With God on Our Side


With God on Our Side is based on Irish playwright and folksinger Dominic Behan’s well-known song The Patriot Game, written in 1957. Behan was the brother of the renowned Brendan Behan, a famous writer and prodigious drinker about whom the pithy epitaph “too young to die, but too drunk to live” was written. Unlike many of his other borrowings, Dylan not only borrowed the tune but also the general sentiment of the lyrics, which have to do with the disillusionment of an Irish Republican Army soldier.

In the recently released film The Other Side of the Mirror: Live at the Newport Folk Festival 1963-1965, Dylan is shown telling the audience that he must have unconsciously had Jean Redpath’s version of The Patriot Game on his mind when he wrote it.

The lyrics comment on the fact that politcal leaders always claim a partnership with God during a conflict. That has not changed. George Bush, in his State of the Union address in 2003, in reference to the Iraq war said:

With the might of God on our side we will triumph over Iraq. God will watch over our troops and grant us a victory over the threat of Saddam’s army. God will bless us and keep us safe in the coming battle.

God was on the Taliban’s side during the Afghan war, at least according to Mohammed Hasan Akhund, the deputy Taliban leader:

If America attacks our homes, it is necessary for all Muslims, especially for Afghans, to wage a holy war. God is on our side, and if the world’s people set fire to Afghanistan, God will protect us and help us.

Apparently the gods are really, really into war. The gods must be crazy.

John Gibbens in his book The Nightingale’s Code suggests that Dylan borrowed from Woody Guthrie’s The Great Historical Bum:

I’m just a lonesome traveler, the great historical bum,
Highly educated, out of history I’ve come
I built the Rock of Ages, it was in the year of One
And that’s about the biggest thing that Man has ever done

In a similar fashion, Dylan uses an unnamed observer to narrate:

Oh my name it is nothin’
My age it means less
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest

Dylan mentions the Spanish-American War in the song. He seems to have been a bit confused about when it happened since he places it between the Indian Wars and the American Civil War. I have to admit that I couldn’t remember a thing about this war either. Here’s a quick summary of the conflict.

Spain had several colonies in and around South America in the late 19th century. Separatist movements began in both the Philippines and in Cuba in the 1895-96 time frame. Tensions between Spain and the US grew. The Spanish accused the US of encouraging the separatists.

The US battleship The Maine was sunk in Havana, Cuba in 1898. It was never proven that Spain had anything to do with the event. However, due in large part to public sentiments that were driven by yellow journalism (newspaper magnate William Hearst told his reporters to furnish pictures and he would “furnish the war”) the US declared war against Spain. Not surprisingly, the war went badly for Spain. By the end of 1898, they signed a treaty that gave the US control of the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. Cuba became a separate country.

Dylan references Judas Iscariot in the next to last verse. Judas, of course, is the biblical figure who betrays Jesus “with a kiss”. After pledging fidelity to Jesus, which he seals with the kiss, he turns him in to the Roman authorities, who ultimately crucify him on the cross. From Luke 22:4-6.

And the chief priests and scribes sought how they might kill Him; for they feared the people. Then entered Satan into Judas surnamed Iscariot, being of the number of the twelve. And he went his way, and communed with the chief priests and captains, how he might betray Him unto them. And they were glad, and covenanted to give him money.

I’m not crazy about the performance of the song on Times: ultra-slow tempo, plain guitar strumming, monotonous vocal. The more subtle and nuanced performance on MTV Unplugged is superior. The version on Live 1964 is interesting, although it is flawed by a few missed lines and botched timing.

Some new lyrics. He mentions the Vietnam War.


Oh my name it is nothin’
My age it means less
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I’s taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And that land that I live in
Has God on its side.

Oh the history books tell it
They tell it so well
The cavalries charged
The Indians fell
The cavalries charged
The Indians died
Oh the country was young
With God on its side.

Oh the Spanish-American
War had its day
And the Civil War too
Was soon laid away
And the names of the heroes
I’s made to memorize
With guns in their hands
And God on their side.

Oh the First World War, boys
It closed out its fate
The reason for fighting
I never got straight
But I learned to accept it
Accept it with pride
For you don’t count the dead
When God’s on your side.

When the Second World War
Came to an end
We forgave the Germans
And we were friends
Though they murdered six million
In the ovens they fried
The Germans now too
Have God on their side.

I’ve learned to hate Russians
All through my whole life
If another war starts
It’s them we must fight
To hate them and fear them
To run and to hide
And accept it all bravely
With God on my side.

But now we got weapons
Of the chemical dust
If fire them we’re forced to
Then fire them we must
One push of the button
And a shot the world wide
And you never ask questions
When God’s on your side.

In a many dark hour
I’ve been thinkin’ about this
That Jesus Christ
Was betrayed by a kiss
But I can’t think for you
You’ll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot
Had God on his side.

So now as I’m leavin’
I’m weary as Hell
The confusion I’m feelin’
Ain’t no tongue can tell
The words fill my head
And fall to the floor
If God’s on our side
He’ll stop the next war.

3 thoughts on “With God on Our Side”

  1. My life has been difficult and getting more so as I age. Basically I’m old and sick and alone. But when I am weary and cannot take another step, I listen to the Aaron Neville version of this song on the album Moon. It changes my life every time. I’ve never heard such perfection. He doesn’t miss a note on his complicated beautiful rendition of the song. And the production is stunning. I have often wondered about the lyrics but it seems so perfect that they were gathered together by Bob Dylan. When he dies, we should keep and study his brain! What an amazing and unusual fellow! Thank you Aaron and Bob and Daniel Lanois for the beautiful embrace that makes it possible for me to go on when I’m weary as hell.

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