“The Man in the Long Black Coat.” Bob Dylan reaches the depths, and then descends some more.

By Tony Attwood

This review updated 28 May 2018 with addition of examples of Dylan’s song and of the folk song that was said to have inspired it, plus additional commentary on the timing and meaning. 

This song in 12/8 triple time (to hear what this means in practice listen to the count in on the live version below – the counting is 1-2-3-4 but there are three beats on each of those four.

And the song is sung on the album version (see the foot of this piece) as if each beat of every bar is an effort to complete.  The start is uncertain, the harmonica plays three tentative fading notes, and off we go, plod, plod, plod.  When the harmonica returns there is a haunting feeling added to the plodding.  There’s less of that in this live version, but more pain in the voice.

Here’s the live version

What sort of world is this, where each beat is like a boot sinking into the mud and the only relief is a feeling of being haunted?  Dylan calls it “something menacing and terrible,” and that does it for me – although that comes through more strongly on the album version than on stage.  Daniel Lanois called it “something to do with the pulling and pushing of the moon.”  I’ll go with that.

The effect of menace, when it does emerge, is achieved by the undermining of the four beats in a bar each divided into three concept.  Each start of the three beat process is of equal importance here; normally in rock the second and fourth beat of the bar have an extra emphasis to give the music its swing.  There is no swing.  We are stuck.  There is no escape.

This is a song of atmosphere; the atmosphere of despair.  The lover has gone, for the man left behind, everything is mud or possibly even glue.  There is no way to follow, there is no way out.  We cannot even lift a foot from the floor to try and find the exit.

The third line makes it all so clear.  A straight descriptive line “Window wide open African trees” which has four heavy laden beats on Win / op / Af / trees.   How on earth can one go forwards in this sort of state?

Everything is useless in this experience, “every man’s conscience is vile and depraved”.  There is not even the chance of a way out through which one can push one’s own life forward.  Nothing is possible, because what will be will be.  There is no decision to be made.  We are trapped.

The masterstroke in the songwriting comes with the “middle eight” where the music varies and at last, at long long last, Dylan takes us out of the plodding, stuck world…

There are no mistakes in life some people say
It is true sometimes you can see it that way
But people don’t live or die people just float

Oh the horror.  For two lines we think he is offering us a solution.  The music is far more up beat.  The emphasis on every beat has gone.  And yet…

There is no escape at all in this world.  Because you just have to accept what is thrown at you, and get on with it.   There really is no escape ever, at all, in any way, we are here for all eternity.  There is no argument to be had, no debate, no putting forward an alternative point of view.  She’s gone.  Life’s gone, it’s over.

She never said nothing there was nothing she wrote
She gone with the man in the long black coat.

Perhaps she is just a lover.  Or if you want to try an alternative interpretation the Man in the Long Dark Cloak could be an African witch doctor, taking the woman away.  The sheer horror of not seeing the woman again for the singer gives us the same sort of plodding hopelessness.  Either way the music fits, the lyrics fit, the atmosphere fits.

Indeed the brilliance of the song is that it meets all interpretations.  The sense of continuing futility is overwhelming which ever way you look at it.   The blues chords used throughout (in C you would play C E-flat B-flat C for the opening line) tell their own tale.  No major or minor key here, it is just the flattened third and flattened seventh.

In fact even when the music gives you a sense of reprieve it is still so hopeless and awful.

But people don’t live or die people just float
She went with the man in the long black coat.

Rarely has Dylan written more poignant, sad, desperate lines.   There’s nothing, simply nothing.  Take away the hope and all is lost.

She never said nothing there was nothing she wrote
She’s gone with the man in the long black coat.

It has been noted by Heylin that this is based on the traditional song The House Carpenter.  I really don’t see this as a musical origin, although there is something of its feeling in the lyrics.   Here are two versions

Here’s the second

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  1. Dear Tony Attwood
    There’s an error in the first line of your commentary. “Man in the Long Black Coat” is in 6/8, not 4/4.

  2. Read through Olaf’s work and check out this song in particular. There is an F#m dominant and C#m. I personally prefer the official score starting in Am a typical Dylan root in the key of C. There is also an interesting C/f chord in the bridge.

    To learn more about the song read Gray and a few other commentators. The song is a brilliant variant of The House Carpenter or demon lover.

  3. Stephen Pate’s comment above is illuminating and correct. Dylan replaces the rouge/pirate/outlaw lover with the devil himself, or someone very much like him. This song is a cautionary tale, rooted by the middle eight bridge,

    There are no mistakes in life some people say
    It is true sometimes you can see it that way
    But people don’t live or die people just float

    where Dylan refutes the modern idea that, ‘you can do anything, life’s an experience, you just float along on it’ with a rather Biblical truth, ‘if you mess with evil, it’ll take you away…’

  4. I dunno why, but I always think of Clint Eastwood when I hear this song. I’m sure that it’s written about a mythical archetype – and not Clint – but my terms of reference are far more limited than Bob’s!

