The Sleeping Shepherd

“The world don’t need any more songs,” said Bob Dylan in a 1991 interview. “As a matter of fact, if nobody wrote any songs from this day on, the world ain’t gonna suffer for it. Nobody cares. There’s enough songs for people to listen to, if they want to listen to songs.”

Despite this somewhat pessimistic assessment, Bob Dylan has continued to write incredible songs, one of my favorites being “Ring Them Bells.” This dirge-like song (beautifully performed by Sarah Jarosz on the album Follow Me Down) uses several kinds of artistry to communicate its message.


(the song’s lyrics can be found here, but I highly recommend just listening to the song…)

The Artistry

Ring them bells ye heathen from the city that dreams
Ring them bells from the sanctuaries cross the valleys and streams
For they’re deep and they’re wide
And the world’s on its side
And time is running backwards and so is the bride.

“Ring Them Bells” conveys this message using a number of poetic devices. The rhyme scheme employed is fairly normal—the first two lines rhyme, and then the following 3 lines also rhyme, combining to form a verse. There are three verses and then a bridge section, followed by the final verse of the song. All of this fairly standard song structure. There are two obvious instances of alliteration in the song, where Dylan writes, “where the willows weep” and “they’re breaking down the distance between right and wrong” (Jarosz 14, 26). There are plenty of examples of rhyming vowel sounds in this song, especially in the repeated phrase “Ring them bells.” Also, “Ring them bells for the time that flies” contains rhyming vowel sounds. Dylan also uses personification extensively, mostly in a subtle way, speaking of a city that dreams, willows that weep, and time that flies (Jarosz 5, 14, 20). These actions, typically ascribed to people, are associated with inanimate objects and ideas throughout.

Of all the artistic elements employed in this song, however, allusions are probably the most prominent. This song is brimming with historical allusions, with references to Saint Peter, Saint Catherine, and Martha. One of the more prominent apostles, Peter was a witness to Jesus’s miracles, as was Martha, who saw Jesus raise her brother Lazarus to life. St. Catherine (of Alexandria, presumably) was a martyr in the early church. Also, the song also makes reference to “the bride,” who in the Bible is understood to symbolize the church—the bride of Christ. Shepherds and sheep are also allusions to the Bible. Other allusions reference Hinduism when the first verse speaks of the “sacred cow.” These allusions and the other poetic devices contribute to the tone of “Ring Them Bells,” a solemn tone—not dark or angry yet also not light or carefree.

The Meaning

This solemn tone is appropriate given the gravity of the message being conveyed. At first glance this song appears as indecipherable as some of Dylan’s earlier work (“All Along the Watchtower” comes to mind). However, on closer examination the song appears to be directed towards Christians. The ringing bells represent a summons to the church to start behaving like it’s supposed to. The first verse says that “Time is running backwards and so is the bride.” When “the bride” is understood to mean the church, this implies apathy within the church—it is “running backwards” (Jarosz 5). In the second verse St. Peter is called to ring the bells where the “four winds blow,” harkening perhaps to Jesus’s words to the apostles in Mark 16:15 where he commands them to “proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.” The third verse reinforces this idea when it says that “the shepherd is asleep…and the mountains are full of lost sheep” (Jarosz 15).

The shepherd, if understood to mean the church, isn’t doing his job. He’s asleep, and as a result there are lots of sheep wandering around lost. These lost sheep might be people who were in the church who left, or they might be people who have never heard the gospel. Dylan is saying, in a very subtle way, that the church needs to wake up and start doing what it’s supposed to, because the end is coming and the futures of others are in some sense in the hands of the church—it’s the church’s job to tell people the truth. In the final verse, Dylan laments that “they’re breaking down the distance between right and wrong,” which could be interpreted as an indictment against the moral relativism common in society today.

Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan

“Ring Them Bells” is a beautiful song that is packed with meaning. Probably no one will ever fully understand it, but this is a song that uses a variety of poetic devices to make its point. Perhaps the world doesn’t need any more songs, but this one is inarguably beautiful. After stating in a 1991 interview that the world didn’t need any more songs, Dylan concluded by saying, “There’s enough songs. Unless someone’s gonna come along with a pure heart and has something to say. That’s a different story. But as far as songwriting, any idiot could do it.” While this assessment isn’t pleasant to hear, I think aspiring songwriters, poets, and even writers (such as myself) would do well to pay attention!

Note: this post is a revised version of a song analysis essay I wrote for an English class recently, revised per my professor’s remarks and my own discretion 🙂


Works Cited

Jarosz, Sarah. “Ring Them Bells.” 1989. By Bob Dylan. Follow Me Down. Sugar Hill Records, 2011, CD.

The English Standard Version Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

Zollo, Paul. “Bob Dylan: The Song Talk Interview.” Bob Dylan: The Song Talk Interview. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2014.