Bob Dylan: The Black Rider


by Larry Fyffe

Much like the writings of the GrecoRoman mythologists, and of the Abrahamics, Zoroastra says the Almighty is a good force that some individuals choose to ignore. Mani instead says black and dark forces struggle for dominance over individuals. Swedenborg says the white forces have won, but most individuals on earth haven’t received the news yet. In his poetry, William Blake says at this particular time the black forces of society dominate most individual’s earthly existence. In his, Percy Shelley says it’s time that individuals side with the good forces. In his poems, John Keats says all of  this makes him a sad individual. In his, Robert Frost says, as an individualist, he’s rather hesitant as to which path to take.

Into the song pot below, Bob Dylan throws pieces of the aforementioned writers to see what comes out after it’s all boiled up.

From the Holy Bible, Bob tosses in a balance-carrier who rides the back of a black horse:

And when he had opened the third seal ....
And I beheld, and lo a black horse
And he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand
(Revelations 7:5)

Black forces, at least for the time being, carry more weight:

Black Rider,  black rider, you've been living too hard
Been up all night, have to be on your guard
(Bob Dylan: Black Rider)

Doth taste a lot like Blake:

And priests in black gowns, were making their rounds
And binding with briars, my joys and desires
(William Blake: The Garden Of Love)

The cook puts a bit more Bible into the broth:

Because strait is the gate
And narrow is the way
Which leadeth unto life
And few there be that find it
(St. Matthew 7:14)

Seasons the soup:

The path that you're taking, too narrow to walk
Every step of the way, another stumbling block
(Bob Dylan: Black Rider)

Dylan drops in a cube of poetry to cool things down:

The road that you're on, same road that you know
Just not the same as it was a minute ago
(Bob Dylan: Black Rider)

Plops in Frost:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence
Two roads diverged in the woods, and I
I took the one less travelled by
And that has made all the difference
(Robert Frost: The Road Not Taken)

Adds in Priapus who’s pinched from a bag of black-humoured Greco-Roman mythology.
Aphrodite’s son Priapus is cursed by Hera, the wife of Zeus, to bear a big permanent erection except when needed; like the time that he loses hardness because of the braying of a donkey. Hera is angry at the foamy sex goddess because Paris judged her more beautiful than she:

The size of your cock will get you know where
I'll suffer in silence, hold it right there

At such times, it’s convenient to claim that one’s high moral principles be the cause of the deflation:

Maybe I'll take the high moral ground
Some enchanted evening, I'll sing you a song
Black Rider,  black rider, you've been on the job too long
(Bob Dylan: Black Rider)

Like this song for instance:

Some enchanted evening, someone may be laughing
You may here her laughing across a crowded room
And night after night, as strange as it seems
The sound of her laughter will sing in your dreams
(Frank Sinatra: Some Enchanted Evening ~ Rogers/Hammerstein)

In the Bible, Alohlah and Aholibah are depicted as whores who ‘sleep’ with Assyrians and Babylonians  –  or at least the guys there who have penises as large as those on donkeys:

For she doted upon their paramours whose flesh is the flesh of asses...
(Ezekiel 23: 20)

So it is said of Sinatra’s appendage. Likewise, Christian lore has it that Satan (who charms Eve) has a large snake-like phallus.

‘Black Rider, Black Rider’ is a real boner.


  1. “The size of your cock will get you know where.”

    I like the humour and ambiguity of “you know where” but the official lyric does read “nowhere”.

  2. You fell into the fire and you’re eating the flame: A Buddhist trope, putting out the fires of suffering.

  3. Black Rider / Black Rider / Go home to your wife / Stop visiting mine . This tale is as ageless as the Cave. Who hasn’t had to ward off someone comming in to town and trying to steal your lover. Lead Belly sang about that drifter thief “Shorty George”. So did Woody Guthrie about “Gypsy Dave”. No wonder Bob could comes up with lyrics like ” I”ll take a sword and hack off your arm”. Reminds me of anther earlier thought “and i’ll stand over your grave / till im sure that your dead”. So the last line accepts this as ” You been on the job too long”.

