Sam Peckinpah’s film Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid, on which Dylan was involved, is of particular interest for the comparison it draws between the eponymous characters. While history presents them as representing good and evil respectively, the film suggests that morally there’s little to distinguish them. Both, for example, are gunslingers out to get revenge, both use prostitutes, and both die in a gunfight, the victims of revenge. Señor takes a not wholly dissimilar approach, blurring distinctions between good and evil by uniting them in the narrator.
The narrator combines the characters of Billy the Kid and Christ. As the former, he’s the chief protagonist in the Lincoln County War between opposed financial interests in late nineteenth century New Mexico. The conflict is notable in that both factions enlisted the support of lawmen and criminal gangs, so that again there is no sharp division between good and evil. The narrator seems to be an outlaw looking for revenge on the person who betrayed him. When he can’t find her, he settles for pointlessly wrecking the place he thinks is harbouring her.
At the same time, but independently, the narrator is Christ – or at least Christ-like. The first verse hints at this when it has the narrator say:
‘Seems like I been down this way before
Is there any truth in that, Señor?’
The words ‘way’ and ‘truth’ in close proximity reminds us of Christ’s saying ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14.6).
And in the final verse he wants to:
‘Overturn these tables’
a clear reference to the incident in the Jerusalem temple which is held to have precipitated Christ’s arrest and subsequent crucifixion.
Other indications that the narrator is Christ include a reference to the cross, his being called ‘Son’, and an implication that he’s scourged – ‘stripped and kneeled’ (Matt 27: 27-30). There’s also perhaps a hint of the resurrection in the phrase ‘pick myself up’.
Despite these characteristics the narrator-as-Christ comes across as thoroughly human and far from confident. He’s constantly asking for information and advice. His humanity is also emphasised in the phrase ‘I stripped and kneeled’. The gospel account of Christ’s passion has the mob kneeling before him in mockery, so in kneeling he seems to be being treated as one of the mob. And as such he comes across not so much as a redeemer but as in need of redemption.
We’re told nothing about the person addressed as ‘Señor’ in the majority of the verses. Nevertheless from the mode of address it’s clear that this person is respected and looked to for direction. The Spanish title perhaps links him to New Mexico and the Lincoln County War so on one level – where the narrator is a gangster – he may be a gang boss.
It’s noticeable however that not one of the narrator’s nine questions gets answered. Thus the Señor seem to be no ordinary human. It may be that where the narrator is to be seen as Christ, the Señor is God. The narrator is thus putting his faith in God since he lacks the confidence to answer his questions himself. The Senor’s lack of response leaves us with the impression that either there is no God, or else that God is relying on the narrator to achieve his purpose without direct, divine intervention. That the narrator might at this point have a skewed idea about the nature of God is suggested not only by his excessive reliance on him, but by his seeming to think that even God might not have the answers – ‘Do you know…’ he asks, and ‘Can you tell me …?’.
The question the song ends with:
‘Can you tell me what we’re waiting for, Señor?’
not only goes unanswered but, with its echo of Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, implies that to rely on God for answers is to take the wrong approach. Yet by the end of the song the narrator is already thinking about actions of the sort the historical Christ took. He’s begun to achieve his, possibly divine, purpose unaided without the need of answers from God.
Third Verse: The Ancient Mariner
Two verses, the third and the fifth, stand out from the rest in that neither of them is addressed to the Señor. Instead they seem to represent the narrator’s thoughts prior to his gradual adoption of a more self-dependant attitude. Ironically what brings about this self-dependence seems to be thoughts of revenge. We learn in the second verse that he’s searching out an unnamed ‘her’ – perhaps someone whose betrayed him – while at the same time remaining wary of a counter-attack.
The more immediate onset of the narrator’s self-reliant attitude is presented through his realisation that he can play a part in defeating evil. That there’s evil in the world, and that its perpetrators can be redeemed, is presented by way of allusions to Coleridge’s poem The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner. In that poem the eponymous mariner tells of how he was punished for needlessly killing an albatross by being made to wear the dead bird round his neck ‘instead of a cross’. While the burden fell away once his crime had been expiated, the ship’s crew suffered death for approving it.
