Bob Dylan: Oh Sister

A main reason for Bob Dylan to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 was presumably that many of his songs can be interpreted on various levels. A fine example is Oh Sister, recorded in 1975 and played at the Rolling Thunder Revue, then published on the album Desire in 1976. Like most songs on Desire, it was co-authored by Jacques Levy.

The following version was recorded for a Rolling Thunder Revue rehearsal session (an unreleased one) on January 23, 1976.

Bob Dylan: Oh Sister

Oh Sister: Estranged Siblings?

At first glance, a brother addresses his sister …

Oh, sister, when I come to lie in your arms
You should not treat me like a stranger

Oh, sister, am I not a brother to you
And one deserving of affection

Oh, sister, when I come to knock on your door
Don’t turn away, you’ll create sorrow

… who rejects him coldly. Did the siblings get alienated from each other? Was there some sort of conflict in the past? The brother aims at re-harmonizing their relationship, but his sister is not prepared for this step.

Oh Sister: A Love Song?

Some lines do not quite fit the context of them being (biological) siblings. There is a reference to the Father, capitalized as opposed to brother and sister. Also, His in His direction is capitalized. This hints at the divine Father.

Our Father would not like the way that you act
And you must realize the danger

And is our purpose not the same on this earth
To love and follow His direction?

So maybe the song reflects a Love and Peace-sort of attitude towards life: Everyone can, at least in theory, love any other human being, we are all connected. After all, we are all children of God. We live on this earth in order to (learn to) love – so why does sister (a soul-mate) refuse a relationship?

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez

Some interpret Dylan songs in terms of biographical references. In the early 1960s, Joan Baez was initially more famous than Dylan and introduced him to her audiences on her 1963 tour. They engaged in a romantic relationship. However, on Dylan’s 1965 tour in England, he didn’t ask her on stage. She felt neglected and their relationship broke up. In 1975, Baez released Diamonds and Rust (written in the previous year) which addresses her relationship with Dylan. Oh Sister could be read as an answer to that: Baez being the bitter soul mate.

This interpretation is backed by Baez publishing Oh Brother in 1976, which can be read as an answer to Dylan’s Oh Sister, and contains bitter verses such as these:

You’ve done dirt to lifelong friends
With little or no excuses
Who endowed you with the crown
To hand out these abuses?

So little brother when you come
To knock on my door
I don’t want to bring you down
But I just went through the floor
My love for you extends through life
And I don’t want to waste it
But honey, what you’ve been dishing out
You’d never want to taste it

Oh Sister: The Spirit Aspect Addresses the Soul Aspect

Looking for biographical references in Dylan songs may be treacherous: He has been known to play with his fans’ expectations, and has disappointed them systematically. And even if personal experience has triggered his song writing, his lyrics may still touch levels that extend far beyond personal issues.

The third verse reaches out beyond the scope of a human love affair:

We grew up together
From the cradle to the grave
We died and were reborn
And then mysteriously saved

While growing up together is compatible with biological siblings or soul mates, dying and being reborn and “mysteriously saved” is usually beyond conscious human experience. Some see a preliminary stage to Dylan’s Christian Trilogy which includes the albums Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980; see post on Saving Grace) and Shot of Love (1981).

To me, these lines make sense when applied to the level of soul and spirit. The spirit aspect in man is immortal anyway, it can only be latent; the higher aspects of the soul, too, are not lost when a person dies. The next incarnation can build upon what has been realized by the previous one.

In some spiritual traditions, the ultimate goal of a human is reached when the soul (re-)unites with the spirit. Examples include a spiritual understanding of alchemy or the quest for the Holy Grail, which can be traced back to ancient Egypt and Hermes Trismegistus.

This spirit is an omnipresent divine energy. However, it can only take effect in a human as soon as the connection between spirit and body, the soul, is ready for that.

From that perspective, Oh Sister may be understood as a call from the spiritual realm to the soul, asking her to dedicate herself fully to the spirit. At this moment, she is not yet prepared to do that, she is bound to earth. She requires more purification.

We may interpret the warnings in the first and fourth verse in that way:

Our Father would not like the way that you act
And you must realize the danger

The soul rejecting the spirit is violating divine laws. The bible states: The one who sins is the one who will die (Ezekiel 18). Leaving all associations of drama and threat aside, we can read that as a factual description of the mortal state of man who separated himself from the divine kingdom – and is promised a chance to overcome this state.

In this sense, the danger is to end one’s life without realizing the goal, the spirit-soul. A line in the fourth and last verse fits here: Don´t turn away, you´ll create sorrow – if you (soul) keep rejecting the spirit, you will continue to cause suffering and karma.

Oh, sister, when I come to knock on your door
Don’t turn away, you’ll create sorrow
Time is an ocean but it ends at the shore
You may not see me tomorrow

Time is an Ocean but it Ends at the Shore

The second last line Time is an ocean but it ends at the shore has apparently impressed Dylan fans around the world. A typical Youtube comment (user swami 7774) reads: I’d give anything to be able to write a line like that. To me, it hints at a path to liberation:

He who is trapped in time is mortal. The soul can detach itself from the ephemeral world and connect to eternity (not in the sense of an endless extension of time, but in the sense of a different realm).

Metaphorically speaking: It is possible to cross the sea of earthly life with all its opportunities for new experiences. He who gains firm ground under his feet and enters the Promised Land, the world of the Newly Born Soul, leaves the ephemeral world. There, the regime of time ends.

Another reason for Dylan being awarded the Nobel Prize may be the many opportunities to find cross-references between his songs. They make his oevre a total work of art that is more than a collection of individual songs.

I associate Time is an ocean but it ends at the shore with the line People don´t live or die, people just float from Man in the Long Black Coat: People don’t know “real” life, they haven’t experienced the shore of a new state of being, they float on the ocean of time …

You may not see me tomorrow: Spirit is eternal, but the window of time for the human soul to connect with it is limited.

For the process of the soul to prepare for connecting to the spirit see the post on Scarborough Fair (Simon & Garfunkel / Traditional).

One or Two Souls?

When you try to analyze spiritual processes and scripts of wisdom by means of the rational mind, you may stumble upon what seem like contradictions. One of these is the tension between the notions All is one, God is everywhere and There are two distinct spheres of life. See the post on Leonard Cohen’s Different Sides. Another example is the question: Is there one soul, or are there two souls in humans? Some may think of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s famous words in Faust:

Two souls, alas, are housed within my breast,
And each will wrestle for the mastery there.

One soul is mortal, the other one spiritual and immortal. In Oh Sister, it sounds like there is only one soul that needs to choose between ephemeral and immortal life.

I feel it is merely a question of perspective, a question of both – and: Both aspects live within us. When things are going well, our being is gradually purified, until the spiritual aspect predominates to such an extent that it takes control of our lives and finally connects to the eternal spirit. There is an ancient text ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus called The Admonition of the Soul.

The decisive aspect, to me, is the dynamics. We cannot wait until everything is done for us – we have to participate in the process as well as we can. If we think of two separate souls, we may say: The mortal soul can never connect with the spirit, and the immortal soul already is – so why bother. Hermes’ book makes it clear that there is a path to go, not only at the level of the personality, but also at the level of the soul.

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