  4. My read is this is about not being ready for death. Not ready for that black rider at least not yet.

  5. “Black rider, black rider, you’ve been on the job too long”

    alludes to the tradtional murder ballad “Been On The Job Too Long”

  6. If Dylan tries not to write the same song multiple times then, then it is likely that the tBlack Rider is not one of the other Black images he has written of before. So not the temptor/Satan figure of the Man in the Long Black Coat. Nor depression (a la Churchill’s Black Fog.) I don’t see it is about Black Live Matters, though who would exclude racism from being a Black Rider on the US, but I don’t see personal racism as something Dylan would be inclined to confess to the world. So what else could it be?

    The most likely thing, I think, is Sin (as a condition/state/alienable force making him stuff up, not sin a verb or as individual actions or temptations or responsibilities: so textbook “original sin.”) And, in particular, the fascination of Sin. He is sick of it, he is not impressed with its cock, and so on.

    Which means, interestingly, that “Black Rider” may be a fairly direct borrowing from the Lord of the Rings. The Black Rider is a ringwraith: as they let the power of their rings take over, they faded away into near nothing figures.

    Like Dylan, Tolkein did not write allegories, where every figure and detail has some symbolic meaning. But the top-level ideas were symbolic, and then he would let the stories unfold within that general symbolism (and where necessary, in spite of it.) In Tolkein, the lifelong Catholic raised by a priest, the Rings (especially the One Ring) represent Sin, with its knowledge, glamour, and power.

    (So, just in relation to the ring-bearing and destruction, Frodo is a Christ figure, Sam is a Mary figure, Gandalf is a figure of the prophets/the church, and so on. But this does not affect the plot, it just adds a layer of significance to them, where readers may feel there is something profound about them without being able to put you finger on, or feel you are being preached at.)

    Of all his albums, Rough and Rowdy Ways (surely the album title is a giveaway?) is the one with most snippets from well-known classical sayings (crossing the Rubicon: perhaps not well-kniwn in the US) to pop songs to political figures to popular films. So it is the only album where I think we might expect to find “Black Rider” being a reference to some popular book/film. Not exactly the same, but invoking it in some way.

    Which makes this song, like Crossing the Rubicon, I’ve made up my Mind, and My own Version of You, yet another song on the album with the motif “I have decided.”

  7. And Destiny’s happy enough if my cock can feed my belly
    (Decimus Juvenal: Nineth Satire ~ translated)

  8. ‘Black rider black rider, you’ve been on the job too long:

    Is from the traditional
    ‘Duncan and Brady’

    Well, it’s twinkle, twinkle little star
    Along came Brady in his ‘lectric car
    Got a mean look right in his eye
    Gonna shoot somebody just to see him die
    Well, he been on the job too long

    Well, Duncan, Duncan was tending the bar
    Along comes Brady with his shiny star
    Brady says, Duncan, you are under arrest
    And Duncan shot a hole right in Brady’s chest
    Yes, he been on the job too long

    Brady, Brady, Brady, well you know you done wrong
    Breaking in here when my game’s going on
    Breaking down the windows, knocking down the door
    And now you’re lying dead on the barroom floor
    Yes, you been on the job too long

    Well, old King Brady was a big fat man
    Doctor reached out, grabbed hold of his hand
    He felt for his pulse, doctor said
    “I believe unto my soul King Brady’s dead”
    Yes, he been on the job too long

    High tailed carriages standing around
    Waiting to take King Brady to the burying ground
    High tailed carriages, rubber tired hack
    Well, they took him to the graveyard
    But they didn’t bring him back
    Yes, he been on the job too long

    Well, women all heard King Brady was dead
    They go back home and re-rag in red
    Come a-slipping and a-sliding and a-shuffling down the street
    In their big Mother Hubbards and their stocking feet
    He been on the job too long

    Well, Brady, Brady, well you know you done wrong
    Breaking in here when my game’s going on
    Breaking down the windows, knocking down the door
    And now you’re lying dead on the barroom floor
    Yes, you been on the job too long

    Also performed by Dylan:

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