Bob Dylan: The lyrics and the music. Man in the Long Black Coat


By Tony Attwood

I don’t know what it means either: an index to the current series appearing on this website.    A list of the previous articles in this series appears at the end.


“The Lyrics and the Music” is a series by Tony Attwood which tries to find out what happens when one reviews a Dylan song not primarily as a set of lyrics, but as a piece of music which includes lyrics.   An updated list of previous articles in the series is given at the end.

This song from Oh Mercy was performed 286 times by Dylan between 1989 and 2013.  The video below starts with a few seconds silence.

The lyrics are at first hard to grasp although the chorus line is unmistakable:

Not a word of goodbye not even a noteShe gone with the man in the long black coat

And that of course gives us the clue to the essence of the whole piece – along with the fact that the mysterious man is so evidently portrayed in the way the music is written and performed.

It is a very unusual approach for Dylan, spending this time as he does creating the atmosphere – in fact so much atmosphere that it took me a while to get to listen to the lyrics when I first heard the song.  The beat doesn’t start until the 30 seconds marker and the melody only appears at one minute 15 seconds.

And indeed after a while we get the feeling this is never going to change, but finally we have a “middle 8” – much later than we expected.  And very obviously the harmonica is used to add to the atmosphere.  In fact we could say it is all atmosphere.

So everything about him is strange to the point of being utterly weird.  And the relief we feel both lyrically and musically when the middle 8 does finally get there, is overwhelming.

There are no mistakes in life some people sayIt is true sometimes you can see it that wayBut people don't live or die people just floatShe went with the man in the long black coat
And the notion that “people just float” is strange – it is not that we choose to be good or bad, it is not that we choose to follow the “way of the Lord” as it were, or not, we just float.  We have no underlying driving force, no passion.  Yes he quotes from the Bible – but what?  Old Testament?  New Testament?  Who knows – it is just something that somebody said.  And besides, “Somebody seen him hangin’ around.”
And then we have this really strange third voice – for which the music doesn’t change.  It stresses that logically we can’t use our own conscience to keep us on the right path because our conscience comes from ourselves, not from the Almighty.
To me it all gets a bit hard to follow lyrically, at this point and if it were not for the superb arrangement and delivery I might well have given up any thought of analysing the song at all, when we get to “She gave her heart to the man in the long black coat.”
He’s the outsider, the mysterious stranger, the lone man who passes by and steals the most beautiful woman in town.  And that feeling is helped along by the lines
But people don't live or die people just floatShe went with the man in the long black coat
There are these people out there who are not part of “us” – the man in the long back cloack is one, and it turns out the girl is one.  He has walked in, taken her, and they have gone.  We don’t know why.
And magically the music keeps up the mystery all the way through, for after that break in the spell with the middle 8 (“There are no mistakes in life…”) we are back with that plodding along through our own lives.  We cannot see what is beyond, only the stranger and the girl see that.
She never said nothing there was nothing she wroteShe gone with the man in the long black coat

The mystery of the situation and the inexplicable events are everything – and the music ensures that is all that we see and hear.

But by 2013 Bob was performing it with a beat so clear that one can dance to it.   The notion of the man walking in, taking the woman, walking on, is no longer there.   We can swing back and forth.   It has become lighthearted.  They leave.  Now it is no longer the end. There is no longer an issue.  The mystery is gone.  It’s just something that happens.

Softly softly golden oldies

It doesn’t mean the song has been destroyed.  Rather, it’s a different song with a completely new feeling, and indeed a new meaning.

The songs reviewed from the music plus lyrics viewpoint…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *