WITH GOD ON OUR SIDE

(Bob Dylan/Aaron Neville?) (1963/1980s?)

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Dylan, taking his lead from the other songwriters in the folk-protest movement, approaches the myth through anomaly-featuring by highlighting a characteristic or characteristics that seem to contradict the established ideology. Previously anomaly-featuring was largely confined to a subculture; in the sixties, largely through Dylan's efforts, it is the anomaly that becomes reified as the new myth or ideology.

One of the dominant examples of anomaly-featuring in Dylan's music is the role of God in the country's destiny. The notion that there is a collective theocratic ideal and a providential figure guiding the country gives way to a bleaker examination of the lonely individual, bereft of God and collective identity, wandering a country that seems to have lost its ability to regenerate the individual....

A perfect example of Dylan's anomaly-featuring is his "With God on Our Side" (1963), wherein he takes the mytheme of manifest destiny and the role of Providence in shaping our country and turns it on its head. As a narrator, Dylan plays the role of the American innocent asking questions and questing after truth. He states that his name is nothing and his age means less; he then informs the listener that he comes from the Midwest. He is most definitely the inheritor of Woody Guthrie's modified populist vision here, identifying the locus of his consciousness as the heartland. In the heartland, he tells us, he was brought up to "abide" the laws and to believe that his country "Has God on its side." In short, he is saying that we were brought up, educated, and conditioned to believe the Irving Berlin version of America.

He then undertakes a Whitmanesque catalog of wars and injustices in which someone probably felt that God was on his/her side. He rewrites the myth of the west and the frontier as he sings of how the cavalry charged and the Indians died, but the reason was that "the country was young" and had the confidence of having God on its side. The understatement in the lyrics is crushing, and the irony is almost brutal, considering the past images of God in popular song. He implies that the excuse for the slaughter of the Indian was our innocence -- an innocence protected by Providence -- but then, in the context of the entire song, we discover that that is no excuse at all: Judas Iscariot probably had God on his side.

Dylan... attempts to show that, contrary to the myth, the power of God in shaping the country's destiny was perhaps not a regenerative force nor the antecedent for establishing the "throne of freedom." It was, quite to the contrary, but a cloak for just another form of oppression and tyranny. What then does a person do if the hand of God is removed from our destiny? For Dylan, as for Guthrie, the answer lies in the individual. His last stanza returns to the narrator stating he's leavin' (destination and reason not clear) because he is "weary as Hell" and feeling confused. In this stanza he perpetuates Woody Guthrie's theme of the wanderer, but for Dylan that wanderer is not the happy-go-lucky populist radical. The narrator's "leavin'" signals the beginnings of the alienated-individual mytheme that will dominate the myth of America in popular song over the next two decades. Finally, he ends the song on a bitterly ironic note as he states that, if God is indeed on our side, he will stop another war. This, of course, rings hollow in light of the catalog of abuses he has just chronicled.

Timothy E. Scheurer, Born in the USA: The Myth of America in Popular Music from Colonial Times to the Present, Jackson, Mississippi, 1991, pp. 182-183.

Lyrics as performed at "an all acoustic evening of music to benefit the Bridge School," Oakland Coliseum, Oakland, CA, Dec 4, 1988;
transcribed by Manfred Helfert.
One verse (about Viet-Nam War; possibly written by Aaron Neville) added to and one verse omitted from officially released lyrics © 1963 Warner Bros. Inc.; 1964 M. Witmark & Sons,
©Renewed 1991 Special Rider Music

Oh, my name it ain't nothin',
My age it means less.
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest.
I's taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
That the land that I live in
Has God on its side.

Oh, the history books tell it,
They tell it so well:
The cavalries charged,
The Indians fell.
The cavalries charged,
The Indians died --
Oh, the country was young,
With God on its side.

The Spanish-American
War had its day,
And the Civil War, too, was
Soon laid away.
And the names of the heroes
I was made to memorize,
With guns in their hands
And God on their side.

The First World War, boys,
It came and it went;
The reason for fighting
I never did get.
But I learned to accept it,
Accept it with pride;
For you don't count the dead
When God's on your side.

The Second World War, boys,
It came to an end.
We forgave the Germans,
And then we were friends.
Though they murdered six million,
In the ovens they fried,
The Germans now, too, have
God on their side.

In the 1960s, came the Viet-Nam War;
Can somebody tell me
What we're fightin' for?
Too many young men died,
Too many young mothers cried;
So I ask the question,
Was God on our side?

I've learned to hate Russians
All through my whole life.
If another war comes,
It's them we must fight.
To hate them and fear them,
To run and to hide,
You never ask questions
When God's on your side.

[LAST TWO LINES IN PUBLISHED VERSION:]
[And accept it all bravely
With God on my side.
]

[VERSE OMITTED:]
[But now we got weapons
Of the chemical dust.
If fire them we're forced to,
Then fire them we must.
One push of the button,
And a shot the world wide;
And you never ask questions
When God's on your side.
]

Through many a dark hour
I been thinkin' 'bout this,
How Jesus Christ was
Betrayed by a kiss.
But I can't think for you,
You have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot had
God on his side.

Now as I'm leavin'
I'm weary as Hell.
The confusion I'm feelin'
Ain't no tongue can tell.
The words fill my head
And fall to the floor;
And if God is on our side,
He'll stop the next war.

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