The features which perhaps stand out most, apart from its borrowed title and vague origin in traditional folk songs, are the various incongruities which appear throughout the song. It’s by way of resolving these that the song’s meaning will be made clear – that it’s about a man who reacts to bad news by doing nothing.
There are a ten main sections including the conclusion. These are headed:
3. A Dream
4. The Boss’ Character – Preliminary
5. The Wife
6. The First Victim
7. The Survivor
8. The Boss’ Character – Positive
9. The Boss’ Character – Negative
If time’s short, reading Sections 1 – 4 and 10 should be enough to get the gist.
Temporal incongruities fall essentially into two types – those concerning the structure of the song and those concerning the era in which the song seems to be set.
The very last line of the song makes it clear that what we’re being told is happening could not possibly actually be happening. There’s insufficient time for it. This is because the song is narrated from a time a maximum of a night and a day away from the arrival home of the boss:
‘It was late last night when the boss came home’ (v 1)
If the boss then takes a further night and a day to reach the place where his rival has taken ‘the lady’, that means that the boss’ arrival coincides with the narrator’s telling of the story. That itself stretches credulity. But as if that were not enough, we’re then informed that:
‘Funeral torches blazed away
Through the towns and the villages, all night and all day‘ (v 28)
One wonders how the narrator can possibly know that because he has to be speaking before the last mentioned night and day. It seems he’s speaking about things which haven’t happened yet, as if they’ve already happened. The two night and day periods which the song covers have in some way been mapped onto a single night and day which is the maximum available time for the song’s events to have occurred in.
The era in which the song is apparently set also seems to involve the mapping of one time onto another. ‘Boss’, as a term meaning master, was first used in the nineteenth century. Accordingly the term’s being used here indicates that the events must occur sometime between the early nineteenth century and the present day. The same can be inferred from there being an ‘electric wire’. The boss’ reference to a coat and tie also suggests a relatively modern period, as do various colloquial expressions like ‘gutless ape’. In addition, the temporal setting is narrowed down from the other direction by the fact that both men travel by horse. Overall the setting would appear to be the nineteenth century.
Contrasting with this, however, are a number of features clearly representative of an earlier era. These include a gun which fires balls rather than modern bullets and, from an even earlier period, a helmet and a cross handled sword.
When the two eras meet we can’t help getting an impression of absurdity. Even if it’s plausible for someone to be wearing a coat and tie while on a long journey on horseback, that he should also in the days of electric light have a helmet on his head and be carrying a sword is ridiculous.
There are obvious temporal incongruities, then, which need explaining.
Just as the time frame seems distorted, so do the identities of the characters. A key line is perhaps:
‘It was hard to tell for certain who was who’ (v 8)
While the point being made is that in the darkness the boss can’t tell Henry Lee and ‘the lady’ apart, once the three are together it becomes impossible to know for sure who’s speaking on a number of occasion. It’s as if their identities have merged.
The main problem occurs after the gun (assuming it is just one gun) has been fired. It’s unclear whether it’s the boss or Lee who has been killed. Consequently, in the conversation which follows with the lady (verses 21-27), it’s impossible to tell whether it’s the boss or Lee she quarrels with or which one she stabs. The lines:
‘”You shot my husband down, you fiend”‘ (v 22)
suggest it was the boss who’s been shot. However her interlocutor’s amazed reply suggests it was Lee:
‘”Husband? What husband? What the hell do you mean?”‘ (v 22)
It would seem that there is no single answer to the question about who was killed first.
3. A Dream
The very title ‘Boss’ gives the impression of a tough character no sane person would mess with. Perhaps he’s a mafia godfather. His behaviour in seeking instant revenge for Henry Lee’s insult would then be just what we’d expect. But things are not so straightforward.
