“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” Lyrics Meaning

This song was originally released as part of the soundtrack for the 1973 western movie “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid”. And the storyline of the track fits directly into the narrative of the film.  It is featured during a particular scene where a character named Sheriff Colin Baker dies. And the lyrics contained therein are considered to focus on his final thoughts.

You can view the lyrics, alternate interprations and sheet music for Bob Dylan's Door at Lyrics.org.

In the film he dies with his wife, whom he addresses as “Mama”, present.  Thus in the opening line we find him instructing her to “take this badge off of [him]” as he “can’t use it anymore”. Moreover he gives her similar instructions in the second verse, this time though in regards to his guns. And the titular phrase, “knocking on heaven’s door”, as well as other symbolism used throughout, are indicative of the narrator/singer being cognizant of his impending death. Or another way of looking at it is that he has one foot on the ground and one foot in “heaven”, as in the afterlife.

Lyrics have general applicability

This song is a classic, with heavy-metal band Guns N’ Roses dropping their own rendition in 1991 which proved to be a greater hit than even Bob Dylan’s original. And most of the people who became captivated with the latter version likely have no knowledge of “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid”. As such, this song has a general applicability outside of capturing the feelings of Sheriff Colin Baker. In other words, the “badge” and “gun” the singer refers to can also be interpreted as symbols of whatever endeavor a dying individual has faithfully put his hand to during his lifetime. Indeed Guns N’ Roses famously performed this track in 1992 at the tribute concert for music legend Freddie Mercury, who wasn’t a lawman. Thus generally speaking, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” is a song in which a person who is passing away is addressing the individuals closest to him in this case – specifically a female – for one last time. And obviously he anticipates being received rightfully into the hereafter.

Lyrics of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door"

Original Release Date of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”

Bob Dylan’s original version was originally released by Columbia Records as part of the soundtrack for “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid” on 13 June 1973.  It was the only song from that album to be issued or released as a single.

A number of Bob Dylan’s projects which have dropped since then have featured this song, including live renditions and collaborations.

Indeed it is one of his signature tracks and was an international success, peaking at number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number 14 Britain. Furthermore, it charted in Australia, Canada, Ireland and the Netherlands.

Guns N’ Roses’ Version of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”

Meanwhile Guns N’ Roses started covering this song in 1987, during their performances.  In fact they first released a live version of this classic as a backup song to accompany their single “Welcome to the Jungle”. This was released on 19 June of that year.

They then recorded a studio version of the track in 1990, which was released that very year. It was the third single from the soundtrack on the Tom Cruise famous racing movie “Days of Thunder”.

Then the following year, they modified the song and released it again as part of their own album, “Use Your Illusion II”, on 17 September 1991.  This is the version that really blew up, even more than Bob Dylan’s original rendering.

The track scored a number 1 on music charts in Europe, including Belgium and the Netherlands. Furthermore, it broke the top 10 in quite a few countries, most notably peaking at number 2 on the UK Singles Chart.

Dunblane Version of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”

Unfortunately on 13 March 1996 the Dunblane school massacre occurred, in which 17 innocent people lost their lives in Scotland. And in response, a Scottish musician named Ted Christopher acquired Bob Dylan’s consent and went about recording and releasing his own version of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” as a charity single. 

He put together a band from Dunblane to perform the song, and Scottish musician Mark Knopfler ofDire Straits, who had a history of working with Bob Dylan, also participated.

Additionally, the Dunblane version featured some of the children from the area singing the song.

This rendition proved to be a big hit in the United Kingdom, topping both the UK Singles Chart and the Scottish Singles Chart. It also charted in nearby Ireland, peaking at number 6 there.

A truly beloved song

“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” has maintained a regular pop-media presence throughout the years, being featured on a number of movie and television show. Furthermore, it this classic has over the years been covered by a slew of artists, including Eric Clapton.

4 Responses

  1. jason says:

    that is a very depressing backstory

  2. Thomas Cogburn says:

    What we hear in this song is that what hurts the most is found by what loves the most. I think that’s true of music in general and that it plays a significant role in redemption and salvation.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Rock on !!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may also like...