An upbeat blues romp with a steady, danceable beat, False Prophet is probably the most popular song on the album.
Dylan borrowed the tune from Billy “The Kid” Emerson’s If Lovin’ You Is Believing. Emerson’s first big break was playing piano in Ike Turner’s band, which led to a solo career. Emerson’s song Every Woman I Know (Crazy ‘Bout Automobiles) has been covered by many artists. Ry Cooder’s version is pretty great. Red Hot was also covered by many, including rockabilly cult legend Robert Gordon. Dylan played Emerson’s version on his Theme Time Radio Hour show.
The lyrics are a bit cryptic, to such a degree that it’s impossible to get a solid grasp on exactly what’s happening. I’m not super interested in going into the ditch of what the song means, but I’d guess it’s the story of a man who has been damaged by our cruel society (Another day of anger, bitterness, and doubt), but has come back swinging (I’m just here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head), and isn’t done yet. In fact, he’s evolved beyond the point where this world can touch him anymore (Can’t remember when I was born / And I forgot when I died).
I guess it’s often a mistake to assume a song is autobiographical, but in this case, I think it probably is. Dylan – as great and as many accolades as he’s had – still seems to have a bit of a grudge against the world for how he’s been treated. For evidence, read the speech he delivered at the MusiCares award ceremony, where towards the end he goes off-the-rails a bit and insults Tom T. Hall, Merle Haggard, and a few others. False Prophet seems to be an attempt to address some of these gripes and also say that he’s way beyond such nonsense. Ok, Bob.
“False prophet” is of course a biblical reference. The phrase appears multiple times in the Bible, but the most well-known occurrence is from Matthew 7:15.
Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.
The label “prophet” has been imposed on Dylan since the early ’60s. Dylan has obviously thought long and hard about how the label, which he certainly never asked for. In the past, he bristled at it. See below from a 2004 interview he did with Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes.
BD: You feel like an impostor when you’re… when someone thinks you’re something and
EB: What was the image that people had of you? And what was the reality?
BD: The image of me was certainly not a songwriter or a singer. It was more like some kind of a threat to society in some kind of way.
EB: What was the toughest part for you personally?
BD: It was like being in an Edgar Allan Poe story. And you’re just not that person everybody thinks you are, though they call you that all the time. ‘You’re the prophet.’ ‘You’re the savior.’ I never wanted to be a prophet or savior. Elvis maybe. I could easily see myself becoming him. But prophet? No.
EB: I know that, and I accept, you don’t see yourself as the voice of that generation, but some of your songs did stop people cold. And they saw them as anthems, and they saw them as protest songs. It was important in their life, it sparked the movement. You may not have seen it that way, but that’s the way it was for them. How do you reconcile those two things?
BD: My stuff were songs, you know? They weren’t sermons. If you examine the songs, I don’t believe you’re gonna find anything in there that says that I’m a spokesman for anybody or anything really.
EB: But they saw it.
BD: Yeah, but they must not have heard the songs.
EB: It’s ironic, you know, that the way that people viewed you was just the polar opposite of the way you viewed yourself.
BD: Ain’t that something?
Maybe he’s warmed to the title of “prophet” a bit, for to not be a false prophet must mean he is truly a prophet. Of course, he surely means it tongue-in-cheek.
Dylan is fond these days of inserting references to old songs in his lyrics. Hello, May Lou is a nod to the Gene Pitney song, made famous by Ricky Nelson. Miss Pearl could be a reference to a song by the obscure rockabilly artist Jimmy Wages (who was a school friend of Elvis Presley). Hello Stranger could refer to the well-known Carter Family recording. I go where only the lonely can go is awfully close to a title of a Merle Haggard hit. Dylan has sung the praise of most of these artists in the past, he’s very aware of all these recordings.
There are a few literary references as well. I climbed the mountains of swords on my bare feet is very similar to lines from a collection of Zen koans, The Gateless Barrier.
When you intend to uphold the teaching of Zen,
You must climb a mountain of swords with bare feet.
Just a cool breeze that’s encircling me is pretty similar to a line in a translation of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Yes, it does seem to be stretch that Dylan has been reading The Book of the Dead. But hey, those bus rides on tour must be awfully long.
Dylan surely had the Odyssey on his mind when he wrote my fleet-footed guides from the underworld.
In the Odyssey, the hero Achilles is repeatedly referred to as “fleet-footed”, and in one of the key scenes, the character Odysseus travels to Hades (i.e. the underworld).
In his remarkable Nobel Prize Speech, Dylan says:
Specific books that have stuck with me ever since I read them way back in grammar school – I want to tell you about three of them: Moby Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front and The Odyssey.
I’m looking forward to hearing False Prophet live one day. It’s a rocker.
Another day without end – another ship going out
Another day of anger – bitterness and doubt
I know how it happened – I saw it begin
I opened my heart to the world and the world came in
Hello Mary Lou – Hello Miss Pearl
My fleet footed guides from the underworld
No stars in the sky shine brighter than you
You girls mean business and I do too
I’m the enemy of treason – the enemy of strife
I’m the enemy of the unlived meaningless life
I ain’t no false prophet – I just know what I know
I go where only the lonely can go
I’m first among equals – second to none
I’m last of the best – you can bury the rest
Bury ‘em naked with their silver and gold
Put ‘em six feet under and then pray for their souls
What are you lookin’ at – there’s nothing to see
Just a cool breeze encircling me
Let’s walk in the garden – so far and so wide
We can sit in the shade by the fountain side
I’ve searched the world over for the Holy Grail
I sing songs of love – I sing songs of betrayal
Don’t care what I drink – don’t care what I eat
I climbed a mountain of swords on my bare feet
You don’t know me darlin’ – you never would guess
I’m nothing like my ghostly appearance would suggest
I ain’t no false prophet – I just said what I said
I’m here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head
Put out your hand – there’s nothin’ to hold
Open your mouth – I’ll stuff it with gold
Oh you poor Devil – look up if you will
The City of God is there on the hill
Hello stranger – Hello and goodbye
You rule the land but so do I
You lusty old mule – you got a poisoned brain
I’m gonna marry you to a ball and chain
You know darlin’ the kind of life that I live
When your smile meets my smile – something’s got to give
I ain’t no false prophet – I’m nobody’s bride
Can’t remember when I was born and I forgot when I died