That appearances are deceptive first becomes apparent when we consider the boss’ behaviour in the third verse:
‘The boss he lay back flat on his bed
He cursed the heat and he clutched his head
He pondered the future of his fate
To wait another day would be far too late’ (v 3)
If the boss is the tough character we might think he is, it seems unlikely that, on hearing that his wife has gone off with another man, he’d go for a lie down. Not only does he do that, but the news seems to have knocked him out. It’s made him feverous – ‘he cursed the heat’ – and given him a headache. Certainly no Al Capone this fellow! He believes there’s no time to lose in getting revenge and – he falls asleep! It’s not a deep sleep. It’s a half-waking sleep. But everything which happens from now on is a dream characterised, at least in part, by wish fulfilment. Or perhaps it’s a cross between a dream and a day dream in which the boss gives way to wishful thinking.
Early corroborations of the fact that the boss is dreaming come in the series of incongruities which follow the third verse. Leaving aside the implication that he’s wearing his best clothes when going off on a difficult journey on horseback, there’s the line:
‘”If you see me go by, put up a prayer”‘ (v 4)
If he were actually up and about and speaking to someone, it would be to his servant. There can be no question of the servant seeing him go by, though. That implies the servant would be somewhere on the route. It’s the sort of request you’d make to someone you think might be looking out for you in the hope of catching a glimpse. The line cannot plausibly be being spoken, then, because in the circumstances it doesn’t make sense. The only person hearing it would be at his starting point and already seeing him. What the line does, perhaps, is gives us an indication of the boss’ self-centredness, imagining he could be the focus of attention. But the main thing is, it helps confirm that the events aren’t real.
The next incongruity is the line:
‘Insomnia raging in his brain’ (v 6)
If the boss were on horseback, this wouldn’t make sense. It implies he’s trying desperately to get to sleep but can’t, whereas if he were actually on horseback the opposite would be likely. As he rode he’d quite possibly be falling asleep – it’s night, and he’s tired – but desperately trying to remain awake. If, on the other hand, he’s in fact on his bed, it’s quite plausible that his bad news, and the pressure to take action, are preventing him from getting to sleep despite his tiredness and his fever and his headache. And so, instead of sleeping, insomnia rages and he becomes delirious.
One final indication that what we have is a dream comes from the final verse:
‘All three lovers together in a heap
Thrown into the grave forever to sleep
Funeral torches blazed away
Through the towns and the villages, all night and all day’ (v 28)
The bodies, it seems, have just been dumped in a communal grave. This would be unlikely and especially unlikely since one belonged to the ‘chief of the clan’. Furthermore, if this were to happen, it would hardly have been accompanied by such a light display. In reality, that is. In dreams anything can happen.
4. The Boss’ Character – Preliminary
It’s not, then that he’s some mad, quixotic character actually attired in jacket and tie while mounted, and at the same time wearing a helmet and sword. We can dismiss that as dream stuff. But it is true he’s dreaming he’s some sort of knight in armour going off to rescue a damsel from the clutches of a monster. In his dream it’s all serious – serious wish-fulfilment. He wants to be the sort of story-book hero which he quite clearly isn’t. In fact the dream becomes a vehicle for presenting his contrasting fantasy-view of himself with a deeper self knowledge. The former is in evidence when he continues to behave in his dream like a character from medieval fiction:
‘He lowered himself down on a golden chain’ (v 9)
This is the stuff of fairy tales. So is his later seeing his wife as a ‘bloody queen’. It’s not just in his dream he romanticises her like this either. His dream world, it would seem, is just an extension of a delusional everyday escapism. Right at the opening of the song he finds ‘a desolate throne’ – doubtless a reference to a make-believe, fairytale world which he inhabits.
That he sees himself as some sort of hero is confirmed just after he imagines his arrival. ‘(H)is knuckles were bloody’ suggests that, in his mind, he’s already violently dealt with his enemy. However, this imagined valour is immediately followed by an unfortunate piece of bathos:
‘He ran his fingers through his greasy hair’ (v 9)
Obviously, as we all know, real heroes don’t have greasy hair. Here, in his dream, he can’t help letting the anti-heroic truth come through. Deep down he knows the character he creates for himself is nothing more than a fiction.
