I listened last week to a version of a Bob Dylan song recorded recently by Tim Easton and the McCrary Sisters to raise awareness and support for the Nashville Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter and addiction recovery centre. The song is Whatcha Gonna Do and this is a really fine new version.
Being a bit of Dylan fan, I’d heard the song before (on The Bootleg Series Volume 9: The Witmark Demos), but had rather forgotten it. It’s a version of an old spiritual, which asks the sobering question “Oh my Lord, what shall I do…when death comes a-creeping in the room.” Something I guess most of us would prefer not to think about too closely.
I then stumbled upon an excellent post by Sean Curnyn in The Cinch Review from 2014, who points out that Dylan has recorded several versions of the song. The one covered by Tim Easton was in fact the Witmark Demo version, the latest of three versions. Curnyn goes through the lyrical changes in each Dylan version, and prefers the version where the questions posed by each verse of the song are as follows:
First verse: Tell me what you’re gonna do when death comes creepin’ in your door
Second verse: Tell me what you’re gonna do when the devil calls your cards
Third verse: Tell me what you’re gonna do when the shadow comes into your room
Fourth verse: Tell me what you’re gonna do when your water turns to wine
Previously Dylan had had the 4th verse question as Tell me what you’re gonna do when death comes knockin’ on your door.
This he finds interesting because there is a deliberate change here from contemplating the disasters of life – death, misfortune and evil, the “shadow.” Whether we like it or not, we all, sooner or later, have to face the shadow, or “the devil” (be it the consequences of our own foolish actions or, ill-treatment by others) and, last of all, death, of those we care about and, inevitably, our own. The ancient wisdom writers of Israel thought carefully about these sort of questions, when they wrote about “walking through the valley of the shadow of death,” and wondered where to go “in the day of trouble.” Their conclusion was that the only safe refuge was in “the Lord.”
Important as these questions are, Dylan takes us a step further when he asks “what you’re gonna do when your water turns to wine?” recalling, probably very deliberately, the wedding at Cana where Jesus turned the water into wine. What happens when something good happens, when something turns out, perhaps surprisingly, to be a blessing, when you encounter a moment of grace, when, perhaps, it seems like a miracle? How do we respond? Do we take it for granted? Do we enjoy the moment and then rush on to whatever’s next? Do we think it’s our right?
Or do we pause and be thankful? Gratitude is a powerful thing. Research shows that choosing to focus on good things makes you feel better than focusing on bad things, and that choosing gratitude can also bring out the best in those around us. It doesn’t just happen, however – we need to cultivate “interior gratitude,” the practice of giving thanks privately, and along with that, “exterior gratitude,” publically expressing our gratitude. Someone has suggested writing two short emails each morning to friends, family or colleagues, thanking them for what they do – I’m gonna give that one a try.
It’s said that truly happy people find ways to give thanks for the little, insignificant things that happen in life – in this thanksgiving week, Dylan’s question is pertinent: asks “what you’re gonna do when your water turns to wine?”
Whatcha gonna do?