Black Rider part 6:   ‘Tis but a scratch


Previously in this series…

by Jochen Markhorst

VI         ‘Tis but a scratch

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 take a sword, and hack off your arm

It is the second-weirdest line of verse in the song, I take a sword, and hack off your arm. Of course, Shakespeare has plenty of limbs hacked off too (Henry V, Julius Caesar, Titus Andronicus), but when we hear this line surely we all think of that other classic from the canon, of Monty Python and The Holy Grail (1975), of Scene 4, “Arthur Meets a Brave Knight… and Cuts His Limbs Off”:

BLACK KNIGHT: None shall pass.
ARTHUR: I have no quarrel with you, good Sir Knight, but I must cross this bridge.
BLACK KNIGHT: Then you shall die.
ARTHUR: I command you, as King of the Britons, to stand aside!
BLACK KNIGHT: I move for no man.
ARTHUR: So be it!
ARTHUR and BLACK KNIGHT: Aaah!, hiyaah!, etc.
[ARTHUR chops the BLACK KNIGHT’s left arm off]
ARTHUR: Now stand aside, worthy adversary.
BLACK KNIGHT: ‘Tis but a scratch.
ARTHUR: A scratch? Your arm’s off!
BLACK KNIGHT: No, it isn’t.
ARTHUR: Well, what’s that, then?
BLACK KNIGHT: I’ve had worse.

We all know the continuation. The Black Knight does not give up, loses his right arm as well, fights on without arms, kicking ferociously, loses his legs, then offers a draw, and as a now bored Arthur continues his march without further regard for the Black Knight who is now reduced to a torso plus head, the Black Knight shouts after him: “Oh, I see. Running away, eh? You yellow bastards! Come back here and take what’s coming to you. I’ll bite your legs off!”

The build-up to Dylan’s bizarre final line in no way prepares for the alienating finale. In fact, it seems mostly a rather classic build-up to a bouncer that will confirm that the Black Rider is a metaphor for Death, or something similarly profound. At least, pleas like tell me when, tell me how, the suggestion that “now is the time”, and heavily symbolic images like a door that will now be opened, push the associations rather compellingly in that direction.

The key line, My soul is distressed, my mind is at war is likewise hardly alarming; a fairly classic mirroring with My heart is at rest from the previous verse as well as a “normal” bridge to I suffer in silence in the subsequent, final verse. The substantively rather empty distinction between “my heart”, “my soul” and “my mind” has been used by Dylan, for little insightful reasons, since 1963, since “Don’t Think Twice” (I give her my heart but she wanted my soul), but that is a sticking point that has little to do with this. The word choice and combination are remarkable, though. We know a distressed mind from the age-old English street ballad “Lily Of The West”;

I courted lovely Flora
Some pleasure for to find
But she turned unto another man
Which sore distressed my mind
She robbed me of my liberty
Deprived me off my rest

… which is also in Dylan’s repertoire (officially we know the fine, somewhat un-Dylanesque recording from Dylan, 1973), just as a distressed soul is rather archaic. A word combination that we mostly encounter in stiff nineteenth-century translations of the Classics, often with Proust, or also with Shakespeare (“O, that thou wert not, poor distressed soul!”, Comedy Of Errors, for example).

My mind is at war, then, is still somewhat alienating. The thrust – the narrator being in an emotional crisis – is clear, but the specific choice of words seems inappropriate; my mind at war signals an inner conflict, a moral dilemma, something like that. But not so much an emotional crisis anyway as a mental one. Which the subsequent accumulatio only illustrates all the more explicitly. Don’t hug me, don’t flatter me, don’t turn on the charm… all outward-looking imperatives to ward off emotional expressions – not utterances signaling mental conflict, at any rate.

A friendly analyst might then still conclude that the narrator in “Black Rider” is emotionally troubled to such an extent that his mind is affected, that his mind tries to ward off feelings of anger, confusion, of depression perhaps even, and then becomes at war with himself. But that same kind analyst must then also admit that the last, extremely aggressive threat (I hack off your arm) is, like all the other words in this verse, directed outwards, towards the black rider. Or to the Black Knight, for that matter.

The incongruity and alienating choice of words does not bother Dylan himself, apparently. The live performances of “Black Rider” are textually faithful; he changes virtually nothing about the words for dozens of live performances. But there is a turnaround nonetheless; when he resumes his Never Ending Tour in Japan in the spring of 2023, playing “Black Rider” for the 103rd time, the song has taken on a gorgeous, dreamy arrangement – from the second verse onwards suddenly tightened, with continuous drum accompaniment and leaning on the same simple guitar lick, or rather strum, with which Jimi Hendrix always opens “Red House”. Dylan lets the lick carry the song until the end.

It’s a wonderful find, unexpectedly giving the song a hypnotic, waltz-like candance – and the charge of a verse like I’ll hack off your arm suddenly a warm glow. Enhanced further by Dylan’s diction; he sings it almost affectionately. “I have no quarrel with you, good Sir Knight.”

Bob Dylan – Black Rider live in Tokyo, 15 april 2023:

To be continued. Next up Black Rider part 7: A feeling for words


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:


One comment

  1. “The Songs Of Maldoror” by Lucien Ducasse, a prose/ poem satirical and dark-humoured, greatly influences “Black Rider” (as it does Beelzebub-like “Tarantula”):

    “…..first tear off the arms of your mother (if she still lives), cut them up into little pieces, and eat them in a single day … ” (Ducasse -translated)

    Warning though – for those wanting matters more snugly and warm, best to bring down the censor’s hammer.

    “…with his hand, he feels the large wound in his neck, in which the tarantula has become accustomed to use as a second nest …” (Ducasse)

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