By Kevin Saylor
- Dylan’s Christian Anthropology: An exploration of Rough and Rowdy Ways. Part 1 – multitudes
- Dylan’s Christian Anthology part 2: False Prophet & My own version of you
“I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You”–in addition to being a palimpsest for “Got My Mind Made Up” from Knocked Out Loaded, which opens with the lines, “Don’t ever try to change me/ I been in this thing too long/ There’s nothing you can say or do/ To make me think I’m wrong”–is an exquisite love song, with a melody taken from Offenbach’s opera, The Tales of Hoffman.
Most reviewers have taken the song at face value as a romantic proposal to a woman. It has also been seen as another address to Dylan’s sometimes wayward audience. But there is also a theory among certain Dylanologists that his love songs are often covertly addressed to God. This theory can be applied far too indiscriminately, but I believe it works perfectly here. (As “To Make You Feel My Love” makes wonderful sense if Christ is taken to be the singer.)
The key to “I’ve Made Up My Mind” is the line, “I’m giving myself to you, I am.” We might take this to be repetition for emphasis. “I’m giving myself to you, no really I am.” But there can be no doubt Dylan knows the divine name revealed to Moses at the burning bush. There can be very little doubt that Dylan has heard the theory that some of his love songs are addressed to God. So, either he is now confirming that theory or purposefully lampooning it. To me, this is a fairly straight-forward declaration of devotion to the God of Abraham, the God revealed on Mt. Horeb.
The second bridge provides a clue that the first interpretation is correct: “Take me out traveling, you’re a traveling man/ Show me something that I’ll understand/ I’m not what I was, things aren’t what they were/ I’m going far away from home with her.”
Most strikingly, the lines unexpectedly address a man. So, the “You” of the title is not a female lover, but a traveling man, whom the speaker wants to accompany on his journey. If the ‘traveling man” is Christ, then the woman is the church.
The middle lines refer to I Corinthians and Galatians. “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (Gal. 2:20); “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (I Cor. 13:12). The speaker has made up his mind to give himself over to God in order to experience the illumination that comes from conversion.
Other verses corroborate this reading, for example the fifth: “If I had the wings of a snow-white dove/ I’d preach the gospel, the gospel of love/ A love so real, a love so true/ I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you.” “Oh that I had wings like a dove!” of course, originates in Psalm 55.
There is now an inevitable echo of Henry James, though I’m not sure that is relevant here. The desire for wings to fly shows up in well known folk tunes such as “Dink’s Song,” “The Water is Wide,” and “Carrickfergus,” as well as Dylan’s own “Watching the River Flow.” But I believe the most direct and pertinent allusion is to Bob Ferguson’s “Wings of a Dove,” a number one country hit for Ferlin Husky in 1960, that begins, “On the wings of a snow-white dove/ He sends His pure sweet love.” The allusion to the country-gospel song confirms that the dove is the Holy Spirit.
For the persona, the love preached in the gospel, love of God and of neighbor as oneself, rather than erotic love, is real and true. Therefore, in the penultimate verse, when he sings, “I’ll see you at sunrise, I’ll see you at dawn,” it is legitimate to hear this as, “I’ll see God when the Son rises on Easter morning.” “I know you’d say yes, I’m saying it too,” he sings to a God who loves all of His children and wants all of us to give ourselves to Him, not simply out of blind faith, but because we have “thought it all through” and made up our minds to do so.
“Black Rider” casts Death as a sometimes charming villain in an epic showdown worthy of the OK Corral. The music features Spanish guitar resembling something Grady Martin might have played on a Marty Robbins cowboy song or an Enrico Morricone soundtrack for a spaghetti Western. The Black Rider might originate with the four horsemen of the Apocalypse but he seems here to represent death generally rather than famine specifically.
The singer takes differing attitudes to the ominous rider, as we often do with death. In the second verse he bargains with him, “Be reasonable, mister, be honest, be fair/ Let all of your earthly thoughts be a prayer.” The third and fourth verses take diametrically opposed attitudes:
Black Rider, black rider, all dressed in black I’m walking away, you try to make me look back My heart is at rest, I’d like to keep it that way I don’t want to fight, at least not today Go home to your wife, stop visiting mine One of these days I’ll forget to be kind. Black rider, black rider, tell me when, tell me how If there ever was a time, then let it be now Let me go through, open the door My soul is distressed, my mind is at war Don’t hug me, don’t flatter me, don’t turn on the charm I’ll take a sword and hack off your arm.
In the first stanza, the singer walks away from the rider, in the second he asks him to open the door. In the first his heart is at rest, in the second his soul distressed and mind at war. In the first he does not want to fight, in the second he hacks off the rider’s arm. In the first, the rider dallies with the singer’s wife, in the second he attempts to hug, flatter, and charm the singer himself.
What are we to make of these contradictions? They represent how differently we view death in different moods and at different times in our lives. The first stanza describes a time when the persona is at peace and doesn’t want to think about mortality or have to resist the inevitable encroachments of time. The second describes a melancholy moment when the persona is half in love with easeful death, yet still is able to resist the seductive charm of ceasing upon the midnight with no pain.
The final stanza reveals the proper attitude to take toward death: “Black rider, black rider, hold it right there/ The size of your cock will get you nowhere/ I suffer in silence, I’ll not make a sound/ Maybe I’ll take the high moral ground/ Some enchanted evening, I’ll sing you a song/ Black rider, black rider, you been on the job too long.”
Although this verse makes no direct allusion to I Cor 15:55 (“O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory”) or to John Donne’s famous sonnet, this is Dylan’s version of “Death Be Not Proud.” The language has been coarsened to fit the song’s wild west setting. Death asserts his power by boasting of the size of his male member. (Donne’s poem employs sexual imagery as well: “And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well/ And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?”)
But the singer now realizes that for all Death’s seeming invincibility, he has already been swallowed up in victory. The high moral ground in the face of death is humble acceptance–to suffer in silence–in the recognition that all flesh is grass. But since we know that death is not the end, if we are spiritually prepared to meet our Maker, to go without a sound whenever our time comes, then we can fly to death as the man flies to the stranger he sees in the standard, “Some Enchanted Evening.”
The most complex allusion in the stanza is the final line’s quotation from “Duncan and Brady”: “you been on the job too long.” In the version of the folk song that Dylan recorded in 1992 (which was based on versions recorded in the early 60s by Dave Van Ronk and Tom Rush) that line is repeated at the end of every verse. (By contrast, Leadbelly performances of “Duncan and Brady” often did not feature the line at all.)
Brady is a corrupt lawman who intends to “shoot somebody just to see him die.” Thus the black rider, in Dylan’s western version, is a disreputable sheriff who kills indiscriminately. Brady comes to arrest Duncan as death comes for us all, but Duncan shoots him in the chest killing him. Or, as Donne phrases it, “Death, thou shalt die.” Brady, referred to repeatedly as King Brady, is taken to the graveyard, definitively defeated. When the women hear that King Brady is dead, they dress in red to celebrate, no longer having to live in fear. Death has been on the job since Cain killed Abel, but after Christ freed us, he had been on the job too long.
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