Bob Dylan And Cowboy Jesus (Part ll): The Riddler

Part 1 of this series: Bob Dylan And The Cowboy Jesus

by Larry Fyffe

Like poet William Blake, singer/songwriter Bob Dylan sets up a personal mythology.

Featured in that mythology, which is based on legends of the Old American West, is a Jewish drifter who rides around the countryside on horseback, throwing apple seeds, playing a guitar, and singing songs about the degradation of the Promised Land, the end of idyllic Eden, and the death of the American Dream.

The mythology tells us that, in the beginning, the drifter, who goes by the alias ‘Jesus’, looks down from the heavens, and is disappointed at the darknees that he sees below – the name of his pony is ‘Forest’ because you cannot see him for the trees:

Upon four-legged forest clouds
The cowboy angel rides
With his candle lit into the sun
Though it's glow is waxed in black
All except when 'neath the trees of Eden
(Bob Dylan: Gates Of Eden)

In any event, ‘Cowboy Jesus’ as he’s called, descends to earth, and sings lots of songs that are expressed in parables and riddles – they are not that easy to understand.

Already mentioned is the following song:

The next day was hanging day, the sky was overcast and black
Big Jim lay covered up with a penknife in the back
And Rosemary on the gallows, she didn't even blink
The hanging judge was sober, he hadn't had a drink
The only person on the scene missing was the Jack Of Hearts
(Bob Dylan: Lily, Rosemary, And The Jack Of Hearts)

Rosemary sacrifices herself for the benefit of both Lily and the Jack Of Hearts – the Devil Jim gets what’s coming to him, and Lily has Cowboy Jesus, the ‘Jack Of Hearts’, all to herself when and if he returns to the Cabaret; apparently, it’s just tough luck for everybody else.

Another song already mentioned:

Hot chilli peppers in the blistering sun
Dust on my face and my cape
Me and Magdalena on the run
I think this time we shall escape
Sold my guitar to the baker's son
For a few crumbs, and a place to hide
But I can get another one
And I'll play for Magdalena as we ride
(Bob Dylan: Romance In Durango ~ Dylan/Levy)

In the above song another woman, Magdalena, is on the Cowboy’s side – he’s in trouble, but she’s there ready and willing to help the drifter escape.

In the song below, Cowboy Jesus, this time going by the name of ‘John Wesley Harding’, is said to be, as in the previous narratives, a really a nice guy who’s been falsely accused of wrongdoing:

It was down in Chaynee County
A time they talk about
With his lady by his side
He took a stand
And soon the situation there
Was all but straightened out
For he was never known
To hurt an honest man
(Bob Dylan: John Wesley Harding)

A modern day gun-carrying Cowboy “Joey” gets the same goody-good treatment by the singer/songwriter in the song lyrics below:

The hostages were trembling when they heard a man exclaim
"Let's blow this place to kingdom come, let Con Edison take the blame"
But Joey stepped up, and he raised his hand, and said, 
      "We're not those kind of men
It's peace and quiet we need to go back to work again"
(Bob Dylan: Joey ~ Dylan/Levy)

The hyperbolic narratives depict an Old Wild West so decadent and lost that, at least relatively speaking, it is the outlaw who is the good guy, and the lawman, the bad guy!

Saith the Cowboy Jesus to Sheriff Nicodemis:

The wind bloweth where it listeth
And thou hearest the sound thereof
But canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth
So is every one that is born of the Spirit
(Book Of St. John 3:8)

“HI, ho, ‘Forest’, Away!”

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    The Jewish drifter is actualy the ‘Masked Rabbi’ who speaks through his alias
    (as Arron did for Moses) because he can sing and play the guitar.

  2. Larry both you and Tony have illuminated a consistant theme through out all Dylans works, the Cowboy portrayed as “Alias”. Was he Good or was he Bad when he killed with a knife thrown,protecting Jessie James. Dylan always leaves us with our own ghostly interpretation of events both real or imagined. Always one more cautionary tale not to follow others but to examine ones own thoughts and actions. Great articles guys.

  3. Appreciated, TR, it’s always good to know that what I’m saying is getting across.

  4. ‘forest’ – ‘fore-est’ ~ as in ‘fore’/’fore-er/ ‘fore-est’

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