Every Grain Of Sand

Album: Shot Of Love (1981)
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Songfacts®:

  • Dylan included this on his 1985 album Biograph. In the notes to that album he said, "That was an inspired song that came to me. It wasn't really too difficult. I felt like I was just putting words down that were coming from somewhere else, and I just stuck it out."
  • Dylan became a born-again Christian a few years before this was released. Like most of the album, religion is a major theme in this song.
  • This was partly inspired by the following lines from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence:

    To see a World in a Grain of Sand
    And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
    Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
    And Eternity in an hour
    >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Ed - Perth, Australia
  • Producer Chuck Plotkin recalled capturing this song to Uncut magazine: "Bob had been playing guitar, but he suddenly moved over to the piano, sat down and began to play," he said. "Now, the piano was mic'd, but there was no vocal mic at the piano, it just wasn't set up, because Bob hadn't been playing piano. And I realised, you know – this is not a guy who wants to even think about going through the business of doing, like, seven takes. Forget seven takes. Once he's got the words right; that's your take. He's an artist, but he's not a recording artist, it's just not what he does."

    "And so he started to play, and I didn't want to stop him," Plotkin continued. "He's playing something I've never heard before. I don't know what's going to happen. So, I grabbed hold of the mic from the stand where he'd been previously been playing guitar and singing, and I basically turned myself into a mic stand. I literally held the microphone up, tried to find a physically comfortable enough position so that I was not in his way, and that I could still manage to hold my arm out there for however long this song was going to take."

    "And it was 'Every Grain Of Sand'! And I'm standing there, hearing this for the first time, and the song kills me," he added. "I think it's one of his great, great songs – and I'm hearing it for the first time while standing beside him imitating a mic stand as best I can. And that was it. That was the version we heard on the record."
  • The song was performed at the funeral of Johnny Cash in 2003 by Emmylou Harris and Sheryl Crow. Harris had previously covered the tune for her 1995 Wrecking Ball album.
  • Perhaps Dylan is contemplating the consequences of a sinful past ("flowers of indulgence and the weeds of yesteryear"). Although he's reluctant to revisit any particular mistake, he adds,"Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break." In the book of Genesis, Cain murders his brother Abel in a jealous rage and is destined to become a restless wanderer, his descendants living in exile due to his crime.

Comments: 7

  • Man from The MoonNot to deny that he uses religious references, but the song is about humanity and self reflection set against the times (post Vietnam, cold war, etc.). It more or less runs a personal narrative as well as one on humanity and power as a whole. The religious references are twisted and not really endorsements or celebrations of the biblical phrases or context.

    The only actual reference to God is in the first verse where he can see the master's hand in fury and vengeance like that of Cain. I never know how far to read into that, but "Every leaf that trembles and every grain of sand" always seemed to me to be drawing on the imagery of war (half a decade after the horrors of Vietnam), which is not surprising for someone who was involved in protest and reflected a lot on these things.

    The end of the second verse I believe refers to time or at least the loss of youth, whether by age or poor choices. It's a biblical reference, but it never seemed to me like God numbering hairs. It's humanity. You don't get back that hair or that grain of sand that passes through the hourglass. Dylan being a wizard with the pen is using "numbered" in the same sense as "days are numbered", not in the biblical sense that God keeps track of them all.

    Even where the closing lines of the last verse take inspiration from the Bible, they aren't really religious. The Bible talks about the father's part in each sparrow falling, whereas Dylan is saying that the sparrows and every grain of sand hang in the balance of the reality of man. In 1981, you can't really miss the cold war reference, but it's also about personal actions and reflection. Realising his actions and reality affect the world around him.

    So yeah, I think it's personal reflection extrapolated to humanity on a greater scale. His interest in the Bible at the time probably served as inspiration for some references, but Dylan always loved references from religion or history. I never really saw it as a religious song.
  • Keith M from Virginia i agree with dennis from charlevoix ...'every grain of sand' reads like the confession of an addict who's reached rock bottom. i've often wondered if the christian era wasnt dylan post-rehab, giving control over to his 'higher power' ... much like in AA. his last album before the christian era was 'streetlegal'--which definitely has a (wonderfully) druggy / sauced-up vibe to it.
  • Dennis from Charlevoix, MiI'm a religious skeptic as well, but I also love the song...I have since I was around 11. But people make it too complicated, with all the Biblical references and what-not. Of course they are there, but it is fundamentally about a religious convert contemplating his own sinfulness. "Flowers of indulgence" and "weeds of yesteryear"? Sorry to have to connect the dots for y'all, but we're talking about drugs here. "Broken mirrors of innocence on each forgotten face"...how many groupies has Bob forgotten about. This isn't as complicated as people want to make it, especially when he compares himself to Cain, of all people.
  • Steve from Binghamton, NyPeople who have their own agendas miss the point that Dylan's "born-again" phase contained some incredibly high-quality work. About seven songs from the four albums from "Slow Train" through "Infidels" are reasonable candidates for his all-time top ten song list, including this one....perhaps the most telling point about Dylan's place in American music is the sheer passion he excites in those that listen to him (no pun intended) religiously. People CARE about Dylan's work in a way they don't about virtually any other recording artist in history.
  • Linda from New York City, NyI never understand when people accuse Dylan
    of turning his back on his Jewish roots to become a born again Christian. Wasn't Jesus a Jew? And accepted by the Jewish community that he was a prophet, so if you are truly spiritual wouldn't you investigate your own inner longing or despair and look to those who have wisdom of offer, i.e., Jesus, Ghandi, Buddha? Isn't the difference between Jewish and Christian ideas in the mind, versus the longing and despair in the heart. I have many Jewish friends who are Jewish and love Jesus, just like I'm a Christian and I love my Jewish friends. what's the difference?
    It's all word games. so you would think that someone like Dylan, with all of the questioning in his lyrics would also question faith.
    Linda, New York City
  • Charlie from Anderson, ScI was surprised that this song didn't turn up on the list of songs inspired by the Bible...

    Biblical References:

    Cain's "chain of events" - Genesis 4: 1-16

    Abraham's seed as sand on the seashore - Genesis 22: 15-18

    God's thoughts "more in number than the sand" - Psalm 139: 17-18

    The Parable of the Sower - (newborn seed, flowers of indulgence, weeds of yesterday, choked) Mark 4: 13-20

    Be of Good Cheer - Mark 6: 47-51

    Sparrows/hairs numbered - Matthew 10: 28-31; Luke 12: 6-7
  • Craig from Madison, WiPeople get down on Dylan's Christian Phase for any number of reasons (his musical and lyrical quality, his seeming hypocracy (didn't he tell us "don't follow leaders?"), his turning his back on his Jewish roots, his questionable authenticity, etc) there is no getting around the fact that this is a beautiful songs. Even as a religious sceptic, I am moved by this song.
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