I like this song a whole lot. It’s even one of my favorite songs to sing. I enjoy unwinding in the evening by playing it to myself on the piano.
I like it because besides for being a sincere and simple declaration of love, the song also offers a serious and painfully honest (though defiantly optimistic) meditation on the human condition. This song could suffice as my Psalms and Proverbs – poetry and wisdom literature.
I have a Christian friend and fellow Dylan connoisseur who wants to convince me that “When the Deal Goes Down” is a straightforward religious song of love and gratitude to God, the deal being God’s redemption of one’s sinfulness, or referring to God delivering on his promise of eternal life for the saved. Parts of the song do allow for that interpretation, provided one can identify with a faith heavily leavened with doubt. But I don’t just prefer to hear the song as a simple love song – a love between mortals. “When the Deal Goes Down” may even be the most pointedly agnostic statement in Dylan’s repertoire, couched in an expression of loyalty and affection for another human being. In other words, the doubt expressed in the song – about a God who intervenes, about the existence of a divine plan for our lives – isn’t beside the point; by my interpretation, those doubts are precisely why the singer clings all the more tightly to these precious hours, “more frailer than the flowers.”
On consideration, I believe this song would make a solid addition to my recently compiled Stoic’s Songbook.
I have agreed with my friend that the deal the song references is about death, and even about redemption – it’s the deal we all make: to live our life and make the most of it until we have to give it back again. Each verse of the song runs a cycle of reflecting on uncertainties and hardships then concluding with the redemptive refrain “But I’ll be with you when the deal goes down.”
Could those words refer to being reunited with a loved one in the afterlife as my friend attests, or being joined with God in heaven? Sure. But that level of certainty sure wouldn’t cohere very well with the rest of the song. To wit:
Each invisible prayer is like a cloud in the air
Tomorrow keeps turning around
More frailer than the flowers, these precious hours
That keep us so tightly bound
On the purpose of life:
We live and we die, we know not why
On looking for answers:
My bewildered brain toils in vain
We all wear the same thorny crown
These are hardly the sentiments, I would argue, of one who derives comfort from the certainty of being “saved, sanctified and on my way to heaven.” I maintain, given the humility and uncertainty of the song, that the source of redemption the singer intends is human -not heavenly – bonds. At any rate, when I sing the lines “I owe my heart to you, and that’s sayin’ it true, and I’ll be with you when the deal goes down,” my thoughts go out only to one person, and she is a mere mortal named Wendy Combs.
An important disclaimer: None of these speculations/interpretations can be supposed to accurately reflect on Bob Dylan himself or his views. He has recently admitted to being a “true believer,” a declaration that I think should be taken at face value while bearing in mind that Mr. Robert Zimmerman is a man of many masks and many voices – a self-described “just a song-and-dance man” – with a well-established penchant for irony. What can be known about Dylan by a careful reading of this song is outlined in the optional footnote on his sources below, but Dylan rarely if ever speaks in a voice that is not mixed and mingled with voices ranging from Ovid or Plutarch, through the Old and New Testaments, romping through American folk history, with the odd occasional shout-out to Alicia Keyes. This folk tradition of fusing stolen voices without reference or delineation must be why a song like “When the Deal Goes Down” can lead to interminable discussions like those I’ve had with my Christian friend about what the song means. Dylan channels the American bard who declared:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well, then I contradict myself,
I am large,
I contain multitudes.
An optional footnote on Dylan’s sources for “When the Deal Goes Down:” Dylan lifted and reworked lines from an obscure Civil War poet of the confederacy, Henry Timrod, for the “When the Deal Goes Down.”
The melody for “When the Deal Goes Down” is based on “Where the Blue of the Night (Meets the Gold of the Day)” which was the theme song for Bing Crosby’s 1930s radio show:”
The official music video for “When the Deal Goes Down” – at the very top of this post – was directed by Bennett Miller and features the lovely Scarlett Johansson. The music video seems to support my interpretation of the song.