  5. “There was dust on the man in the long black coat” (Dylan)

    “Shake thyself from the dust; arise and sit down”
    (Isaiah 52:2)

  6. Dylan’s lyrics are also an extension of the meme of the dark stranger who “steals” your wife/lover.
    There have been dozens of songs about this in French Canadian folk music, of which Daniel Lanois was aware ( and probably Dylan too.)
    The dark stranger who wrecks your life by taking your woman is itself part of ancient tradition. Fear of “the other” , fear of exogamy and the unreliability of the faithful woman are essential elements of this tradition.

  7. Indeed Stephen. No idea what I was thinking of at the time – although I would go for 12/8 not 6/8. But that’s a technicality – I was quite wrong originally.

  8. I think it’s quite a funny song! That repeated image of the Man in the long black coat is brilliant! Great dark poetic humour… conjures up a picture of a moody brooding spaghetti western.

  9. Oded is correct. Brilliant version of this song. One thing Dylan is great at is taping into the bewilderment of the person who is left behind. The mystery off the departure: off with a good person or an evil one — adds a unresolved tension to the mystery. We (the listener) don’t know because the narrator doesn’t know. He just knows she is gone.

  10. I’ve willingly surrendered to this song’s atmosphere of doom over and over, like waking at night and rolling over to plunge back into the same nightmare. I like Joan Osborne’s cover very much; both for her lyrical interpretation and the further narratives possibilities offered by a female mourner/sister/friend/lover. Thank you for this post, and your explanation of how the song’s structure frustrates and impedes any thought of escape. I don’t know enough about Dylan’s Christian moment, but I definitely feel what he resurrects here is something we thought we’d buried long ago— the fear of damnation.

    Stephen King’s short story The Man in the Black Suit published in the New Yorker in 1994, about a young boy gone fishin who is set upon down river by the devil, seems to me a cheap gloss on this song. Does anyone else hear ‘the old dance hall 0n the outskirts of town’ and picture the 1962 horror cult film Carnival of Souls?

  11. Tony, I believe the song might be based on the ‘Devil at the Dance’ legend. The devil would turn up at the local dance and spirit away an unwitting girl victim. Apparently such stories were told young women who might be tempted to sneak out of the house to attend and forget their homework! The song is sinister, not so much because of the devil but the victim who is fatally attracted to him.

  12. I agree Christopher – I have always pictured Carnival of Souls as a key image for the dance hall. That gothic uncanniness is part of the appeal of the music too. There’s a short story by Elizabeth Bowen called The Demon Lover which is a great variant on the original House Carpenter tale. I used to teach all these to English literature classes to show how the same stories were reinvented in different genres and periods. Starting with The House Carpenter by Bob, then the Pentangle variant, then the Bowen story, finally The Man in the Long Black Coat. It always gave me a kick when the class realised how the thread was used. To their eternal credit, my pupils almost always knew the latter song already.

  13. Hasn’t any watched the Clint Eastwood film Easy Rider? This was released a couple of years before Dylan wrote this. Still one of my favourite songs. What atmosphere !!!!
    I start sweating and seeing the tumbleweed blowing down the street … And that’s just the intro.

  14. Not much to disagree with regarding this analysis, although I wouldn’t have said “Oh the horror” because to me that hearkens a little too much back to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and I don’t think that’s what we have here. This is not a case of mass murder, holocaust, and colonial exploitation but something more subtle, though just as societally pervasive.

    The main character is clearly a moralistic preacher, and as such belongs to a general category of charlatan, mountebank, and grifter. I don’t think the song targets religion, per se, however. The man in the long black coat could equally well have been a businessman or a politician. They’re all part of the same category in Dylan’s universe.

    The theme of the song, and the horror of it, is how easily we give ourselves to people in this category, and the contemporary relevance of the song can be seen every minute of the day on cable TV in the Age of Trump. We have nearly 40% of the electorate that has willingly given themselves to this con artist and moral sinkhole despite the fact that doing so “sticks in the throat.” We see him daily “beating a dead horse” with his brazen use of old, worn out fascist propaganda tactics that nevertheless don’t appear to have lost much of their effectiveness.

    Dylan is a prophet because he knows human nature. If you know human nature you can pretty much predict the future. And that’s what Dylan has done in this song.

  15. Always associated this song with Clint Eastwood and Pale rider (not Easy Rider, Al Rutherford), and it certainly belongs to Dylan’s slight tradition of drawing on films for songs. Also reminds me of High Plains Drifter. However, I think the comparisons with House Carpenter and its variants are slightly missing the point of both HC and MITLBC, which is elucidated finely in the ‘Preacher was talking’ verse. MITLBC’s central message (if it has one at all), is that your sins will find you out, which is exactly what happens to the protagonist in HC as well. There is really no evidence that there is someone in either song who fears the theft of their lover (as suggested by another commentator), In HC, the house carpenter only features at all through the eyes of the female protagonist. Both these songs are about losing your soul through sin, and the impossibility of avoiding sin through volition. That is why ‘every man’s conscience is vile and depraved. You cannot depend on it to be your guide, when you know it’s you must keep it satisfied’.

  16. I sing this song and accompany myself on guitar probably more than any other song including my own. Strangely I have never really thought of it as a song of despair. I go backwards and forwards between seeing the man in the long black coat as Johnny Cash and some kind of Wyatt Earp type figure. As always with Dylan it is very very visual and I don’t try to make sense out of it.

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