This truth, that the boss is anything but the sort of character he’s imagining himself to be, is further indicated in what are the first words spoken about him:
‘”Don’t worry about him, he wouldn’t harm a fly”‘ (v 10)
Again the truth is coming through. The valiant, bare-knuckle fighter has been replaced by a feeble wimp. In his dream the boss is hearing from the lips of his wife what he knows to be true. Indeed this propensity not to stand up for himself might have been in part what encouraged her to leave him ; she knew he wouldn’t respond with violence. Nothing that follows gives the lie to this statement of hers because any later bravado on his part is just part of his dream.
5. The Wife
In addition to the fact that she’s prepared to exploit her husband’s weakness, we learn a number of other things about the boss’ wife from his dream. First she patronises him, treating him like a child – ‘Silly boy’. Then when the sight of her beauty all but makes him violent, she goads him – ‘feed your eyes’.
We also learn from the dream how she appears in his eyes. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it suggests he has conflicting thoughts. The first is positive, that she’s really loyal. The second is that she deserves to die. Both might be dismissed as wishful thinking.
That he wants to think she’s loyal is reinforced by her line:
‘”All husbands are good men, as all wives know”‘ (v 25)
Although this might appear on the surface an absurd thing to say, it makes some sense as a representation of the boss’ desire to believe his wife repentant and appreciative after all. But the wording also betrays his fear that nothing about him could be the object such appreciation. There’s nothing about him which is not to be found in ‘all men’.
The view of his wife which conflicts with this – that she deserves to die – is represented by her suicide. Of course, this is the sort of romantic ending to a life one could imagine the boss thinking up, and as such it fits well into his fantasy world. Nevertheless it can be seen as the wife getting her just deserts for leaving him.
Speech involving the wife enables a range of views to come across about both her character and the boss’. This is particularly so when it’s unclear who is speaking or who is being addressed. There are two occasions of such ambiguity involving the wife. In the first it’s unclear who is being addressed:
‘”You’re a reckless fool, I could see it in your eyes
To come this way was by no means wise”‘ (v 12)
The wife is speaking, but it could be to either man. And depending on which it is, a different aspect of her character comes across. If it’s to the boss, she’d be showing her true colours – resenting his presence, and in so doing confirming in his mind how hard done by he is. On the other hand, if she’s speaking to Henry Lee, it might be taken as forceful criticism of his choice of route to their hideout- a criticism over which the (dreaming) boss can exult. It would seem she’s no more going to be dominated by Henry Lee than she was in her marriage by the boss.
A few verses later it’s the speaker, rather than the person being addressed, which is in doubt. These lines could be spoken either by the wife, demonstrating – from the boss’ point of view – how intractable she is, or by the boss, thereby demonstrating his strength of will:
‘”You’ve had your way too long with me
Now it’s me who’ll determine how things shall be”‘ (v 17)
And the meaning of the boss’ lines which follow these will depend on whether or not it was indeed the wife speaking:
‘”Try to escape,’ he cussed and cursed
‘You’ll have to try to get past me first”‘ (v 17)
If his wife was the previous speaker, these lines of the boss could be a response implying he thinks she’s just threatened to escape from him. But if he was the previous speaker, then he’d be just backing up his claim to ‘determine how things shall be’. Either way, the boss comes across as someone determined to exert his will – in ironic contrast to the actual boss in bed at home dreaming.
6. The First Victim
The first two killings are enigmatic in that we don’t know who dies, or who the killer is, in either case. All we know is that if it wasn’t one man, it was the other.
There’s a prefiguring of the confusion in verse nineteen where there’s no way of telling whether it’s the Boss or Henry Lee who is speaking and sounding forceful:
‘”Look sharp, or step aside ‘
Or in the cradle you’ll wish you’d died”‘ (v 19)
It could be the boss intending to get past Lee to his wife, or equally it could be Lee determined to leave – possibly with the wife.
