“Man in the Long Black Coat” by Bob Dylan – A lesson in songwriting and “interpretation”

Oh Mercy

“A song is like a dream, and you try to make it come true. They’re like strange countries that you have to enter.” (Bob Dylan, Chronicles Volume 1, 165.)

In this post I do not offer an interpretation. Instead I merely present the song and a few comments from Mr. Dylan himself regarding how one particular dream “came true.” I also am writing this as a confession that the “interpretations” I offer on this blog must remain tentative, being subservient to  the realities of artistic expression, in which there is a real sense in which artists themselves may not fully “know” their subject, let alone the “interpretation.” But they are certainly closer to it, because they experienced the “subjective feeling” that they sought to express as well as they could through music and lyric. Dylan himself confesses that sometimes this birth process is difficult, the results can be varied.

“Sometimes you say things in songs even if there’s a small chance of them being true. And sometimes you say things that have nothing to do with the truth of what you want to say and sometimes you say things that everyone knows to be true. Then again, at the same time, you’re thinking that the only truth on earth is that there is no truth on it. Whatever you are saying, you’re saying in a ricky-tick way. There’s never time to reflect. You stitched and pressed and packed and drove, is what you did.” (Chronicles, I:220; italics mine)

I think Dylan’s statement that “there’s no truth on it” (earth) probably means that, in general, our attempts to express truth are imperfect in their result (see note below). His statement regarding the artistic process shows that if the artistic expression of “truth” is in a sense imperfect, then any interpretation of that imperfect expression will generally be even more imperfect in relation to the original “truth.” It is akin to the problem of the accuracy of hearsay.

The song I have chosen as an example of creative “songwriting” and collaborative “song-making” is from on of Dylan’s best albums, “Oh Mercy” from 1989. It was recorded in New Orleans, as you may uncannily be able to tell! It was produced by Daniel Lanois, who had previously produced a few of the best albums in the catalogue of U2. To me it is a favorite album, period. An “if I was stranded on a deserted island” album.

In the amazing “Man in the Long Black Coat” I think Dylan was mainly able to “say what he wanted to say.” In the following excerpt he describes how this song pressed its way into existence through a master songwriter, a master producer, and a small band of excellent musicians.

“We recorded “Man in the Long Black Coat” and a peculiar change crept over the appearance of things. I had a feeling about it and so did he. The chord progression, the dominant chords and key changes give it the hypnotic effect right away – signal what the lyrics are about to do. The dread intro gives you the impression of a chronic rush. The production sounds deserted, like the intervals of the city have disappeared. It’s cut out from the abyss of blackness – visions of a maddened brain, a feeling of unreality – the heavy price of gold upon someone’s head. Nothing standing, even corruption is corrupt. Something menacing and terrible. The song came nearer and nearer – crowding itself into the smallest possible place. We didn’t even rehearse the song, we began working it out with visual cues. Before the lyrics came in, you knew that the fight was on. This is Lanois-land and couldn’t have been coming from anywhere else. The lyrics try to tell you about someone whose body doesn’t belong to him. Someone who loved life but cannot live, and it rankles his soul that others should be able to live. Any other instrument on the track would have destroyed the magnestism. After we had completed a few takes of the song, Danny looks over to me as if to say, This is it. It was.” (Chronicles, I, 215-216)


Crickets are chirpin’, the water is high
There’s a soft cotton dress on the line hangin’ dry
Window wide open, African trees
Bent over backwards from a hurricane breeze
Not a word of goodbye, not even a note
She gone with the man
In the long black coat

Somebody seen him hanging around
At the old dance hall on the outskirts of town
He looked into her eyes when she stopped him to ask
If he wanted to dance, he had a face like a mask
Somebody said from the Bible he’d quote
There was dust on the man
In the long black coat

Preacher was a talkin’, there’s a sermon he gave
He said every man’s conscience is vile and depraved
You cannot depend on it to be your guide
When it’s you who must keep it satisfied
It ain’t easy to swallow, it sticks in the throat
She gave her heart to the man
In the long black coat

There are no mistakes in life some people say
It is true sometimes you can see it that way
But people don’t live or die, people just float
She went with the man
In the long black coat

