Behind the History and Meaning of the Song “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” by Bob Dylan

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

It’s one of the most famous folk songs in American history. It’s penned by the legendary artist Bob Dylan and has been covered a number of times. It’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and the meaning behind the song is below.

The Meaning

The meaning of the song, of course, refers to death. It’s getting dark, too dark to see, sings Dylan.

Dylan biographer Clinton Heylin described the track as “an exercise in splendid simplicity.” Others would point out its brevity and wonder if Dylan just forgot to keep writing.

Featuring two quick verses, the lyrics touch on the scene for the movie Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, in which it appeared. That scene involves the death of frontier lawman Slim Pickens, who calls his wife, Mama.

From the specific comes the universal. Because it’s so brief and because it deals with a subject every human being has to encounter in his or her life, the song has a timeless feel. The moment everything is wiped away and the final breath is taken. It’s become something of a soundtrack for that point in one’s life. The end. It’s getting dark, too dark to see.

The Soundtrack

“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” was written for the soundtrack of the 1973 movie Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. However, it was released as a single for radio two months after the film premiered.

[RELATED: 4 of Bob Dylan’s Favorite Songs]

The song became a global hit, occupying spots in the Top 10 on charts all around the world. Since that time, the track has become one of Dylan’s most popular and most covered songs, especially since his 1960s rise to fame. Acts like Eric Clapton and Guns N’ Roses have also offered their own versions (more on them below).

Popularity

Because of its popularity and relative simplicity, Dylan performed the song in concert 460 times between 1974 and his last performance of it in 2003, according to his website. Dylan has also released many versions of the song on various bootleg series, including on Before the Flood, Bob Dylan at Budokan, Dylan & the Dead, and more.

The song has been covered by 150 artists—and likely more. Prominent offerings include those from Neil Young, Lana Del Rey, Nick Cave, Patti Smith, Paul Simon, Bono, Bon Jovi, Cat Power, Roger Waters, Jerry Garcia, Avril Lavigne, Wyclef Jean, and more. A veritable Who’s Who.

Clapton and Guns N’Roses

Two of the most popular covers come from Clapton and Guns N’ Roses.

Clapton played on one version by Arthur Louis in 1975. The track was arranged in the reggae style. After playing guitar on that song, Clapton recorded his own, which was dropped later in 1975. Clapton’s version hit No. 38 on the U.K. charts.

[RELATED: Bob Dylan Apologizes for Fake Signature Book Controversy]

Some 12 years later, Guns N’ Roses began performing the song live around 1987. In 1990, the band released a studio version for the film soundtrack to Days of Thunder, featuring dreamy opening guitars that led to bigger, distorted electric guitar. That rendition hit No. 18. Guns N’ Roses also released a slightly different version of the song for their 1991 album, Use Your Illusion II.

Both Clapton’s and Guns N’ Roses’ versions are bigger and more elaborate than Dylan’s original. But that’s the beauty of writing a great song: it spurs on so much in its wake. Like a life well lived.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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