The free-spirited Bob Dylan

Dylan at his son’s barmitzvah in 1983. Lately, he has been seen in shul

Dylan at his son’s barmitzvah in 1983. Lately, he has been seen in shul

Blowing in the Wind: Bob Dylan's Spiritual Journey
BBC Radio 4, 4/5

Tangled up with Dylan
BBC Four, 2/5

This week marked the 70th birthday of Bob Dylan and there has been an avalanche of material about the man, his times and his music. I have decided to focus on a couple of programmes devoted to two areas of Dylan's life - his spiritual journey and the contents of his dustbin.

First the religion, and a brilliantly put together and thought-provoking radio documentary, presented by Emma Freud, assessing his journey from barmitzvah boy to evangelist Christian, to synagogue attender. It was a story which made perfect sense - and you can't say this about many aspects of Dylan.

He was brought up in Hibbing, Minnesota, in a traditional, extended Jewish family with his parents and Yiddish-speaking grandparents. Hibbing's Jews stuck together and they all turned out whenever there was a funeral, a wedding or indeed the barmitzvah of a future musical legend. Over 400 attended the Zimmerman function, and there were only 250 Jews living in Hibbing living at the time.

While you can understand why Dylan might have felt slightly claustrophobic in small-town Minnesota, he did not leave his Jewishness behind when he moved to New York. His early music was packed with biblical imagery - A Hard Rain, almost certainly referred to Noah's Ark, and Highway 61 Revisited was a hipster version of the story of the binding of Isaac, but this being Dylan, there were layers. Duluth, the town of Dylan's birth, lies at one end of Highway 61 and his father's name was Abraham - make of it what you will.

Dylan married a Jewish woman, Sarah, and they had five children, all of whom were brought up as Jews -in fact Dylan had at one point considered life on a kibbutz. So why did he go all Christian on us? According to the programme's contributors, who included authors Seth Rogovoy and Howard Sounes, this was the result of the mother of all mid-life crises, which began with his divorce in 1977.

Dylan was on tour with a number of strongly Christian African-American backing singers who steered him towards Jesus. The result was a baptism in the Pacific and three Christian albums. Sounes, Dylan's biographer, was appalled. "Musically, Slow Train Coming was a great album but it's all about Jesus. I find it hard to listen to." So did plenty of others - Earls Court was half empty on his 1981 tour. However, Dylan's evangelical lyrics were soon gone. He and his brother, David, have been spotted in synagogue on Yom Kippur but he has also released an album of Christmas carols. It would be soul-destroying to think that he had turned into Cliff Richard but no-one really knows what goes through Dylan's head, including the man himself most probably. And of course the theology of Dylan is further complicated by the fact that to a significant minority of his followers he is himself a deity.

Among the most obsessive and certainly the most famous of all Dylanologists, as they call themselves, is another subversive Jew called A J Weberman. Weberman was so enraged at Dylan's reluctance to explain his lyrics that in 1971, he went through the rubbish from the Dylan family home, and coined the phrase "garbology" to explain the pursuit. Weberman told us that he had found a letter to Johnny Cash, some signed receipts and "a lot of dirty diapers". This gave him a brief moment of fame.

We heard Dylan hanging up on Weberman during a phone conversation when he heard that he was being recorded ("that's sneaky sh**, man", Dylan complained), and we heard how, according to Weberman, Dylan had chased him down the street and beaten him up, possibly because he had been driven to distraction by Weberman's stunts, which included holding a birthday party for Dylan outside his home.

It was all interesting up to a point but James Blueme's and Oliver Ralfe's film, which might have made a cute 30 minute documentary, was horribly overlong.

If Weberman wishes to examine my rubbish he will find the DVD of the programme there.

    Last updated: 3:25pm, May 26 2011
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