The lines are long fighting is strong and they’re breaking down the distance between right and wrong
By Stephen Pate – Updated March 3, 2012 – This performance is from Live at The Supper Club November 1993
Although the song is deeply religious, it took Dylan until 1989 to record and release it, long past his Christian period.
“Ring Them Bells” is track 4 on Oh Mercy, his first collaboration with Canadian producer and musician Daniel Lanois.
Oh Mercy is a gem of a CD with every song growing better over time.
It is also on The Bootleg Series Vol. 8 – Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased 1989–2006, which the audio of the video below.
Ring Them Bells
The words are both soothing and apocalyptic in Dylan’s view of for whom the bell tolls.
They ring for the “poor man’s son, for the lost sheep because God is the one” and only one.
Bob Dylan “Ring Them Bells” (click play again if the video fails to load – it happens sometimes, sorry)
In the second verse Dylan starts kindly with the “blind and the deaf.” Then he moves to the chosen few and the viewpoint in Revelation that only the chosen ones will rule over the world.
The bells toll not so kindly for those excluded from his evangelical point of view.
In the third verse he invokes St. Catherine who one critic maintains is an incorrect Christian reference. The writer misses many references to this saint.
St. Catherine of Sienna a Dominican and patron saint of Italy who stood by Pope Urbain VI during the Great Schism. St. Catherine of Alexandria was martyred for her faith and angels carried her relics to the site of the burning bush on Mt. Sinai. There stands the 2nd oldest monastery in the world, St. Catherine’s Monastery Mt. Sinai, the spot where God delivered the Ten Commandments to Moses.
Although St; Catherine of Sienna was a prolific and beautiful writer (“for the lilies that bloom”), I think Dylan is evoking St. Catherine of the Monastery with the reference to height (Mt Sinai) and a fortress (the Monastery is a secure fortress).
It’s a wonderful invocation as Dylan intones it might be hard but we will “breaking down the distance between right and wrong” – an optimistic hope for humanity.
Live at the Supper Club 1993
Live At the Supper Club 1993 was recorded in New York for a television project that never got finished. The performers are Bob Dylan, Vocals/Guitar; Tony Garnier, Bass; Winston Watson, drums percussion; John Jackson, guitar; and Bucky Baxter, pedal steel and electric slide.
Bootlegs of the audio have been around ever since. The three shows present Dylan in an excellent light, relaxed swinging and in control. Later in 1994 he would put on a similar performance for MTV Unplugged [LIVE].
Some of the tracks from the New York Supper Club 1993 have been released on Tell Tale Signs: the Bootleg Series Vol. 8.
Ring Them Bells, lyrics by Bob Dylan
Ring them bells, sweet Martha
For the poor man’s son
Ring them bells so the world will know
That a God is one
Oh the shepherd is asleep, where the willows weep
And the mountains are filled with lost sheep
Oh, ring them bells for the blind and the deaf
Oh, ring them bells for all of us who are left
Oh, ring them bells for the chosen few
Who will judge the many when the game is through
Oh, ring them bells for the time that flies
For the child that cries when innocence dies
Ring them bells St. Catherine
From the top of the room
Ring them from the fortress for the lilies that bloom
Oh the lines are long and the fighting is strong
And they’re breaking down the distance
Between right and wrong
Words, music and performance copyright by Bob Dylan, Sony/Columbia. Used under fair use / fair dealing provisions of the copyright law of the United States and Canada.
Additional research from “Keys to the Rain: The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia” Trager; “Dylan’s Visions of Sin“, Ricks. Incongruously Gray’s “Bob Dylan Encyclopedia” has no entries on “Ring Them Bells.”