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Sabbath Day – Forever Young

January 18, 2013

Sneezing Chickens

Last night as I lay down to bed with my six year old son August, I asked him to read to me Bob Dylan’s book for children, Forever Young, illustrated by Paul Rogers.


Since January 1 I have been indulging one of my occasional obsessional fazes: I have, in seventeen days, listened to 39 studio, live, bootleg, or compilation recordings of Bob Dylan’s musical work. I’ve read half a dozen books (Greil Marcus, Sean Wilentz, Christopher Ricks, Clinton Heylin, Michael Gilmore, and Dylan’s own memoir Chronicles, Volume 1). I’ve watched videos of his performances with Tom Petty, the Grateful Dead, and viewed D. A. Pennebaker’s film Don’t Look Back. I’ve even revisited the Traveling Wilburys, and listened to the new 4 CD tribute collection, Chimes of Freedom, published this year by Amnesty International.

After reading the book with my son, and exploring Rogers’ illustrations for biographical and inspirational meanings, August and I listened to Dylan’s recording of “Forever Young.” This intentionally took the place of our regular evening prayers. It was a father-and-son moment: a father praying for his son, with his son listening.

We also listened to the adaptation of “Forever Young” by Rod Stewart (an example of paraphrase and tribute) and a performance by the Grateful Dead. We then delved into recordings of Woody Guthrie singing songs familiar to my wife and I from childhood: “Roll On Columbia”, “This Land Is Your Land”, etc.  (Woody had appeared to us as an obvious influence on Dylan’s music through Rogers’ illustrations. I’m grateful for a really great iPod collection that served us well in bed. I even had to explain to my six year old Woody Guthrie’s moniker [pictured below]: “This machine kills fascists”).


We were almost asleep when we both simultaneously laughed out loud at Guthrie’s lyric from “We Shall Be Free”

I’s down in the hen house on my knees
I thought I heard a chicken sneeze
Only a rooster sayin’ his prayers
Thankin’ his God for the hens upstairs

Sneezing chickens… We were laughing, for different reasons, but the joy of shared laughter sent us both to sleep smiling.

My Sabbath Day today was mostly spent reading about, and listening to, Dylan’s music. I had lunch with a ministerial colleague, and played with my son, but it was mostly music.

Interesting Fact: When Dylan wrote “Forever Young” in 1973, he had retired from public performances in order to devote himself to his family, though he continued to record albums. Dylan had, at the time, four children by his then wife Sarah, as well as having adopted Sarah’s daughter from a previous marriage – and they were all the joy of his life. As the music industry sough to find “the new Dylan,” it was increasingly focusing on Neil Young, whose guitar and harmonica sound evoked Dylan’s 1960’s image.


In 1972, Neil Young’s number one hit “Heart of Gold” proclaimed:

I want to live,
I want to give
I’ve been a miner
for a heart of gold.
It’s these expressions
I never give
That keep me searching
for a heart of gold
And I’m getting old.
Keeps me searching
for a heart of gold
And I’m getting old.

I’ve been to Hollywood
I’ve been to Redwood
I crossed the ocean
for a heart of gold
I’ve been in my mind,
it’s such a fine line
That keeps me searching
for a heart of gold
And I’m getting old.
Keeps me searching
for a heart of gold
And I’m getting old.

Keep me searching
for a heart of gold
You keep me searching
for a heart of gold
And I’m growing old.
I’ve been a miner
for a heart of gold

Dylan’s “Forever Young” is as much a prayer for, and response to, Neil Young as it was a prayer for his own son, Jesse. It was, to paraphrase Clinton Heylin, Dylan-imitating-Young-imitating-Dylan. (The pun in the title is intentional – referring both to Neil Young and as a prayer for eternal youth).

In typical Dylan fashion, the title is not only a pun, tribute and prayer all in one, it is a reference to John Keats (pictured below) and his most famous “Ode to a Grecian Urn“:

More happy love! more happy, happy love!

For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,

For ever panting, and for ever young;


The line “May you always be courageous / stand upright and be strong” is drawn from the biblical book of Joshua: “Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go (Joshua 1:7).

CODA: Thinking about influences, I am humbled by the props offered to me by a former confirmation student in a blog post title “Religious Groups Must Play a Critical Role in the Struggle for Immigrant Rights” about social justice and the gospel imperatives. Thanks Charlene. I pass on Dylan’s prayer for you, and all those like you, whose strong foundations not only ride, but summon forth, the winds of change.

May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young.

May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you
May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young.

May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
And may your song always be sung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young.

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