Black Rider (2020) part 2: O where are you going?


by Jochen Markhorst

II          O where are you going?

Black rider, black rider, you been living too hard
Been up all night, have to stay on your guard
The path that you’re walking on, too narrow to walk
Every step of the way, another stumbling block
The road that you’re on, (the) same road that you know
Just not the same as it was a minute ago
Vintage engraving of a pair of wrens, 1870


Unconventional the song certainly is. On all fronts, in fact. That goes for the opening words already, the opening line with its unusual metre. Black RIder, black RIder, you been LIving too HARD – twice an amphibrachys, twice an anapest.

In which, as so often with Dylan, the formatting of the official publication (on the site) differs from the recitation; the stanzas are published on the site as six lines. Presumably dictated by the rhyme, which thus appears aabbcc. However, the recitation is different – Dylan rather clearly sings 12 lines:

Black rider, black rider, 
You been living too hard
Been up all night, 
Have to stay on your guard
The path that you’re on walking, 
Too narrow to walk
Ev'ry step of the way, 
Another stumbling block
The road that you’re on, 
(the) Same road that you know
Just not the same as it was
A minute ago

Small textual differences between the official release and the studio recording illustrate that Dylan the Singer is guided by metre. The site says, for example, The path that you’re on. In the studio, Dylan sings The path that you’re walking. As he also sings it at the first live performance, Milwaukee 2 November 2021, and as he still sings it 104 concert performances later, April 2023 in Japan. Prompted by an apparent need to preserve the short-long-short, these dual amphibrachys; The PATH that / you’re WALking.

It is, oddly enough, a completely unusual metre. Strange, because it has an elegant, attractive rhythm that naturally imparts a waltzy cadence to the words. But in the canon, we really only know it from Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat”;

It’s four in the morning, the end of December, 
I’m writing you now just to see if you’re better


… which, given the song’s classic status, might have been a template. If Dylan applied his famous “Bob Nolan method”, as he explained to journalist Robert Hilburn, in a 1984 interview for the L.A. Times:

“What happens is, I’ll take a song I know and simply start playing it in my head. […] I’ll be playing Bob Nolan’s Tumbling Tumbleweeds, for instance, in my head constantly — while I’m driving a car or talking to a person or sitting around or whatever. […] I’m listening to the song in my head. At a certain point, some of the words will change and I’ll start writing a song.”

And this time, instead of “Tumbling Tumbleweed”, it might have been the monumental “Famous Blue Raincoat”. Possible, though not too likely. Content-wise, there is one thin overlap passage (Dylan’s Go home to your wife, stop visiting mine from the third stanza), and thematically, “Black Rider” has hardly any common ground with Cohen’s chilling, moving adultery ballad either. More attractive candidates can be found on Dylan’s poetry shelf. William Blake is a regular guest in Dylan’s oeuvre anyway, since the 1960s in fact, and resorts to the amphibrachys often enough. In Songs Of Experience (1789), for instance, the collection Dylan explicitly names as an inspiration in the opening track of Rough And Rowdy Ways, in “I Contain Multitudes”:

I sing the songs of experience like William Blake
I have no apologies to make
Everything’s flowin’ all at the same time
I live on the boulevard of crime
I drive fast cars and I eat fast foods . . . I contain multitudes

Somewhere halfway through Songs Of Experience we find the beautiful “The Garden Of Love”, which will also appeal to Dylan in terms of content; it is one of Blake’s both religious and sensual attacks on the rigidity of organised religion, on the church that is. Very musically contained in amphibrachs;

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

Graceful and dashing, but again an unlikely candidate for the template, for the song in Dylan’s head where “some of the words will change and I’ll start writing a song.” Another regular guest in Dylan’s discography is then a more likely “Bob Nolan on duty”: W.H. Auden. And then one of his all-time greatest, “O Where Are You Going?” (1932);

“O where are you going?” said reader to rider,
“That valley is fatal where furnaces burn,
Yonder's the midden whose odours will madden,
That gap is the grave where the tall return.”

…Auden’s breathtaking, near-perfect ballad with the same theme, choice of words and subcutaneous suspense as Dylan’s “Black Rider”. And quite conceivable it is, the step an in-his-head-reciting Dylan can take from “O where are you going?” said reader to rider to the man who seems to be on a quest as well, to Black rider, black rider, you been living too hard. For which Auden in turn, very Dylanesque, also had a template. A folk song even, to complete the circle; the eighteenth-century “The Cutty Wren”, with its opening lines

“O where are you going?” said Milder to Maulder
“O we may not tell you,” said Festle to Foes
“We're off to the woods,” said John the Red Nose

Popular in English folk circles, so many artists have the song in their repertoire, but its sinister undercurrent is nowhere more hauntingly captured than by Steeleye Span on 1996’s relaunch album Time.


Maulder, Festle and John the Red Nose, Auden’s rider, Blake’s love seeker and the man bereft of his blue mackintosh… all men on a quest. Just like the Black Rider. But o, where is he going?


To be continued. Next up Black Rider part 3: A Chance Is Gonna Come


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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