Bob Dylan's Grammy speech 1991

Date: Wed, 24 Jan 1996 10:56:46 +0000
From: Tiernan Henry (HENRY.TIERNAN@UCG.IE)
Subject: greil marcus & the grammy

So, while we await Greil Marcus' take on "The Basement Tapes",
here's some thoughts on Grammy night 1991.
This is from the excellent collection of Marcus' writings,
"ranters & crowd pleasers: punk in pop music, 1977-92",
and was originally published in Artforum, April/May 1991.


A Brief Return of the 1960s:
Real Life Rock Top Ten Spring 1991

1. Bob Dylan:  at the Grammy Awards, 20 February 1991.
Thirty years after arriving in New York from Minnesota, Bob Dylan stepped
forward to be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award.  With the Gulf War in
progress, the blanket of acceptance that had been draped over the show was so
heavy the WAR SUCKS t-shirt New Kid on the Block Donnie Wahlberg wore to the
American Music Awards a few weeks earlier would have been forbidden here;
maybe that's why Dylan sang "Masters of War", from 1963, and maybe that's why
he disguised it, smearing the verses into one long word.  If you caught on to
the number, the lyric did emerge - "And I'll stand o'er your grave/'Til I'm
sure that you're dead" - but lyrics were not the point.  What was was the ride
Dylan and hid band gave them.  With hats pulled down and dressed in dark
clothes, looking and moving like Chicago hipsters from the end of the fifties,
guitarists Cesar Diaz and John Jackson, bassist Tony Garnier, and drummer Ian
Wallace went after the song as if it were theirs as much as Dylan's: a chance
at revenge, excitement, pleasure.  You couldn't tell one from the other, and
why bother?

With this career performance behind him, Dylan took his trophy from a beaming
Jack Nicholson; he squinted, as if looking for his mother, who was in the
"Well," he said, "my daddy, he didn't leave me much, you know he was a very simple man,
but what he did tell me was this, he did say, son, he said"

- there was a long pause, nervous laughter from the crowd -
"he say, you know it's possible to become so defiled in this world
that your own father and mother will abandon you and if that happens,
God will always believe in your ability to mend your ways."
Then he walked off.  He had managed to get in and out without thanking anybody,
and this night it really did seem as if he owed nobody anything.

From: Martin Grossman (
Subject: Re: 91 Grammy Performance
Date: Mon, 10 Aug 1998 11:16:33 -0400

It seems to me Ronnie Schreiber nailed the source of Bob's Grammy speech
some time ago. Said Ronnie:

At the time of the acceptance speech, I turned to my wife and said that
Dylan's comments were an allusion to Psalms 27:10: "When my father and
mother abandon me, HaShem (G-d) will gather me up."

I went back to the sources and discovered that Dylan's remarks were
almost a verbatim account of the commentary of Rabbi Shimshon Rafael
Hirsch (the spiritual leader of traditional Jewry in Germany in the mid
19th century) on that verse:

"Even if I were so depraved that my own mother and father would
abandon me to my own devices, God would still gather me up and believe
in my ability to mend my ways."

Now, we have no way of knowing if Abram Zimmerman really taught this to
his son or if Bob simply picked it up from a commentary on the Jewish
prayer book (Ps. 27 is recited at the morning and evening prayer
services during the month before the Jewish New Year), but in any case,
the wording is too similar to Hirsch's to ignore. Note how both Hirsch
and Dylan reversed the "father and mother" of the original verse to
"mother and father" and Dylan's use of the phrase  "believe in your own
ability to mend your own ways" directly parallels Hirsch's "believe in
my ability to mend my ways". 

It's unlikely Dylan's father was familiar with the writings of Rabbi
Hirsch, the 19th Century leader of German neo-Orthodoxy. Dylan's
involvement with Judaism over the past ten or fifteen years has been
mostly through Chabad -- also an unlikely place for him to have been
introduced to the Hirsch commentary. It's more likely Dylan saw the
quote in the Metsudah Siddur, a prayerbook popular among Baalei Tshuvah
(as "returnees" to orthodox Judaism are know, although many of them are
encountering serious Judaism for the first time). The lines from Hirsch
are cited in the Metsudah commentary and represent its translation from
Hirsch's German. And we can speculate that it's their language that
Dylan echoes. 

Note from MG: By attributing the words to his father, Dylan is following
a long tradition of attribution in Judaism. He can be said to be using
"father(s) in a wider sense, meaning his heritage.

Martin Grossman

Expecting Rain