Bob Dylan’s Chimes of Freedom
An Exegesis by Stu Levitan
In late January and early February, 1964, when the number one song in America was “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” here’s what Bob Dylan was writing:
Through the mad mystic hammering of the wild ripping hail
The sky cracked its poems in naked wonder
That the clinging of the church bells blew far into the breeze
Leaving only bells of lightning and its thunder
Striking for the gentle, striking for the kind
Striking for the guardians and protectors of the mind
For the poets and the painters who reflect their given time
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing
If Chimes of Freedom is not Dylan’s single greatest work – synthesizing shimmering surrealist poetry with serious politics – it’s certainly in the conversation. Paul Williams rightly calls it Dylan’s “Sermon on the Mount.” To Seth Rogovoy, it’s probably Dylan’s “supreme poetic accomplishment up to that point, one that still ranks among his greatest masterpieces.” A “jewel in Dylan’s poetic crown,” agrees Oliver Trager. Clinton Heylin says it’s “a new summit to his songwriting … an entirely new kind of song.”
And he was not yet 23 years old when he wrote it.
It’s more than just the story of a couple ducking into a doorway, seeking shelter from an evening storm; it’s the best use of bad weather to make great art since Shakespeare had Prospero conjure up The Tempest.
When Dylan arrived in New York in January 1961, he was still in thrall to early avatar and “last idol” Woody Guthrie. But now he was evincing the influence of the French symbolists, and thanks to journalist Al Aronowitz – who in the summer of 64 would broker the first meeting between Dylan and the Beatles – he finally met Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in late December 1963. Dylan was clearly pressing on in both style and substance.
Still a few months shy of his first acid trip, but well familiar with marijuana and amphetamines, Dylan’s psychedelic poetry captures the condition neurologists call synesthesia, where a stimulus which ordinarily acts on one sense instead affects another. You’ve got to be pretty high – or having a prophetic vision – to gaze upon chimes flashing, or see bells striking shadows in sounds.
In a just-revealed interview from 1971, old Minneapolis friend Tony Glover asked Dylan directly: “A lot of people considered Chimes of Freedom an acid inspired or motivated song – was it?” “No,” Dylan replied.
The song also marks such an important shift in his political focus that Mike Marqusee wrote a whole book about The Politics of Bob Dylan’s Art with Chimes of Freedom as its title. As Dylan told the writer Nat Hentoff during the recording session for Another Side of Bob Dylan, “there aren’t any finger-pointing songs here,” a far cry from the angry output of the two albums released over the prior 54 weeks.
Once, he wanted to stand over the graves of the “Masters of War” and tell everyone to “get away from Oxford Town.” Now he sang for “each and every underdog soldier in the night,” and saluted the peaceful resistance of those civil rights activists as “warriors whose strength is not to fight.” As the eminent historian Sean Wilentz noted, it’s “a song of tender empathy … far outside the old politics of left and right, black and white.”
The desperate Hollis Brown only heard his babies crying, his wife screaming, and the call of the cold coyote; now, the bells of the lightning were “tolling for the luckless, the abandoned an’ forsaked.” The same ones Emma Lazarus wrote about in The New Colossus: “the huddled masses yearning to be free … the wretched refuse … the homeless, tempest-tossed….” As Prospero’s daughter Miranda exclaimed, “O brave new world!”
We now know more about the song’s creation than we did when Anthony Scaduto reported in “bob dylan: an intimate biography,” that Dylan wrote it on a portable typewriter while Victor Maimudes and others were driving him from New York to California by way of New Orleans in early February, 1964. As we learned from the facsimile of a fascinating manuscript included in the 2004 volume of ephemera, The Bob Dylan Scrapbook, Dylan wrote the bulk of the song –the first four stanzas of eight verses, fully formed – in pencil on the stationary of the Waldorf-Astoria in Toronto, where he stayed for his February 1 appearance on the Canadian Broadcast Company’s Quest TV series. Two additional stanzas, a bit more hesitant, were added in pen.
