Bob Dylan: Shelter from the Storm

Bob Dylan’s Shelter from the Storm, to me, signifies two fields of life: on the one hand, our well-known world of opposites, struggles, and desperation, and on the other hand the world of the living soul. I see a path described in the song from experiencing the borderline in our physical world up to a new state of being, based on the immortal soul.

The song was released in 1975 on the Blood on the Tracks album, which features other gems like Tangled Up in Blue and If You See Her, Say Hello.

Bob Dylan, Shelter from the Storm live 1976

Whatever happens – each verse finishes with Come in, she said / I’ll give ya shelter from the storm. There is a refuge that is always open to us. When we connect to the immortal core deep in our soul, we take part in a realm that transcends far beyond everything that can be found in this material world.

The Border Crosser Marked By Life

‘Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm

The speaker is marked by life (“toil and blood”) in which the wrong values count (“blackness was a virtue”). The song may be a reflection on a previous state of being (“in another lifetime”).

And if I pass this way again, you can rest assured
I’ll always do my best for her, on that I give my word
In a world of steel-eyed death, and men who are fighting to be warm
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm

He promises to always stand up for her. For me a hint to the soul to which he entrusts himself in a world of absurd fighting.

Not a word was spoke between us, there was little risk involved
Everything up to that point had been left unresolved
Try imagining a place where it’s always safe and warm
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm

This devotion is possible at any moment – if the maturity is present, that is. Whoever feels the need to prioritize worldly matters is postponing the path inwards: everything … left unresolved. The state of being of the living soul is free and untouchable for worldly trials and tribulations.

I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail
Poisoned in the bushes an‘ blown out on the trail
Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm

What choice of images! The seeker is worn out and has reached his limit. From now on he’ll seek happiness at a different, inner level of being. The world has nothing to offer any more for a matured soul.

Making Contact with the Immortal Soul

Suddenly I turned around and she was standin‘ there
With silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair
She walked up to me so gracefully and took my crown of thorns
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm

He has said farewell to all earthly wishes to a degree that he made room for the immortal soul inside of him. He now perceives her clearly for the first time. The crown of thorns may be a reference to Jesus. My impression is that Dylan sees Jesus as a state of being everyone can turn to, rather than a historical person that we may or may not believe in.

Now there’s a wall between us, somethin‘ there’s been lost
I took too much for granted, I got my signals crossed
Just to think that it all began on an uneventful morn
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm

The first contact is not sufficient to permanently establish a new state of being. He loses contact again, as he could not tune in well enough to the subtle impulses the soul sends him (got my signals crossed).

The beginning is characterized in a very matter-of-fact, unspectacular way: uneventful mourn. This soberness in spiritual matters is not untypical for Bob Dylan and reminds me of Isis, which I see as a song about initiation.

The Contrast between the Realm of the Soul and the Visible World Sharpens

Well, the deputy walks on hard nails and the preacher rides a mount
But nothing really matters much, it’s doom alone that counts
And the one-eyed undertaker, he blows a futile horn
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm

Worldly matters lose their importance from the perspective of the soul: “doom alone that counts”. The horn that the one-eyed undertaker blows is described as “futile” in the official lyrics, while Dylan’s pronunciation sound more like “feudal”.

Will he stay trapped in this absurd life, or will he enter the realm of the immortal soul?

I’ve heard newborn babies wailin‘ like a mournin‘ dove
And old men with broken teeth stranded without love
Do I understand your question, man, is it hopeless and forlorn
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm

Once more he witnesses the seemingly unsurmountable suffering, characterized by the beginning and end of physical life on earth. Will he find the path that leads beyond all this grief; does he understand the question that life asks him; does everything remain hopeless? The importance of the question may remind us of the legend of percival. Percival, one of King Arthur’s legendary Knights of the Round Table, only becomes worthy of the Holy Grail when he has matured to ask the right question: What is it that troubles you?

The soul keeps inviting the seeker to enter its realm, its energetic field, and to entrust himself to her. This also reminds me of Love in Vain from Dylan‘s 1978 album Street Legal.

Following Jesus – Salvation and Farewell to Earthly Worries

In a little hilltop village, they gambled for my clothes
I bargained for salvation and she gave me a lethal dose
I offered up my innocence I got repaid with scorn
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm

Rolling the dice for clothes is another reference to Jesus. Dylan chooses a first-person perspective: Jesus is not a distant saint from the past, but the seeker identifies with the path that Jesus exemplified, and fulfils the task to follow this path. The salvation of the soul signifies the death of all aspects within him that are bound to the world: a lethal dose. The purity of the soul is not valued by earthly forces. Jesus is not recognized, and thus mocked.

Dylan has experienced personally what it means to commit to Jesus – for example during his series of concerts at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco in November 1979. He played nothing but his new Christian songs, withstood all the pressure from organizers and fans alike, and even received death threats. Scott M. Marshall gives a good account of these events in Bob Dylan – A Spiritual Life (link below). How the world treats people who commit to Jesus is also described drastically in Dylan’s Property of Jesus from the 1981 album Shot of Love.

Crossing the Border

Well, I’m livin‘ in a foreign country but I’m bound to cross the line
Beauty walks a razor’s edge, someday I’ll make it mine
If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm

The last verse points to the way out of misery. When the soul is reborn, the seeker experiences the world as a foreign country, knowing he is called to a different state of being (bound to cross the line). Another strong image is that of beauty walking a razor’s edge: from a worldly perspective, she is transient, relative, subject to change, tied to her opposite, ugliness. In the realm of the immortal soul, beauty exists without an opposing pole, pure and untouchable. “Making her mine”, to me, is not linked to any kind of egoism or claim to personal possession, but rather points to internalization, spiritualization. When this is achieved, beauty does not need to be searched outside any more.

Bill Murray’s Tribute to Bob Dylan

An interesting version appears in the credits of the movie St. Vincent. I can fully understand if people cannot to relate to that. To me, it is a magnificent movie scene, keeping in mind what a powerful song is processed here. The triviality of the plot forms a strong contrast to the rich imagery of the song and the glorious goal. Watering the dusty ground and the dead plant (including the national flag hanging down) may be an image for the sublime energies of the soul descending to the earthly desert where they may be applied for all kinds of purposes. In the absurdity of his situation the hero holds on to his hope for salvation of his soul.

Bill Murray’s tribute to Shelter from the Storm in the credits of St. Vincent

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