Like “Blind Willie McTell,” “Foot of Pride” was originally recorded in 1983, left off of Infidels, and finally released on The Bootleg Series, Vol 1-3: Rare & Unreleased 1961-1991. The song has a slinky groove with minimal instrumentation; the only musical solos are occasional harmonica flourishes by Bob Dylan. The song maintains this spare sound throughout to keep the listener focused on the torrent of lyrical ideas. “Foot of Pride” also showcases Dylan’s masterful phrasing, as he bobs and weaves with the words, alternating between using the groove and fighting against it.
After Dylan left behind singing directly about Jesus Christ, he didn’t entirely abandon the morality of the church’s teachings. Subsequently, some Dylan songs are writing exercises focused on specific themes with a higher moral purpose, as seen on “Dignity” (which is best heard on the solo piano demo released on The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs). Obviously, Dylan takes up the theme of pride with the song “Foot of Pride.” When Dylan was interviewed by Scott Cohen of Spin in December 1985, “Foot of Pride” was still unreleased, but the idea was still very much fresh for Dylan as he tells Cohen:
“I’ve never been able to understand the seriousness of it all, the seriousness of pride. People talk, act, live as if they’re never going to die. And what do they leave behind? Nothing. Nothing but a mask.”
Dylan’s contempt is evident in this quote and indisputable in the words of “Foot of Pride:”
It’s like the earth just opened and swallowed him up
He reached too high, was thrown back to the ground
You know what they say about bein’ nice to the right people on the way up
Sooner or later you gonna meet them comin’ down.
While Dylan is scornful throughout, the song is not without humor as can be seen in the specificity of the details. Dylan sings with irony strong in his voice that “They sang ‘Danny Boy’ at his funeral and the Lord’s Prayer.” Dylan is making sure that everyone knows that the guy in the casket is receiving the agreed-upon norms for a regular occurrence of mourning, but that everyone also knows the guy in the casket deserves none of it. He’s receiving his comeuppance in the song.
Dylan has several transcendent turns of phrase in “Foot of Pride.” Throw a dart at the lyric sheet and you will find a line worthy of enshrinement in the Biting Lyric Hall of Fame:
Sing me one more song, about ya love me to the moon and the stranger
And your fall-by-the sword love affair with Errol Flynn
He said he only deals in cash or sells tickets to a plane crash
She’ll do wondrous works with your fate, feed you coconut bread, spice buns in your bed
If you don’t mind sleepin’ with your head face down in a grave
They like to take all this money from sin, build big universities to study in
Sing ‘Amazing Grace’ all the way to the Swiss banks
They kill babies in the crib and say only the good die young.
On and on, this song is filled with punchlines and gut punches; either way, Dylan is going for your gut. Dylan repeats the chorus – “Well, there ain’t no goin’ back / When your foot of pride come down / Ain’t no goin’ back” – which brings to mind the giant foot squashing the name of the program in the opening of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. That is the real foot of pride coming down!
Recently, an early version of “Foot of Pride” surfaced online:
Titled “Too Late,” the origins of “Foot of Pride” are there with many of the same lines and phrases. But everything has changed from the chords to the instrumentation to the feeling of the song. While “Foot of Pride” is scornful, “Too Late” is a poignant, wistful portrayal. The feeling is especially pronounced in the words used in the chorus: “It’s too late to bring him back.” This is a different framing than “Foot of Pride;” instead of derision, we have contemplative regret.
By comparing the two versions, we can see Dylan’s process on display. It brings to mind a line of poetry by Herman Melville from “The Conflict of Convictions” that the television writer David Milch, most well known for his masterpiece Deadwood, was fond of quoting: “I know a wind in purpose strong – / It spins against the way it drives.” For Milch, that line resonated with him when creating conflict in a scene as he explained to David Thornburn:
“Melville said that any good poem spins against its drive. I think any good scene does that, and all human behavior as well. Hawthorne said that man’s accidents are God’s purposes. We miss the good we seek and do the good we little sought. Why Swearengen [a character in Deadwood] thinks he does it and why God wants him to do it might be totally different things.”
In the transition from “Too Late” to “Foot of Pride,” Dylan is spinning against the way he drives. “Too Late” shows the initial outburst of the song, a sympathetic portrayal of the subject. It’s a songwriting first draft with an arrangement and set of lyrics that might have been the way he would have performed the song earlier in his career. With that kernel of a song featuring several standout lines that he doesn’t want to drop, Dylan recognizes that he wants to explore the theme of pride, but it’s not emphasized as much as he would like. He keeps working on it, changing the words, adjusting the chords, and zeroing in on the tone. “Foot of Pride” is the final result of this process. Dylan edited himself, spinning against the initial drive of inspiration, transforming the subject from sympathy to cynicism.
Speaking of cynicism, Lou Reed performed a version of “Foot of Pride” at The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration for Bob Dylan:
The house band for the celebration was Booker T. and the MGs, and, with this performance, Lou transforms them into Crazy Horse, full of searing, distorted guitars grinding on one riff throughout. A song with tricky phrasing, Lou makes the song his own, placing emphasis on different lines than Dylan does. As seen in the video above, it is evident that Lou doesn’t have the lyrics fully committed to memory as he is peeking at the teleprompter throughout the performance. No apologies necessary as “Foot of Pride” is a dump truck full of words. Quite a feat by Lou to nail a song when one doesn’t know the words entirely!
Photo by: Scott Bunn
2 thoughts on “Foot of Pride”
Great essay. Your application of Melvilles’s
quote was quite well done. This is one of the most rocking grooving bluesy songs with the most biting lyrics and powerful witty delivery that I’ve ever heard. I find it a compelling and highly entertaining listen. I think while there’s scorn in the song here and it’s scalding hot there’s humor to accompany it and the whole whole the real driver is a moral outlook on life and a disdain for corruption and pride.
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The phrase the “foot of pride” is borrowed from the King James Bible’s translation of King David’s prayer in Psalm 36:11, “Let not the foot of pride come against me, and let not the hand of the wicked remove me.”
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