What Dylan did in the back of the Ford station wagon was type the song into finished shape, making some important improvements along the way. He flipped “Storm sounds took shape in sight as majestic bells of bolts” into the far more powerful “Majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds,” the misdemeanor outlaw, originally “enslaved an swindled by pursuit” was now “chased an’ cheated by pursuit,” and “In the wild cathedral nite (sic) the rain beat out it’s (sic) tales” blossomed into “In the wild cathedral evening the rain unraveled tales.” Not all the changes worked; the “poets and painters” line ultimately devolved into “the unpawned painter behind beyond his rightful time.” Sometimes, first thought is best thought.
There’s some disagreement about when Dylan unveiled his new masterpiece. Heylin puts the first performance at the Denver Civic Auditorium on that same trip west, February 15, 1964; according to Dylan’s official website, the debut came May 17 at London’s Royal Festival Hall.
There’s no question it took Dylan seven takes to get it down in the marathon Beaujolais-fueled recording session on June 9 that produced the entirety of Another Side of Bob Dylan, along with a song that didn’t make the cut – the equally poetic and profound Mr. Tambourine Man.
For some inexplicable reason, Dylan has not given Chimes the performance prominence he’s accorded that temporal and stylistic stablemate. Dylan’s website lists only 56 performances; Olof Bjorner adds five more – still less than half the outings for the slightly less significant Country Pie. Apparently out of the repertoire by the fall of 1964, it returned for 14 shows on Dylan’s tours with the Grateful Dead and Tom Petty in 1987, a rushed and ragged solo shot at the Lincoln Monument for Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, then a smattering of shows from 1998-2012.
There appear to be two starting points for the song, which reflect Dylan’s ability to both create and adapt.
Shortly after President Kennedy’s assassination on Friday, November 22, 1963, he wrote this six-line poetic fragment:
the colors of friday were dull
as cathedral bells were gently burnin’
striking for the gentle
striking for the kind
striking for the crippled ones
an striking for the blind
And according to Dave Van Ronk, there was the influence of a somewhat mawkish ballad from 1895 that his grandmother favored, “The Chimes of Trinity,” which contained the lines:
Tolling for the outcast / Tolling for the gay / Tolling for the millionaire / And the friend long passed away / But my heart is light and gay / As I stroll down old Broadway / And I listen to the chimes of Trinity.
As Van Ronk recounted in his memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street, Dylan “made me sing it for him a few times until he had the gist of it, then reworked it into ‘Chimes of Freedom.’ Her version was better.”
Well, a grandson’s love is a wonderful thing, but … no, it wasn’t.
Xavier University Prof. Graley Herren believes that there’s another tight connection between the heart of the song and JFK’s murder, which may reveal its real significance – Dylan’s drunken, rambling remarks about relating personally to Lee Harvey Oswald which so outraged the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee when it presented him with its Tom Paine Award just three weeks after the assassination.
Six days later, Dylan sent the ECLC an extraordinary letter – at 2221 words, more than twice as long as his remarks at the dinner – in which he declared he owed a “moral debt” to the organization for ruining its fundraiser, which he promised to pay “in the best way I can.”
And there was no better way to repay that moral debt to the ECLC than by the song he started to write in earnest a month later, a final, triumphant affirmation of those the ECLC sought to protect – the “outcast burning constantly at stake,” the “mistreated mateless mother, the mistitled prostitute,” “each unharmful, gentle soul misplace inside a jail,” “the searching ones, on their speechless, seeking trail,” and more.
Dylan’s letter even includes a line linking his earlier apocalyptic vision, A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall to Chimes: “I hear the thunder an I cant avoid hearin it.”
And the debt’s payment was still being collected a generation later, as Bruce Springsteen and the other musicians on the 1988 Amnesty International Human Rights Now! Tour made it a centerpiece of their performances. The organization even used the original as the title track for its 4-disc compilation of Dylan covers, which closes with the original.
A few years before then, I represented a Downtown Madison district on the Dane County (Wis.) Board of Supervisors, the local government responsible for a wide range of health and welfare programs. In early August, 1984, the week it was my turn to give the Inspirational Message to open our meeting, I recalled for my colleagues some words the world at large first heard exactly twenty years before. Please remember, I asked them, that we are here to help “the aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed … the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse … An’ for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe.”
If we did that, I said, we would surely see the chimes of freedom flashing.
Stu Levitan is the host/producer of Madison BookBeat on WORT 89.9 FM, Madison WI and the author of Madison in the Sixties (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2018), which uses at its epigram the third stanza of The Times They Are a-Changin’ (licensed with permission).