This initial uncertainty is then repeated when the shots are fired. Although one of the men is killed, it’s not clear who because it’s not clear which one has the gun. Indeed there could be two guns, the first fired by the boss, say, and the other by Henry Lee. Or maybe Lee fired first, and missed, and the boss then fired accurately. The reference to a ‘ball’ in the description of the second firing suggests an antique weapon – a flintlock perhaps – and that the boss would imagine himself with such a weapon would seem consistent with what we’ve already seen of his character. Another possibility is that either man could have fired two shots in fulfilment of, or in response to, the threat just quoted.
The upshot is that we don’t know who was killed.
7. The Survivor
And because we don’t know who was killed, we don’t know which man survived. From this point on the male speaker is either the boss or Henry Lee. A case can be made for either.
That it’s the boss seems quite likely from the fact that ‘his arms ached’ – which one would expect after his exploits with the golden chain. If so, he can still be seen as exerting his authority:
‘”If you don’t mind, I’ll have the knife”‘ (v 24)
and sounding tough:
‘” My fighting days have come to a halt”‘ (v 26)
but at the same time a sulk – his true character coming through:
‘”This is all your fault”‘ (v 26)
In addition, if the survivor is the boss, his being stabbed by the wife would serve to corroborate in his own mind how cruel she is to him.
Nevertheless there’s further evidence which makes it not implausible that the survivor is Henry Lee. As mentioned above, this occurs when the wife says:
‘”You shot my husband down, you fiend”‘ (v 22)
These words should leave no doubt. The boss is the wife’s husband, so – it would seem – the person addressed must be Lee. On this interpretation, since Lee is insulted and later stabbed by the wife, one can only assume that the boss, in his dream, is exulting in his wife’s latent loyalty.
Ultimately, there’s no truth one way or the other about which one survived.
8. The Boss’ Character – Positive
The boss clearly has positive qualities, although most of what might be seen as positive attributions are at best ambiguous.
First, the narrator presents him as a boss, suggesting at least some sort of status. Secondly, the servant is shown speaking respectfully to him and whatever his fears of being deserted, this one has yet to desert.
In addition he has a certain amount of wealth, as seen from the fact that he can afford a mansion and the servant. On the other hand money may be tight given that in his dream he orders ‘the cheapest labour that money can buy’. But there again this could just be meanness.
From the dream episode we learn that he has a certain pride in his appearance, in calling for his coat and tie. We also learn that his face has ‘all the nobility of an ancient race’ – although it’s implied that this is only so when it’s in shadow. In fact a feeling of inferiority about his own facial appearance, leading to jealousy about his wife’s facial beauty, might explain the otherwise rather extraordinary command:
‘”Cover your face, or suffer the consequence”‘ (v 13)
a command which even more extraordinarily precedes his telling her to put her clothes back on. The order of the commands would be explained if her beauty is what’s uppermost in his mind – and which he’ll destroy unless she hides it.
9. The Boss’ Character – Negative
Instead of being about a strong man confronting adversity, the song can be taken as about a weak, or at least gentle, person who is all thought and no action. But is he gentle? It would seem that being someone who wouldn’t hurt a fly only sums up his surface character. Deep down he’s quite happy to will all sorts of revenge on Lee and his wife. Perhaps that adds to his interest. It makes him not so unusual – someone we might even identify with. Nevertheless one might laugh at the poetic justice inherent in his attempt to build himself up as a romantic avenger, an attempt which results only in his coming across as a ludicrous parody of the chivalrous knight he’s imagining himself to be.
