Dylan’s Christian anthology 3: Black rider and Made up my mind

By Kevin Saylor

“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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  1. Again the analysts’ interpretation is not without merit, but it is over-imposed;
    imposed upon the author and/or his persona, and the lyrics.

    Had the writer wanted to present himself in the song as an unwavering believer in orthodoxy, surely he could have made the lyrics far less ambiguous.

  2. This is quickly becoming one of my favorite series on this site. Thanks Kevin. I hope that once you complete it you’ll consider tackling more Dylan songs.

  3. Knowing that figuratively speaking death is not the end is one thing, but to attribute it to the royal ‘we’ as if a literal absolute is a presumptuous imputation that has never been established as reality, neither for narrator or listener has the door been opened – so state the lyrics above… the Gates of Eden are sealed.

  4. Nonetheless, the thought that the physical body can be restored after death appeals to Gothic Romantic writers like Edgar Allen Poe, for example.

  5. Ambiguity is one major strength of Dylan’s lyrics (his detractors would say a major weakness as they claim not to understand what he is saying). Since Empson’s ‘Seven Types of Ambiguity’, we have learnt that great writers, attuned to the language and semantical complexities of their age, have consciously exploited this. This approach is also able to accept any possibly non-intended meanings, which enrich the reception of the work.
    ‘You’ is a simple word, which everyone can understand, but in Dylan’s hands it acquires a multiplicity of contexts. Therefore, I don’t believe you need to tie down ‘you’ to God alone(‘I’ve Made up my Mind…’), and if you do, you are possibly reducing the
    power and quality of the song.Not only ‘I’ contains multitudes.

  6. Yes indeed, Dylan grabs hold of the listener’ attention by placing tension in his songs that puts the listener on edge wondering if it will be resolved before the song is over
    …..only to leave them still wondering.

  7. ‘Black Rider’ could also be a song about someone who is fighting against making a pact with the devil. Possibly more Faustian than just ‘Media vita in morte sumus’. This would
    posssibly link it more to the folktale ‘Der Freischütz ‘, also the basis for the collaboration of theatre director Robert Wilson, musician Tom Waits, and writer William S. Burroughs
    in their musical ‘The Black Rider’.
    Certainly, the lines ‘You’ve seen the great world and you’ve seen the small
    You fell into the fire and you’re eating the flame’ suggest a knowledge of hell.

  8. Waits:
    Come along with me Black Rider
    I’ll drink your blood like wine

    Dylan (ealier):
    Never could learn to drink that blood
    And call it wine

  9. The tight connection between Christian ritual and Gothic vampirism is not emphasized much outside All Saints’ Day.

  10. Bringing it all back home to:

    She said that all the railroad men
    Just drink up your blood like wine

    Which could well be a reference to Eugene O’Neill’s play ‘Emperor Jones” that features ‘magic bullets’ and the desire for power.

  11. There’s likely an allusion to a clever anti-romantic satire of yore that’s easily construed as being on a job too long:

    Or do you think it’s simple to drive an upright cock
    Into the depth, only to come across yesterday’s meal
    (Juvenal: Nineth Satire ~ translated)

  12. Larry wrote:

    “Had the writer wanted to present himself in the song as an unwavering believer in orthodoxy, surely he could have made the lyrics far less ambiguous.”

    But that was not a claim Kevin was making, was it? He writes of the singer’s persona rather than simply of Dylan, and he does not claim the the song has a single, univocal meaning. Just that it has one interpretation that Kevin thinks is the most fundamental or interesting.

    Anyway, by the same logic you could just as well say the opposite, yes: had the writer wanted to present himself as an unbeliever or ex-believer etc., surely he could have made the lyrics far less ambiguous?

    (The pre-supposition seems to be that the only sincere mode of expression allowed of Christians is spoon-feeding and bible-thumping, a la the Saved album. Probably I am being too harsh.)

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