Bob Dylan Countdown #121: “Pressing On”

Whatever you think about I’m Not There, Todd Haynes’ film tribute to Bob Dylan’s chameleonic nature (I’ll elaborate on my opinion of it in future posts,) you cannot deny that the music was well-chosen. Pulling this song off Saved for the Christian Bale/gospel period portion of the movie was an inspired choice, abetted by an equally inspired cover performance by John Doe.

Dylan’s original version is gospel music at its finest. There is really nothing at all related to rock music tethered to the song, and that’s a wise choice. The stirring nature of the piano and organ is just the right touch for a song about perseverance and fortitude.

I think the fact that “Pressing On” is really all about the music more than the lyrics might be what makes it palatable to even the biggest skeptics of Dylan’s religious period. The message can be applied really to anyone of any faith (or even lack thereof,) relatable to whomever must persist in the face of constant obstacles.

The lyrics shouldn’t be discounted entirely though. In just two verses, Dylan makes a strong argument for the nature of faith. “What kind of sign they need when it all come from within/When what’s lost has been found, what’s to come has already been?” he asks. It’s an unanswerable question, really, and one that proves the point he’s trying to make.

There are very few vocal performances I like more from Bob than this one. And, as misapplied as the female backing vocals on other Dylan songs around that period were, the performances here of Clydie King, Regina Havis, and Mona Lisa Young are truly gorgeous and essential. All doubters better have their A game intact when they try to disparage “Pressing On,” or else the sheer force of the song’s will blow them right away.


22 Comments on “Bob Dylan Countdown #121: “Pressing On””

  1. Singing Bear says:

    Right on. The thing is, whatever one’s opinions regarding evangelical Christianity, ‘Saved’ is a far, far better album than ‘critics’ have ever given it credit for. I know there is an argument that goes that the songs don’t stand up to their 1979-80 tour interpretations but, even if that’s so, the Gospel music that we find on the record is full of fire, passion and, thankfully, humility. ‘Pressing On’, along with ‘What Can I Do For You?’, is the high water mark of Bob’s ‘born again’ phase for me.

  2. Jine says:

    Agreed, Singing Bear. On top of it being better than credited for, this music was “instrumental” in my salvation. I was a Dylan follower, and his gospel albums along with life’s circumstances resulted in transformation; no turning back. “God works in mysterious ways”; He knew what worked with me, what spoke to me. Phil. 3:12-14

  3. Dovid says:

    “The message can be applied really to anyone of any faith (or even lack thereof,) relatable to whomever must persist in the face of constant obstacles.”

    Well, the lyric is “I’m Pressing on, to the higher calling of My Lord.”

  4. “What kind of sign they need when it all come from within/When what’s lost has been found, what’s to come has already been?” ~ O an intellectual level I think there are many objections I could raise to the kind of determinism espoused here…. but on the level of feeling the song is spot on. I love it and video of performances of it are fantastic. However, the lines “Adam’s given the Devil reign” – a reference to the doctrine of original sin (horrible doctrinal drivel!), locates it firmly within judeo-christian boundaries and probably not applicable to anyone of any faith.

    • Dovid says:

      No determinism in the Bible. On the contrary – “Sin crouches at the door .. but you can overcome it” (Gen. 4:7)

    • countdownkid says:

      I guess I should have been a bit clearer about my statements about it being applicable. I guess I meant the general impetus of the emotion could be felt by anyone. Yes the lyrics about Adam and the devil pinpoint things to Christianity, but my point was that you don’t need to be Christian to get swept up in it.

  5. Forgot to add that most of the performances on the album cannot hold a candle to the live versions in terms of fire and passion…. it’s almost as if he was tired of the songs come the recording. It’s said that he wanted to release Saved as a live album but Columbia refused to entertain it. They even sent out acetates of Saved with no cover or label to radio stations to avoid prejudicial reactions.

  6. paul kirkman says:

    An email I sent to someone in 05:

    The extra special value of salvation


    to John

    dylan’s Saved is always at a specially low price with an EXTRA SPECIAL VALUE sticker. Why VALUE? Because nobody values salvation. hence it has to be sold off cheaply. It is currently available even cheaper at hmv: 3.99. Just as I was picking it off the shelf, a Jew in a wheelchair [and skullcap] i have known by sight for years comes swerving round the corner to come down my aisle. He pauses. I say “I’ll come out and let you past”. He replies:

    “Yes, just as well, in case I have your toes off”.

    “Youve heard about Pharaoh’s army tramplin thru the mud,

    Youve heard about the hebrew children, redeemed by blood ..”

    Coverdown Breakthrough, John.
    “Talk about salvation, people suddenly get tired”

    Having said that, I’m not averse to yawning myself sometimes, as when I’m told what verse of the Bible such and such a lyric draws from, even by those who aren’t, shall we say, preaching, I do tend to glaze over, thinking, “OK, so what?”

    But back to Columbia/Sony: extra special value? They, and the record store, can’t shift the product, so they try to con YOU that the album is EXTRA SPECIAL VALUE. See the deceitful logic? Advertising signs they con.

  7. paul kirkman says:

    Really wanna go with George, but it takes so long my Bored

  8. Bill says:

    Do i understand this countdown correctly? It implies that Tweedle dum and tweedle dee is a better song than Changing of the Guards, or Shelter from the Storm.

  9. paul kirkman says:

    One of my comments is “awaiting moderation” when you apparently don’t do moderation because all other comments have appeared instantly.

    A song a day? Whatever comes to the top of the pile. If you don’t see it, you don’t see it – and most days I won’t.

    Adam given the devil reign? Given the diction, I’d never heard that till I read Gray on “doctrinal rib poking”. I’d always heard it as “And I’m given the devil reign”, which did seem odd. But then how obtuse of me. (Then again, his second edition contained at least three cloth-eared mishearings of lyrics just from Street Legal.)

    Someone got very angry with me in ’92 over Is Your Love in Vain’s “feeling guilt?” He said, “No, it’s ‘feeling ill”‘. I said no. He got furious, but later I realized there’s certainly no ‘t’ there but it’s still guilt, not ill.

    A music mag, probably the NME, once completely misquoted it as, Because the devil sinned I got no choice . . .”

    And, earlier, when the album had just come out, the NME misquoted Covenant Woman as: “broken, shining like an empty car”, saying it reflected Dylan’s sense of humour and the influence of Kerouac, tho it didn’t give the Kerouac quote:

    Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?

    It also misquoted Precious Angel as “violets in the eyes”.

    I quickly learned to never trust anything you read about Dylan. And I never do, WHOEVER it’s by – even if myself.

    Sheeze, I should charge for that comment; they take too long.

  10. paul kirkman says:

    On Cover Down do you know what the women sing AFTER “Genesis to Revelation”?

  11. paul kirkman says:

    That’s for Karl Erik

  12. Bill says:

    I just want to add that I’ve seen him play about 25 times. Hilight was the Bitter End in ’75 with Rambling Jack. He performed a different version of Abandoned love which was stellar. But the greatest live performance I have ever seen was Pressing on in 80/81 – there is a tape floating around of a professionally shot film , I think from Toronto. It is my #1 Dylan performance.

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