The boss seems to lack stamina. He seems to be someone who gives up at the first hurdle. When we’re told that he ‘pondered the future of his fate’, the phrase ‘of his fate’ – far from being redundant (and nonsensical) as it might at first appear – serves to suggest that he’s giving in to what he sees as fate. Giving in to the assumption that he’s powerless to shape future events, he just goes to sleep. Similarly the line which follows:
‘To wait another day would be far too late’ (v 3)
which one might think merely an ungrammatical way of indicating that the boss thinks he’d better act straightaway, can also be taken as meaning there’s no point in acting. The boss is reasoning that it’ll take a day to reach his wife and by then it will be too late to do anything. So he doesn’t.
Further negative aspects of his character come out in the dream, some of them involving distortions involving time. One concerns his ability to delude himself. The first words he hears are:
‘”Got a strange premonition there’s a man close by”‘ (v 10)
‘Premonition’ – a word for knowledge about the future – is being used for knowledge in the present. It’s as if the boss is bringing a future event, an event which couldn’t take place before another night and day have elapsed, into the present. It’s as if he subconsciously realises he’s fooling himself by substituting for future revenge his present dream.
A similar possibly self-delusional collapsing of the future and present also seems to occur when we’re told he:
‘Crawled on his belly, put his ear to the wall
One way or another put an end to it all’ (v 7)
– not ‘would put an end to it all’ which would be required if putting an end to it all were a future event. The implication is he’s putting an end to the whole business now – that is, while his ear’s pressed against the wall. No further action is required – or so he takes comfort in convincing himself.
Another negative aspect is his apparent inability to get his words out straight while under duress – ‘what and for why?’ instead of ‘why and for what?’
And another is what would seem to be a replacement of one fact by another when the former would have seemed to present him as weak:
‘His knuckles were bloody, he sucked in the air’
The air seems irrelevant. What we can assume is that he in fact sucked his knuckles having hurt them, but doesn’t want to admit this even to himself.
Additionally, it would seem, he cannot command loyalty for long. Twice he’s ‘deserted’ – once by his wife and once, in his dream, by his men. One assumes that the latter represents self doubt – a fear based on prior evidence of what’s already happened once.
While we’re not told what he heard of the lovers’ conversation when he ‘put his ear to the wall’, the first bullet grazing his ear would seem to be a symbolic representation of the pain it gave him. In the light of this it’s notable that when he blames his wife at the end, he does so by whispering in her ear, thereby achieving like-for-like revenge. It would seem that he’s quite prepared to hurt someone emotionally – at least in a dream.
Finally, for negative characteristics, he has a ludicrously romantic view of himself, one that’s at odds with a perhaps suppressed meanness in his true character, but one which is brought to light in the dream. This is seen when he talks about gifts:
‘”I’d have given you the stars and the planets too”‘ (v 15)
He would have done – but he doesn’t! Instead, his ludicrous protestations of generosity are transformed into something more realistic, but just as unwarranted:
‘”Or never again this world you see”‘ (v 15)
Instead of giving her the whole universe, he swings to the opposite extreme and threatens to take away the world she has.
The timescale has made it apparent that the narrator could not possibly know the outcome of the boss’ journey if it were in fact a real journey. An advantage of the dream interpretation is that the problem doesn’t arise. What seemed like two nights and two days in the dream would in fact have been dreamt in only a matter of minutes. Accordingly, on waking up – maybe only minutes after lying down – there’d have been plenty of time for the boss to have related the dream, and for the narrator to have heard about it. We don’t need to know anything about the narrator, just that the tale need not be seen as an extraordinary example of omniscient narratorhood.
The dream allows the writer to present two very different aspects of the protagonist’s character. We see how he appears to the world – non-violent, easily succumbing to illness and prone to avoiding reality. And we see a darker side which only becomes apparent when he’s asleep – that he takes pleasure in the thought of violent revenge. We also see how in adopting a brave persona he’s capable of pretence, a pretence which extends to not admitting his weak points even to himself. But having two conflicting sides to his nature, one overt and one hidden, is not just a peculiarity of the boss. We’re left with the impression that what applies to him applies no less to us. The song can be seen as demonstrating the double-faceted nature of human psychology generally.