In ‘Señor’ the action equivalent to the falling away of the albatross has yet to occur:
‘There’s an iron cross still hangin’ down from around her neck’
Instead of an albatross, or Christ’s cross which the albatross replaced round the ancient mariner’s neck, his adversary ‘s guilt is represented by an iron cross, thus emphasising the association of evil with war and militaristic conquest.
By using the word ‘still’ in ‘still hangin”, The narrator seems to see evil as on the one hand continuing, but on the other as capable of being overcome. The word achieves the same effect in the preceding line:
‘There’s a wicked wind still blowin’ on that upper deck’
and its use again in the immediately succeeding line is also suggestive of hope.
‘There’s a marchin’ band still playin’ in that vacant lot’
The ‘marchin’ band’ would seem to represent the unrewarded activity (since there’s no one around to hear them) of people with the potential to redeem others. That they’re still playing shows they haven’t given up. The verse ends with the narrator’s realising that he has a role to play in responding to his adversary’s plea for redemption – ‘Forget me not’.
The woman is made to wear the iron cross as a punishment. She has betrayed the narrator (one assumes) but may also represent Eve, or – since ‘upper deck’ puts us in mind of the ‘upper room’ in which Christ predicted his betrayal – even Judas. As Eve, she represents mankind in need of redemption and her ‘hiding’ thus represents Eve’s attempt to hide from God. In trying to find her, the narrator is both a Billy character bent on revenge for personal betrayal, and a redeemer responding to her plea not to be forgotten despite having betrayed God.
Fifth Verse: The Fools And The Gypsy
The fifth verse again represents the private thoughts of the narrator – and it again represents progress in the narrator’s outlook. It takes up where the third verse left off, beginning by referring back to the woman’s plea for redemption, ‘Forget me not’:
‘The last thing I remember before I stripped and kneeled
Was a trainload of fools bogged down in a magnetic field’ 1
At this point his pessimism causes him only to remember humanity in its fallen state, those lost forever like the crew on the ship. They’re fools in that ‘the fool hath said in his heart, there is no God (Psalm 14.1) – something which the narrator avoids doing despite receiving no response to his questions.
The fools too, it’s implied, are wearing iron crosses whose weight, or magnetic attraction to the bog, represents their spiritual demise.
Just as Coleridge’s mariner is redeemed, and the crew lost, so we can assume the woman will be redeemed but not the fools – at least while they remain fools. Before becoming instrumental in bringing about redemption, however, the narrator once more puts his trust in an external source.
‘A gypsy with a broken flag and a flashing ring
Said ‘Son this ain’t a dream no more, it’s the real thing’
In apostrophising him as ‘Son’, a term appropriate to Christ as son of God, the gypsy is confirming the narrator’s status as redeemer. If ‘a broken flag and a flashing ring’ refer to the flag pole and a band used to repair it (a flashing ring being a ferule used to hold a pipe in place), the flag and ring are likely to represent either Christ’s death and resurrection, or (which may amount to the same thing) the fallen state of the world and its subsequent redemption. The gypsy, in effectively calling his Son to action, represents God. But he’s not the Señor – the God of simple answers.
That the narrator recalls the gypsy’s words, suggests that he is now prepared to take on his allotted role as redeemer. That he does in fact take on the role is indicated by his use in the final verse of the gypsy’s language. Where the gypsy had said ‘Son, this ain’t a dream no more‘, the narrator declares:
‘This place don’t make sense no more‘
The repetition of ‘no more’ identifies him with the gypsy, and so with God. Accordingly he’s ready to begin his mission of redemption represented by overturning the tables in the Temple.
Time And Eternity
As the Christ-like narrator comes to realise he needs to act, a sense is created of time speeding up. Early in the song ‘How long…?’ occurs twice, giving the impression that time is barely moving, and a similar impression is created by the occurrence of ‘still’ three times in the third verse. By contrast the sixth verse finds the narrator hurried – ‘Well, give me a minute’. Time stretching out is associated with the world of betrayal and revenge, and an absence of time with the world’s redemption.
