Does quicksand have grains?
I ask because the first time I started writing about Bob Dylan’s “Every Grain Of Sand” and the outstanding cover version just released on the new Blind Boys of Alabama album, the post got dragged down and consumed by religious — or irreligious, as the case may be — hand-wringing. The idea was that I would talk about how Dylan’s so-called “Christian-period” weirds me out, and how that’s probably unfair, because his born-again faith gave us this amazing song, and besides, there’s tons of great gospel music out there, and who am I to judge someone else’s religious beliefs when my own are somewhat complicated…
And that’s when the post became more about how my mom became a priest when I was in college and about how long it had been since the last time I’d gone to a Sunday service regularly than about how Justin Vernon helped the Blind Boys craft a recording that deserves way more attention than it’s currently getting.
So here we are. Take two. Without wiggling too far into the same quicksand I ended up in the first time, I’d like to make two points — one about the religiosity of the lyrics in “Every Grain Of Sand” and one about this recording of it.
With regards to the song itself, I think it’s worth pointing out that the titular image/thesis — this notion that god sees and knows everything, including the follicle count on humanity’s collective scalp and the number of grains of sand on all the world’s beaches — can be just as awe-inspiring to an atheist, provided you look at it the right way. Here’s why: The number of grains of sand on planet Earth is constantly changing, and it would never be practical to find out what that number is at any given moment, and the best we could probably do is some sort of estimate based on averages and an agreed-upon density threshold at which sand stops being a collection of grains and becomes sedimentary rock, but still… those grains are all out there. Existing. Being real. Being so tiny and numerous that we could never take an accurate census of them. Even without an omnipotent being who knows exactly how many there are, the simple fact that we live in a huge, beautiful and mind-blowingly complicated world — so complicated that we’ll never know or understand all of it — is reason enough to celebrate.
But embedded in this humbling mystery is a paradoxical truth that I think elevates the human experience. See, we may not be able to count the grains of sand on planet Earth — that information wouldn’t be worthwhile enough to justify dedicating resources to its discovery — but the neat thing is that humans have developed a system of mathematics flexible enough that we could keep counting until we ran out of things to count. We may not know the right number, but that number really does exist. It’s out there. Maybe it’s even been used before, in an obscure, high-level math problem that a college professor came up with, or by an astronomer who was counting stars. This intersection of capability and limitation provides such a beautiful snapshot of what it’s like to be human. We’re so good at so many things, but there are some things we — both in the personal and collective senses of “we” — will never, ever know. It’s like we’re playing a video game that will never run out of levels. It’s enough to make your heart burst with fear and happiness, American Beauty-style.
As for this particular recording of “Every Grain Of Sand,” I think it’s Record of the Year-worthy. Such interesting decisions were made, like the percussion that runs on a separate track for two whole minutes before linking up with the rest of the song, making this whole idea of unknowable quantification real in a truly inventive way. And the use of acoustic guitar, which adds brightness and yet another opportunity for rhythmic counting. It’s as if numbers are flying around all over the place, but the further into the song you go/the more you appreciate the big picture, the more fulfilling the whole excercise becomes. These choices don’t just make for a pretty version of the song, they imbue meaning. And while all of this is going on, the vocal performances — thick with the hopefulness of a visionary and the retrospective gravitas of a group that’s been singing gospel in one form or another since 1939 — end up being the glue that holds the whole thing together. Fitting, given that it’s a Bob Dylan song.
I was listening to NPR the other day and heard an interview with a philosopher named Alain de Botton who wrote a book called Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion. He’s also formed a secular community in London called “The School of Life.” Both are dedicated to the idea that religion has gotten some things wrong but a lot of things right, and that people can pick and choose parts of different faiths when searching for meaning in their lives. I think “Every Grain Of Sand” is a tiny nugget of proof that de Botton is onto something.