by Jochen Markhorst
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
“Creative ability is about pulling old elements together and making something new,” Dylan says in the Wall Street Journal interview with Jeff Slate. That’s in December 2022, so Dylan’s conception of art is no longer really surprising; by then, we’ve known for more than 20 years that Dylan doesn’t so much borrow the occasional line here or metaphor there, but that he cobbles together whole songs out of odds and ends and bits and pieces.
What is new, though, is Dylan’s clarity – he has never expressed this so bluntly before. Interviewer Jeff Slate wants to hear it again, and comes back to it a few minutes later, when they pretty much conclude the topic of creativity. “Are you able to listen to music passively,” Slate asks, “or do you think maybe you are always assessing what’s special – or not – about a song and looking for potential inspiration?” Dylan’s answer is crystal clear:
“That’s exactly what I do. I listen for fragments, riffs, chords, even lyrics. Anything that sounds promising.”
Riffs or chords he does not seem to have borrowed for “Black Rider”. The music under the lyrics is remarkably complex, as a delighted Eyolf Østrem argues and demonstrates in his brilliant, comprehensive analysis “Black Rider – Dylan’s most complex song ever” on his site things twice (Black Rider – Dylan’s most complex song ever). Østrem is a highly versed musicologist, and cannot recognise the harmonic structure – so suspects that the music is a Dylan original. Although he still does build in a disclaimer; “If he has written it himself, which obviously can’t be taken for granted these days, given his track record of musical thievery. But for the sake of argument: his most complex song.”
The lyrics now in this third verse, on the other hand, prove more and more to be an example of Dylan’s working method of pulling old elements together and making something new. The opening, Black rider, black rider, all dressed in black, would have been disappointingly tautological if the clichédness of the word combination all dressed in black had not already detached itself from its content.
After all, we know it from hundreds of songs, and among them are quite a few monuments. “I’m Waiting For My Man”, of course (Here he comes, he’s all dressed in black), “Fool If You Think It’s Over”, “Heartbreak Hotel”, “Blues in D” by the McGarrigle sisters (All dressed in black, he won’t be coming back), “Cocaine Blues”… in Dylan’s jukebox alone, there are probably more than a dozen records to listen to with the words (all) dressed in black.
Which is equally true of the other lines in this verse. “I don’t want to fight” is already just as over-used (“Let The Good Times In”, Costello’s “Tears Before Bedtime”, Tom Petty, Arthur Alexander’s “Soldier Of Love”) as “I’m walking away” + all variants of “looking back”, which has been trotted out by poets since Orpheus and Eurydice, for thousands of years in other words.
Characteristically, 21st-century Dylan additionally draws from the literary canon. At least, a somewhat archaic sigh like My heart is at rest could theoretically also come to him via a lyric (Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Cry of the Wild Goose”, for instance), but seems, also given the other Shakespeare paraphrases here on Rough And Rowdy Ways in general and here in “Black Rider” in particular, to have come from the Supreme Bard, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Titiana: “Set your heart at rest: The fairy land buys not the child of me”).
Less uncertain is the source of Go home to your wife; that’s most likely an echo of…
Stop ramblin' and stop gamblin' Quit staying out late at night Go home to your wife and family Stay there by the fireside bright
… of “Goodnight Irene”, one of the indestructible pillars under the song canon since John Lomax recorded Huddie ‘Lead Belly’ Ledbetter’s granite version in prison, at the Louisiana State Penitentiary Angola, in 1933. And has since been recorded by everything and everyone. From Pete Seeger and The Weavers to Keith Richards, Ry Cooder and Frank Sinatra, and one of the best might be Little Richard, with Jimi Hendrix on guitar, just before his dishonourable dismissal from the band.
But the Nobel laureate is not just a thief of thoughts, of course. His lyrics, in turn, inspire entire generations of artists. Often enough with overt tributes in the form of quotations, as in Hootie & the Blowfish’s world hit “Only Wanna Be With You”, or the dozens of quotes and references Gillian Welch incorporates into the songs of her wonderful album The Harrow And The Harvest (2011). Or like, less noticeable, the last line of this verse, One of these days, I’ll forget to be kind, a few months after its release seems to echo in the opening lines of one of the most beautiful songs by the phenomenon Taylor Swift, the moving “Marjorie”;
Never be so kind, you forget to be clever Never be so clever, you forget to be kind
It is a superb ode to the memory of Taylor Swift’s grandmother, the opera singer Marjorie Finlay, and Taylor explains that she incorporates life wisdom and advice from her grandmother, who died in 2003. Which is touching enough, but perhaps a slightly embellished version of the genesis. Swift wrote the song just after the release of her album Folklore, 24 July 2020, and well before December 2020, when “Marjorie” is released – exactly in the weeks when Taylor, like the rest of the music-loving world, has Rough And Rowdy Ways on her turntable. And presumably has heard Dylan sing, “I’ll forget to be kind” more than once.
Yeah well. “All these songs are connected,” as Dylan says in that wonderful speech, in the MusiCares speech, February 2015.
To be continued. Next up Black Rider part 6: ‘Tis but a scratch
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:
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Masterpiece in Blue
- Blonde On Blonde: Bob Dylan’s mercurial masterpiece
- Where Are You Tonight? Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic from 1978
- Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965
- Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan’s Summer of 1967
- Mississippi: Bob Dylan’s midlife masterpiece
- Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits
- John Wesley Harding: Bob Dylan meets Kafka in Nashville
- Tombstone Blues b/w Jet Pilot: Dylan’s lookin’ for the fuse
- Street-Legal: Bob Dylan’s unpolished gem from 1978
- Bringing It All Back Home: Bob Dylan’s 2nd Big Bang
- Time Out Of Mind: The Rising of an Old Master
- Crossing The Rubicon: Dylan’s latter-day classic
- Nashville Skyline: Bob Dylan’s other type of music