Man In The Long Black Coat (1989) Part 4: Those are the hills of hell-fire my love


by Jochen Markhorst


IV         Those are the hills of hell-fire my love

The preacher was a-talkin’, there’s a sermon he gave
He said, “Every man’s conscience is vile and depraved
You cannot depend on it to be your guide
When it’s you who must keep it satisfied.”
It ain’t easy to swallow, it sticks in the throat
She gave her heart to the man
In the long black coat

“Their consciences, God help them, were vile and depraved.”
(Sun Pie in Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, 2004)

 The conscience sermon seems to be, not only literally, the centre of Dylan’s lyrics. Of course, we do not know when Dylan wrote that entertaining Sun Pie Interlude in the “Oh Mercy” chapter of his autobiography Chronicles (2004), but it is very plausible that Dylan put it down on paper well after the song’s creation (March 1989, 15 years before the book’s publication). And that “Man In The Long Black Coat” gave him the inspiration for the Sun Pie Interlude (rather than the other way around).

In itself quite unique, by the way – Dylan building a myth around the creation of a song. We’ve seen it before with “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, of which Dylan declares that the nuclear threat of the Cuba crisis inspired him to write the song, which is demonstrably untrue (the song’s first performance was September ’62, over a month before the Cuba crisis). But otherwise, Dylan hardly ever expresses himself too clearly about leads, inspirations or triggers; he usually sticks to generalities like “Those kinds of songs for me just come out of the blue” (about “Roll On, John”) or “magic” (about “It’s Alright, Ma”) or “It’s like I saw the song up in front of me and overtook it” (about “Dignity”).

The myth-making around Hard Rain seems mainly motivated by youthful self-aggrandizing. That motivation will obviously not have played a role in the fairy tale Dylan composes around the creation of “Man In The Long Black Coat”; the man is sixty plus, doesn’t have to prove anything anymore and he hasn’t been asked about it either (as about Hard Rain, in the liner notes of The Freewheelin’). No, Sun Pie’s genesis seems to originate in a lust for storytelling, and then especially the lust to tell suggestive, insinuating stories, stories like Kafka writes them, like John Wesley Harding‘s songs are, like a song like “Tangled Up In Blue” is; stories that suggest more than tell, that give the illusion of factuality, that

„… das Leben in seiner realistischen, unverzerrten Wirklichkeit schildern, aber gleichzeitig als einen schwebenden, deutlich gesehenen Traum, also als eine realistisch gesehene Irrealität.

… portray life in its realistic, undistorted actuality, but at the same time as a floating, clearly seen dream, i.e. as a realistically perceived irreality.”

(Kafka‘s so-called “Petřín Hill Experience”, in his Reflections From The Year 1920)

The Sun Pie Interlude complies ceaselessly with Kafka’s ideal image of literature. It is realistic and undistorted, and at the same time dreamlike and unreal. The realistically perceived irreality is already set up by the exposition; Dylan sees from a petrol station an “obscure roadside place” across the road, “across a vacant field”, accessible only by a cow path. The name is slightly hysterical (“King Tut’s Museum”) and “the dust hung like a red cloud in the air”. Located, Dylan divulges suspiciously accurately, “off Route 90 near Raceland.”

This exhibition alone has exactly that misleading touch of reality to meet Kafka’s requirements. Just outside Raceland, which is some fifty miles from Dylan’s studio on Soniat Street in New Orleans, really is a gas station (Chevron) off Route 90, and indeed, across the road is a vacant field. In the 1930s, somewhere around there was located “Cheramie’s King Tut Saloon”… an old dance hall. In the outskirts of the town Raceland. Apparently, Dylan did some research to give the setting of his Sun Pie Interlude that semblance of reality.

A similar realistic unreality has his protagonist’s description, of the man with the unreal name Sun Pie. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, New Orleans musician Bruce Sunpie Barnes has more than local fame in Louisiana with his Louisiana Sunspots (which will grow; in 2015, Sunpie is a member of the Paul Simon band) – it is an option that the autobiographer Dylan knows and chooses that name for his protagonist. And that the associatively meandering stream-of-consciousness comes via the name of the Chinese warlord Sun Tzu (The Art Of War, roughly 5th century BC) to that alienating monologue about Chinese territorial drift, and the theory that the American Natives, the Indians, are actually Chinese. Belligerent Chinese, ancestors of Sun Tzu;

“Trouble was that they split up into parties and tribes and started wearing feathers and forgot they were Chinese. They started wars with each other for no reason, one tribe against another.”

Another one of those untruthful-looking stories that nevertheless has a touch of reality; recent DNA research on a 14,000-year-old human skull indeed confirms an older theory that wandering Asians reached America via a land connection that is now the Bering Strait and are the ancestors of native Americans.

A nice touch, but the most interesting detail is Sun Pie’s occupation: carpenter. By which Dylan, deliberately, we may assume, seems to be revealing an inspiration for “Man In The Long Black Coat”: the old folk song “House Carpenter”, the song Dylan recorded in 1962 and released on The Bootleg Series 1-3 in 1991.

The folk song from probably the 17th century, also known as “The Daemon Lover”, “James Harris”, “The Carpenter’s Wife” and more names, tells the story of the woman who leaves her husband the carpenter and children to go with a strange man. In some variants the ghost of her first love, in others simply a mortal man, in still others the devil himself. In Dylan’s version, the latter:

Oh what are those hills yonder, my love
They look as dark as night
Those are the hills of hell-fire my love
Where you and I will unite


We also know that the song is no one-hit wonder in Dylan’s inner jukebox; in March 1970, during the fifth Self Portrait recording session, he records another “House Carpenter” (with partly different lyrics; released on The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait in 2013). But in almost all variants, including the ones Dylan chooses, the carpenter’s wife takes the boat – the boat that the first-person from “Man In The Long Black Coat”, in the bridge, is still trying to catch (“I went down to the river but I just missed the boat”).

They are, all in all, enough hints to understand the song as an answer song, a song like the answer to “He’ll Have To Go”, Jeanne Black’s “He’ll Have To Stay” (which in turn was answered by Johnny Scoggins with “I’m Gonna Stay” – it has a happier ending than Dylan’s song) or the witty “Slip-In Mules (No High Heel Sneakers)” by Sugar Pie DeSanto, the irresistible answer to Tommy Tucker’s “Hi-Heel Sneakers” (also 1964). Songs in which usually a lady replies, either melodramatically or humorously, to a usually somewhat macho-talking man.


Dylan’s “Man In The Long Black Coat” is then – in that scenario – a reversal of the cliché: the cheated and abandoned husband from “House Carpenter” now gets the spotlight and the microphone, and gets to lament the injustice done to him.

The autobiographer closes the Sun Pie Interlude in style. In farewell, Dylan is presented with a bumper sticker, and not, as one might hope from King Tut’s Museum, an Egyptian ring that sparkles, and travels back via what should be perceived as an unreal realistic route:

“We stopped only once more, and that was at Jesuit Bend, but before nightfall we were back on St. Charles Avenue. I’d gotten back to New Orleans with a clear head.”

It is impossible to drive from Raceland to New Orleans via Jesuit Bend; the separating bayou, with Lake Salvador, Bayou Perot and Bayou Rigolettes, has no roads and is impassable for a motorbike. Well, maybe it is, but at most in a floating, clearly seen dream.


To be continued. Next up Man In The Long Black Coat part 5: Happy Little Accidents


Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:


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