There’s smoke on the water, it’s been there since June
Tree trunks uprooted, ‘neath the high crescent moon
Feel the pulse and vibration and the rumbling force
Somebody is out there beating a dead horse
She never said nothing, there was nothing she wrote
She gone with the man
In the long black coat

Copyright © 1989 by Special Rider Music
Note:  I think his statement simply means that the “expression of truth” by man, is not a perfect “communication of truth.” Therefore his statement is not really against the belief that objective truth exists. He is merely stating that the subjective expression of objective truth is imperfect. I also do not think Dylan’s statement that “there is no truth on it (earth)” pertains to Scripture, which is an altogether different order of expression, being the “words” of the transcendent God through created man. (A monist may disagree but that’s another subject.) I think that Dylan has a high respect for Scripture as Scripture, through evidence in many of his songs throughout his entire career. In fact, his statement may imply that objective truth, including scripture, is not from earth.

Comments, critiques, questions,are always welcome!

Original Content © Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

14 thoughts on ““Man in the Long Black Coat” by Bob Dylan – A lesson in songwriting and “interpretation”

  1. Great quote at the beginning about writings songs like making the dream come true. Always interested to hear great writers take on it. Will have a listen to Man in the Long Black Coat again. I´ve read Chronicles, but didn´t actively check that song out at the time. Some great stuff on that album though. Lanois´s solo stuff is quite good too. Nice post.

    • Bryan says:

      Last night I was re-reading the chapter called “Oh Mercy” in Chronicles and found these things Dylan said. His “take” on songwriting made me want to do a post on the precariousness of interpreting songs – like I have been doing on this blog! I’m anxiously waiting for volume 2 from Bob – its been almost ten years. The only thing I’ve heard by Lanois is “Shine” which is pretty good, but naturally doesn’t come close to “Oh Mercy.”

  2. Yep, Lanois main thing is the sound, the production. Bob said some great things about him in Chronicles. The atmosphere in those sessions turned Bob´s creative process on its head. Difficult to compete with Bob in the lyrical department, but Lanois was involved greatly in capturing the feel of that album. Yep, it´s that old “dancing about architecture” adage. Very precarious, but you know sometimes that interpretive dancing stuff is fun (i.e. the talking about music part). I´ve been listening to Bob´s latest offering this morning. Love the optimistic sound of Dusquesne Whistle. Sounds like he was having much more fun than on previous albums. Some great lyrics on it too, and the new version of Roll On, John, his tribute to Lennon, is very touching.

    • Bryan says:

      Yes I had read that whole section in Chronicles and it’s so interesting to hear the details of that collaboration of Dylan and Lanois. I’ve been listening to “Tempest” also and agree with what you say. Most of the critics didn’t like “Roll On John” but again, I’m with you. Thanks for revisiting this post and for your comments!

  3. Just came across this in case you haven´t seen it already: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IyXYVx5TJmA

    • Bryan says:

      I have not seen this yet, so thanks so much for sharing it – I’ll be sure to watch it! And thanks much for stopping by and checking more of my Dylan posts!

  4. He talks about several songs, including Man in the Long Black Coat too. Worth checking out.

    • Bryan says:

      I just watched the interview you recommended, of Daniel Lanois on the making of “Oh Mercy,” and am so glad you brought it to my attention! It is a real privilege to be given some insight of the creative process that resulted in that masterpiece. Of course, as I mentioned in this post, the album is an all time favorite of mine, so I really appreciate anything about it. Thanks again!

      • No problem. My pleasure. Glad to have pointed you in the direction. It was a first for me to see it too. Seems to be a pretty cool fella that Lanois. Seems like he really helped Dylan plough new ground.

  5. Dan F. says:

    The world needs another Lanois-produced Dylan album of original songs – needs, but does not deserve.

  6. Paul Landon says:

    Possibly my favourite song on a favourite Dylan album.
    Always found the lines “But people don’t live or die, people just float” to be intriguing due to a bereavement close to the albums release.
    Even more intriguing how he quickly dropped those lines and has rarely used them in any live version since!

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