Erik”

    Evidently, he took a (surreptitious) piss upwards on Saturday while lying on his back – as the film of cream went shooting through the (oceanic) stratosphere. As for not being able to reply on Scribd, I just replied to one, which a Google search suggests might only be the second or third “Scribdure”, apart from mine, that he has ever linked to. I don’t hold his irrationality against him: he is a librarian – and I try to have as little conversation with them as possible, although tonight it was difficult because there were mysteriously three books out on my card that I didn’t borrow (and nobody else has had my card).

    I have no opportunity to reply to blogs. Why? Because I’m too damn lazy to join one.

    Scribdures are evidently coming in to style; what goes around comes around. The Scribdures cannot be broken, and who is not for them is against them. Ain’t no neutral ground. Karl Erik lemme tell ya about a vision that I saw: you were drawing water for the Bobcats. Who is Karl Erik? I say he is a Norwegian god. Why? Because everybody must get stoned. If it’s not in the media it’s not happening . . .

    John 10

    King James Version (KJV)

    29My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand.

    30I and my Father are one.

    31Then the Jews took up stones again to stone him.

    32Jesus answered them, Many good works have I shewed you from my Father; for which of those works do ye stone me?

    33The Jews answered him, saying, For a good work we stone thee not; but for blasphemy; and because that thou, being a man, makest thyself God.

    34Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods?

    35If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken;

    36Say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God?


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