There is no one era in which the song seems to be set. The Lincoln County reference suggests late nineteenth century, whereas the colloquial language is late twentieth century. The effect is to make time seem unreal, and this is reinforced in a number of ways. First, we realise that what has still to happen – what the narrator’s ‘waiting for’ in the last line – has happened already:
‘Seems like I been down this way before’
Secondly, an allusion to the resurrection in the sixth verse make it seem to take place between the third and fourth lines, so that it is happening as the narrator speaks:
‘I just gotta pick myself up off the floor
I’m ready when you are, Señor’,
This is anachronistic even within the confines of the song since the events which historically led up to the resurrection (‘let’s … overturn these tables’) have still to happen.
‘How long must I keep my eyes glued to the door?’
is similarly anachronistic in that the precaution to which it alludes is presented as continuing to be taken after it can no longer be of use. From a temporal perspective it’s too late because the narrator has already been caught – as is implied by his having stripped and kneeled.
The overall effect is to place these events outside of time, enhancing their significance by giving them a non-temporal permanence.
The answer to the narrator’s question about his destination:
‘Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?’
is therefore both. The fact that Billy the Kid’s famous battle is in the past and Armageddon is in the future makes no difference – the Lincoln County war and Armageddon are two aspects of the same battle between good and evil. Armageddon is no more just a one-off future event than the Lincoln County battle was just a one-off past event. Both are eternal, and one’s murderous intent in one will be one’s fate in the other.
Similarly the woman’s plea to ‘forget me not’ followed her act of kindness in holding the narrator in her arms. But the expression ‘she held me in her arms one time‘ suggests not just a passing event, but an eternal event – a kind act of permanent significance.
Tales Of Yankee Power
That the events of the song are not applicable to any particular time or place is also suggested by the sub-title ‘Tales Of Yankee Power’. They highlight a need for redemption that’s ongoing and everywhere. For that reason the setting is as much nineteenth century America as first century Jerusalem. Initially the sight of ‘that painted wagon’ causes the narrator to think of a ‘trainload of fools’ – presumably a wagon-train load – and only after that is he reminded, by way of its being a gypsy’s caravan, of the gypsy.2
In that it’s a wagon train, the fools are pioneers setting about conquering the west. They’re American invaders travelling in convoy for safety. This explains why the narrator can ‘smell the tail of the dragon’; he’s aware of the beginning – just the tail – of American domination, the dragon representing a power-mad, twentieth-century America.
It is, then, this awareness of a nascent dragon which further impels the narrator to take action. Initially he tries conciliation:
‘Can you tell me who to contact here, …’
but when this doesn’t work:
‘… their hearts is as hard as leather’
he advocates a more radical approach:
‘… let’s disconnect these cables,
Overturn these tables’
It’s this approach which leads to his death, the act of redemption.
However, the placing of Christ’s first century action in a nineteenth century context seems to imply that redemption is ongoing, not limited to a particular time or place. Thus when the narrator despairingly cries:
‘This place don’t make sense to me no more’
it’s not just first century Jerusalem but the world throughout its history which is in need of reform.
Although redemption is a major focus of the song, its main concern is with who can achieve it. Contrary to traditional Christianity, the view seems to be that it’s up to individual humans to redeem themselves and help redeem others. The narrator represents such a person. While on one level he can be interpreted as wholly unrepentant outlaw, on another he is no more than a flawed human being capable of redeeming himself and others.
On the first level he can be seen as a Billy the Kid killed in the process of attempting to exact revenge. He’s a gangster whose overturning of tables, far from to bring about a new order, is an act of wanton destruction. And his picking himself up off the floor is literal – what he does having lost a fight – and is not to be interpreted metaphorically as resurrection.
On the other level, though, he is a different character, only superficially similar to the gangster. His overturning of tables is far from wantonly destructive. It’s this version of the character alone to whom the two verses of private thoughts belong. And it’s these thoughts that mark him out as a potential redeemer. Nevertheless, the Christ-figure here is far removed from the Christ of the gospels. He’s human, through and through. He lacks confidence, needs to be cajoled, initially wants revenge and takes time to see that purely human actions might fulfil a divine purpose.
1 That the ‘stripped and kneeled’ refers to Christ’s scourging is perhaps reinforced by a compression of ‘fools’ and ‘bogged‘ to make us think of ‘flogged’.
2 The expression ‘painted wagon’ is perhaps inspired by Coleridge’s description of the motionless ship:
‘As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean’
In each case the effect is to give an impression of stagnation associated with guilt.
Minor revisions 23/23.4.17