Bob Dylan’s “Stranger”: please help me find my way out of this

by Tony Attwood

This song from the New Basement Tapes has the music written by Marcus Mumford, who of course also performs it.

In an interview in Mojo he said, “There’s a conversation within the song, so I enjoyed singing as the object and the subject.   That’s a style you find through reading people like T.S. Eliot who jump around in conversations all the time, and Dylan does that all the time in songs. It also has a kind of outlaw feel to it, and that was fun to play with.”

Now Mr Mumford knows lots of stuff that I don’t, and before I saw his comment my guess was that one day Dylan suddenly thought of the line “Never fall in love with a stranger” and then started sketching out ideas around that.  Had he wanted to finish the song and add the music he would, I suspect, have changed some of the opening lines…. Either to make it make more sense, or to make it more convoluted all the way through.

As it is through the first and second verse we seem to be in a classic lost love song but then after the “if I can’t resist” interlude we get

She knows that our love more than any river flows
And I’m done now, all of my intentions are exposed
Not hidden in my clothes
Or in between my toes

I wanna tombstone pearl handle revolver
Don’t wanna meet a pale man with a halo in his hair

And we are in a very different province, quite possibly a different country and a different time.  Are we really jumping fromthe 20th century back to the Wild West?

So I get the feeling (and of course this is just me rambling around within the lyrics) that Bob would have either cut this section to keep the song very simple and just about the stranger, or taken this section as the core of the song, maybe kept the opening line but made these surreal themes of the revolver and the halo and substance of the song, and explored them in all the other lines.   But that is just my feeling.

As it is we get a mix of lines.  And maybe a reader more versed in American meanings can indeed tell me that there is a particular symbolic signifcance in the gun that the singer seeks (I did a bit of looking up but couldn’t exactly place that model revolver with any famous man in the Wild West.)

So for me the lack of connection between the everyday-ness of the opening has to be resolved in the Wild West – the world of “howdee stranger” and the inward looking nature of the small towns portrayed in Westerns.

But that’s the limit of my knowledge of the era, so I really do need help here if sense can be made of the whole song.

Here are the lyrics in full

Never fall in love with a stranger
And that, son, they all said to me
And never fall in love with a stranger
But I can’t help it if she falls in love with me
And never fall in love with a stranger
Now, they’ve gone against my command
And never fall in love with a stranger
The pain is written in my hands
But if I can’t resist
Find my way outta thisShe knows that our love more than any river flows
And I’m done now, all of my intentions are exposed
Not hidden in my clothes
Or in between my toes

I wanna tombstone pearl handle revolver
Don’t wanna meet a pale man with a halo in his hair
Never fall in love with a stranger
But sometimes I simply do not care

And if I can’t resist
Get my way outta this

She knows that our love more than any river flows
And I’m done now, all of my intentions are exposed
Not hidden in my clothes
Or in between my toes

I done things right, pretty much all of my life
I’m not looking for any sympathy
I can run all I like away from that stranger
But somehow she’ll always follow me

On the other hand if this is, as I suspect, very much an unfinished piece, pushing meaning into it is going to a false lead.

Musically though the highlight for me is the A E B chord change with “not hidden in my clothes” etc – that suddenly pulls us up straight and forces one’s attention on the lyrics.  If only I could make sense of the lyrics, or if only Bob had finished them off, if my supposition is correct, then it would move from being an enjoyable outing to a moment of considerable significance in Bob’s writing.

Or maybe it is not meant to make any sense at all.

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  1. Musically this reminds me very much of a mid 70s Stephen Stills solo track.

    I love the line

    I wanna tombstone pearl handle revolver
    Don’t wanna meet a pale man with a halo in his hair

    Even though I don’t really have any idea how it fits in the rest of the lyrics

    Wonder if the line “She knows that our love more than any river flows” was on his mind when he wrote that verse for the Ballad of Easy Rider…

    But, yeah, one of my favourite tracks on the album from a music perspective.

  2. Also, “The Stranger” is a well known Western movie trope. The Tony Anthony starring “A Stranger In Town” came out in 67 so it’s possible Bob saw this.

    Here is the plot:

    The Stranger rides into the empty border town of Cerra Gordo. He gets into some trouble with some Mexicans and ends up making a deal with their leader, Aguilla. He will convince the commander of a US cavalry detachment to give the band the gold and will receive half for his efforts. Instead, he is given only a dollar and savagely beaten. He returns with a vengeance to destroy the gang and recover all of the gold. In a twist of the Fistful duel, the Stranger confronts a wimpering Aguilla, smacks him around and gives him a chance to fight for himself. The Stranger’s shotgun is unloaded, as is Aguilla’s machine gun. The first to reload is obviously the winner. Which is the Stranger. He rides away a rich man.

    Other Western’s using the Stranger trope:

    Rachel And The Stranger – 1948
    The Good, The Bad and the Ugly- 1966
    The Tall Stranger – 1957
    An episode of Bonanza called The Stranger in 1960

  3. Besides the Rachel movie, Robert Mitchum also stars in ‘The Man With The Gun’ ( 1955) – the “never stay in one town too long’ hired-gun ‘town tamer’ with his two bone-gripped revolvers that he uses effectively against the ‘Lady Tombstone’ riders – amid a potential love triangle.

  4. Robert Mitchum, Clint Eastwood (The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly), Gregory Peck (The Gunfighter), and James Stewart (Bend Of The River) are among his favorite Western actors by the look of things.

  5. In the 1948 movie, Mitchum sings -in a setting similar to Bob Dylan’s CBC ‘Quest’ log cabin of 1964:

    Once was a man
    A hateful man
    Had a wife but could not see the danger
    Till one day, one fateful day
    Along came a tall dark stranger
    (Tall Dark Stranger)

  6. Take what you have gathered from coincidence:

    Oh, sister, when I come to lie in your arms
    You should not treat me as a stranger
    Our father would not like the way that you act
    And you must realize the danger
    (Bob Dylan: Oh Sister)

  7. Dylan would have seen ‘A Fistful Of Dollars” – “A Stanger In Town” is essentially a later revised ‘remake’ of the Eastwood movie.

  8. And that Fistful Eastwood film is essentially a ‘remake’ of the Japanese samurai film ‘Yojimbo’ which borrows from the motifs of western movies …..round and round it goes, where it stops nobody knows.

  9. And then Yojimbo inspired much of Star Wars ep 4…esp the third act…particularly the Cantina scene… Fourth Tine Around!

  10. ‘The Man With The Gun’ scene with the chandelier ‘from New Orleans’ in the ‘Palace’ saloon takes its cue from
    F Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby.’

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