Changing of the Guards is one of many Dylan songs that create a special atmosphere, even though (or because?) the lyrics are hard to grasp. It was released in 1978 on the album Street Legal (see the post on Love in Vain from the same album) and also published as a single (with Señor (Tales of Yankee Power) on the B side).
Surprisingly, the single failed to reach the Billboard Top 100, but the song was included on the 1994 compilation Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Volume 3 as well as the 2007 Deluxe Edition of Dylan. Apparently Dylan hasn’t performed the song after 1978.
The Rich Imagery of Changing of the Guards
How the song captivates many fans is illustrated by some comments on Youtube, e. g.:
- “Seems like an eternal melody and we just hear a section that fades in and fades out.” (Benny Malone).
This is similar to what Dylan himself said about it: “It means something different every time I sing it. ‘Changing of the Guards’ is a thousand years old.”
- “Something about the song makes me happy. … “It” [the last two verses] “makes me want to stand and speak but I’m not sure what to speak of.” (Dustin’s Bedroom)
- “I will never understand this song but I absolutely love it!!!!” (Stardust Lady)
I suspect that when a song causes such reactions it must touch something deep within, beyond the rational mind.
A lot has been written and said about this song. In particular, David Weir of Bob Dylan Song Analysis has done a great job shedding light on the lyrics, and gathering an impressive amount of associations and references. He sees it as covering the life of Christ, from before his birth to after resurrection. The main topics he describes are:
- Christ’s institution of a New Order
- Unity vs. division
- The inconsistent use of personal pronouns (I, you, her / she, he / his) and their differing references
- The tension between various points in time and eternity
- Various references regarding the Captain and the Maid
- God and Christ / Jupiter and Apollo in the context of unity and division
- Aspects of Christ: Good shepherd, Pascal lamb, God
- Differing perspectives on resurrection
A Spiritual Perspective
While there is such an abundance of imagery to relate to, we look at the lyrics from a more specific perspective: that of a fallen soul looking for a way out of misery, and higher forces lending a helping hand. Let’s see if that makes any sense here.
A key to many scriptures of wisdom is to see the actors and scenes as all happening within a seeker, as stations and aspects of an inner process.
The Seeker has fallen into the material realm of suffering
The current state is characterized as disharmonic and unhappy:
“Desperate men, desperate women divided“
Before man chose to identify with the material world, there was no separation of sex and gender. “Spreading their wings ‘neath the falling leaves” may hint at a higher potential that has become latent – only a hidden longing is left of it.
A Spiritual Path begins
“Fortune calls” sounds ambiguous: It could be a human hoping to get rich (“Merchants and thieves, hungry for power, my last deal gone down”); however, it could also signify the beginning of a quest: a call from a higher realm to remember that there is a deeper meaning to life. The human is touched (“She’s smelling sweet like the meadows where she was born / On midsummer’s eve, near the tower”) and reminded of a purity (s)he is currently missing in life.
The captain might be a higher spiritual being (God / Christ for those who are open to Christian terminology) sending energy to the awakening soul (“beloved maid“).
The captain waits above the celebration
Sending his thoughts to a beloved maid
Whose ebony face is beyond communication
The captain is down but still believing that his love will be repaid
While at the beginning of the quest, the human is highly unconscious of the task (s)he is facing, and thus can’t react directly, the helping forces are waiting patiently and positively for him to mature. “The captain is down” may signify that while a being from a higher realm is untouchable by the material sphere, the corresponding immortal aspect within the human is currently trapped and weakened, unable to express itself.
The Soul aspect is awakening
The soul aspect is severly limited (“shaved head“). Slowly, by constantly being nurtured by the “captain”, she is gaining strength. But her state is disharmonic – forces are trying to pull her in different directions.
They shaved her head
She was torn between Jupiter and Apollo
The soul is sent a message from higher realms – an event very nicely described in the Hymn of the Pearl (found in the Acts of Thomas) , which is mentioned also in the post on Simon & Garfunkel’s Scarborough Fair:
A messenger arrived with a black nightingale
The maturing soul has reached a state where she is not only being nurtured, but now called upon more urgently: Called to return home. She follows the nightingale, which connects her to the source of pure energy (the fountain) more directly than before. She realizes where she is being called from, and where she is meant to go.
I seen her on the stairs and I couldn’t help but follow
Follow her down past the fountain where they lifted her veil
The Soul experiences the World of Illusions
Breaking free is not so easy. Before that can happen, the soul experiences the material world of illusions. Having tasted the purity of the fountain, the contrast between illusion and true life becomes more evident than ever.
I stumbled to my feet
I rode past destruction in the ditches
With the stitches still mending ‘neath a heart-shaped tattoo
Renegade priests and treacherous young witches
Were handing out the flowers that I’d given to you
In her state of growing awareness, the soul perceives only splinters of higher glory in the world (another Dylan song is called Everything is Broken): betrayal, ruins, tattoos instead of real love … She is also confronted with burdens from past incarnations which try to hold her back and discourage her from progressing towards freedom.
The palace of mirrors
Where dog soldiers are reflected
The endless road and the wailing of chimes
The empty rooms where her memory is protected
Where the angels’ voices whisper to the souls of previous times
The Soul needs help from its Human Host
At this point, the soul can only progress further if and when its quest is consciously supported by the human.
She wakes him up
Forty-eight hours later, the sun is breaking
Near broken chains, mountain laurel and rolling rocks
She’s begging to know what measures he now will be taking
He’s pulling her down and she’s clutching on to his long golden locks
The spiritual process of transformation is becoming more dynamic now. It is by no means an automatic process. The mortal aspect of human nature is required to help the soul break free. So “she wakes him up“. The time span of fourty-eight hours may be a symbolic indication that the mortal human cannot react in the right way directly. It takes time to get accustomed to the voice of the soul, to understand her impulses, for it is but one soft voice among so many worldly distractions.
The soul dearly hopes he will react in a positive way – and he does. They join forces to enter a very delicate state, an unnatural combination of mortal and immortal aspects, which is also described inspiringly in Leonard Cohen’s Ballad of the Absent Mare.
A Final Decision has to be made: Which realm to be part of
The second-last verse may contain the most captivating part of the lyrics, as some commenters have noted (see example above). It does not suffice to make the decision once to follow the impulses of the soul. The decision is being challenged and tested many times, until the seeker reaches a definite point of no return, an intersection after which he will belong to one or the other realm.
Gentlemen, he said
I don’t need your organization, I’ve shined your shoes
I’ve moved your mountains and marked your cards
But Eden is burning, either get ready for elimination
Or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards
The voice confronting him now is much more direct and clear than the initial tender impulses of the soul. We may call it Jesus Christ – a divine energy that has served humanity (“shined you shoes“), prepared the way of liberation (“moved your mountains” – this can also be seen as a reference to the power of faith), and called upon us to follow his example by giving us hint after hint via the law of karma (“marked your cards“). A seeker may realize that what he used to see as pure coincidence are in fact results of earlier causes (even if we mostly don’t know about the details).
A danger in this process is to rely on a human understanding, and to put it into formalized terms (“I don’t need your organization“). While going the path in a group may be a great help, people remain individuals whose experiences will necessarily differ, and personal experience can only be passed on in a very limited way.
While we may experience a changing of the guards in the world at large at critical times, from our spiritual perspective it is a decisive point in a seeker’s life: the ego hands over control of the human system to the soul – this time for good, ending a period of being torn between nobleness and open or hidden wickedness.
Salvation – Overcoming Death
Finally, the soul is strong enough to gain independence of everything that ties her to our transitory world.
Peace will come
With tranquility and splendor on the wheels of fire
But will bring us no reward when her false idols fall
And cruel death surrenders with its pale ghost retreating
Between the King and the Queen of Swords
For the human it means a final cut-off from any illusions that still remain. We may be reminded of the disciples that failed to understand the meaning of Easter even after being taught so intensely in preparation. The “prize” of all the efforts goes exclusively to the immortal aspects of man, they are nothing the ego or the mortal aspects of the soul can boast about (“no reward“). Now the biblical words of 1 Corinthians 15 apply: Where, o Death, is your victory? Where, o Death, is your sting? (“cruel death surrenders with its pale ghost retreating“).
From here, “elimination” in the previous verse may not be as terrible a threat as we might think otherwise – it could just be a matter-of-fact description of mortal man. Unless sufficient progress on the path to freedom is achieved, the human system, including the soul aspect, is subject to death “as usual”.
The King and the Queen of Swords are tarot cards. Not digging into their specific context, we may note that by not saying The King of Swords and the Queen of Swords, this line may indicate a unity contrasting the initial separation between desperate men and desperate women. On the level of the soul, it may symbolize the unity of the spirit-soul, the mystical marriage, the ultimate goal of immaterial alchemy.
Patti Smith recorded a great version for her album of selected covers Twelve – true to the essence, while distinctly different from Dylan’s original, unpretentious and clearly articulated:
The number Sixteen
So far we have avoided mentioning the number 16 that the song starts with. I’m a bit reluctant to dive into it. While I’m certain that deep wisdom is related to numbers, I feel it is a fine line between touching deeper meanings in a helpful way and falling into speculation, which may be misleading.
Sixteen banners united over the field
Several commenters have pointed out a biographical connection: At the time of writing this song, Bob Dylan had been in the music business for 16 years. While Street Legal was his 18th studio album, maybe he had released 16 albums at the time of writing the initial lines?
As noted in the post on Dylan’s Oh Sister, this website doesn’t aim at exploring biographical references. So let’s see briefly what Sixteen could refer to from a spiritual point of view. We may take only that which relates to our own intuition as hints, and not over-interpret them.
- RidingTheBeast.com states that 16 is being considered as the “final” number of the emanation, it represents the Incarnation completed, according to Abellio.
- Angelnumber.org points out that 1 is considered to be a symbol of authority, self-expression and positive thoughts and can indicate the beginning of a new phase in life, while 6 relates to domesticity and balance, concluding that the combined number 16 will help you find your spiritual path and be more devoted to your spiritual life. Besides, the sum of 1 and 6, 7, is often regarded a highly spiritual number.
- While we don’t follow everything said at thesecretofthetarot.com, it interestingly states: When the number 16 is around, or popping up everywhere, it usually indicates something of a spiritual awakening.