Chimes of Freedom was not written by Springsteen, therefore it will not take a number in my 267 song line-up. However, Springsteen’s version of this Dylan song is so incredibly powerful and perfect, that the song deserves mention in the midst of Springsteen’s writings.
I took an American Literature class where we had to write about an American poet. I chose Bob Dylan. Not Springsteen? I totally would have chosen Springsteen, but he was not listed in our Literature book, so Dylan it was. We also had to explicate two of their poems/songs. I am including an excerpt of my paper here where I analyzed the words to Chimes of Freedom.
“Chimes of Freedom” is one of Dylan’s socio-political songs set on a spiritual landscape. His imagery takes the plight of the oppressed in the earthly realm and frees them in the spiritual. Often labelled as an anti-war song, the message is that freedom cannot be won through any of society’s institutions, but only through spiritual deliverance. Each and every person is born free, but has been pressed down and chained by human greed and injustice. Through vivid imagery and an appeal to visual and audio sensory, Dylan conveys this message:
Far between sundown's finish an' midnight's broken toll / We ducked inside the doorway, thunder crashing / As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds / Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing / Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight / Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight / An' for each an' ev'ry underdog soldier in the night / An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.
“Far between sundown’s finish and midnight’s broken toll” sets the stage in the evening, when the lights cast upon the world are extinguished and the darkest part of night has descended. The darkest part of human existence is upon us. Dylan introduces the metaphor he uses throughout the entire song. The elements of a thunderstorm, thunder, bolts, lightening, flashing, crashing, are used to convey what will bring about true freedom. The power of a thunderstorm is great and cannot be contended with. The heavenly references make the “chimes of freedom” something unearthly, greater than any democracy or system of government humans have set up, something humans have not accomplished. Whether these chimes are God, Nature, some other great natural force operating in the universe, or the banding together of humanity to fight injustice, they are the key to unlocking the shackles on those beaten down by life’s oppressive forces. Soon, the bells of freedom will toll throughout the world.
Those fighting for true freedom are not the politicians and world leaders waging war, but rather the silent protesters, the “warriors whose strength is not to fight”. When this song was written, in 1964, civil rights and anti-war sentiment was strong in the air. The idea of passive resistance, and using peaceful means to achieve peace was new. But Dylan was singing about more than integrating schools and bringing troops home. He knew true freedom was greater than those things.
In the city's melted furnace, unexpectedly we watched / With faces hidden while the walls were tightening / As the echo of the wedding bells before the blowin' rain / Dissolved into the bells of the lightning / Tolling for the rebel, tolling for the rake / Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned an' forsaked / Tolling for the outcast, burnin' constantly at stake / An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.
The city life is so far removed from what is natural that it squeezes us from every angle, melting away our dreams and ideals. Thus is the life of the poor, luckless, forsaken people in the world. The wedding bells represent a new beginning. A new beginning is coming from “the lightening” or from a cause larger than any that has ever been fought for – true freedom. The tolling signals a great event taking place. More people are included – rebel, rake, luckless, etc…. Freedom is coming for all of these people.
Through the mad mystic hammering of the wild ripping hail / The sky cracked its poems in naked wonder / That the clinging of the church bells blew far into the breeze / Leaving only bells of lightning and its thunder / Striking for the gentle, striking for the kind / Striking for the guardians and protectors of the mind / An' the unpawned painter behind beyond his rightful time / An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.
The “mad mystic hammering” is a spiritual purpose being worked out.
The imagery just gets better and more intense in this verse. “The sky cracked its poems in naked wonder” is a beautiful metaphor to describe the awe-inspiring forms nature takes. The storm reveals the power and wonder of its creator.
Here Dylan takes a gentle stab at religion. The “clinging of the church bells blew far into the breeze”. The churches, religions, or institutions of the world do not offer true freedom. Instead, they restrict it. They will be done away with and replaced by something higher.
Through the wild cathedral evening the rain unraveled tales / For the disrobed faceless forms of no position / Tolling for the tongues with no place to bring their thoughts / All down in taken-for-granted situations / Tolling for the deaf an' blind, tolling for the mute / Tolling for the mistreated, mateless mother, the mistitled prostitute / For the misdemeanor outlaw, chased an' cheated by pursuit / An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.
There’s more religious imagery seen in a negative context. The “disrobed faceless forms of no position” are all those in the political, religious, or secular world who have used their position for greed and exploitation. They will be disrobed. Their power will be taken from them. The chimes continue to toll for those who cannot speak for themselves, those who turn away from the problems of the world, and those who feel isolated from family or community.
Even though a cloud's white curtain in a far-off corner flashed / An' the hypnotic splattered mist was slowly lifting / Electric light still struck like arrows, fired but for the ones / Condemned to drift or else be kept from drifting / Tolling for the searching ones, on their speechless, seeking trail / For the lonesome-hearted lovers with too personal a tale / An' for each unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail / An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.
When the storm seems to be over, in a “far-off corner”, and the mist has been lifted, the chimes will continue to strike to make sure no one is left behind. Usually when something ends or leaves, something or someone is left behind. Not this time. The “Electric light” will strike “like arrows”, killing any remaining piece of injustice and setting free even those who seem to be condemned, the drifters, the “lonesome-hearted lovers”, those in the earthly prisons.
Starry-eyed an' laughing as I recall when we were caught / Trapped by no track of hours for they hanged suspended / As we listened one last time an' we watched with one last look / Spellbound an' swallowed 'til the tolling ended / Tolling for the aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed / For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an' worse / An' for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe / An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.
“Starry-eyed an’ laughing” gives the image of someone feeling a deep level of happiness, like lovers in a new relationship. True happiness can only come with true freedom. “Trapped by no track of hours for they hanged suspended” represents the path of restriction and oppression lived by those who Dylan lists in this song. It will be taken away from them, and they will soon seen their freedom delivered by the hands of something or someone greater than can be seen. When people are overtaken by something majestic, they are “spellbound” and have no conscious feeling of the passing of time”. The last few lines encompass anyone else left out. The chimes will toll for everyone, not just a select few.