The song represents the progression of the narrator’s thoughts as he tries to overcome a debilitating penchant for adulterous sex. That he’s obsessed with sex is suggested by phrases with sexual connotations which recur throughout the song. These include ‘Black Rider’, a name suggestive of both sex and immorality, and expressions such as ‘living too hard’, ‘up all night’ and ‘on the job’, as well as the more explicit ‘size of your cock’. By contrast romance figures only once in the song, at the end.
The mysterious ‘Black Rider’ comes across not so much as a separate person from the narrator but as a mere device. It’s an aspect of the narrator which the latter treats as responsible for his sex drive, for exercising his freewill, and as a stand-in for people who, even in his imagination, the narrator fears addressing directly. As a supposedly independent facilitator of the narrator’s actions, it enables the narrator to avoid taking responsibility for them. And by way of criticising the Black Rider, the narrator is able to disingenuously avoid criticising himself. Furthermore, the Black Rider, as object of the narrator’s sympathy, enables the latter to indulge in unwarranted self-pity.
I’ll take each of the five verses in turn.
The song begins with the narrator indulging in self-pity and making weak excuses for his lack of action. The opening lines suggest he’s concerned about the consequences of his lifestyle. But instead of remonstrating with himself as an adulterer, he offers sympathy as if to someone else:
‘Black Rider, Black Rider you been livin’ too hard
You been up all night havin’ to stay on your guard’
The second line suggests that the narrator cannot sleep for worry; hence the self-pity. He’s been ‘up all night’ in a sexual sense, but also in that he’s had to stay alert to avoid being caught with someone else’s wife.
Then comes the first of two excuses. By way of his proxy, the narrator claims to have been impeded from living a sexually pure life:
‘The path that you’re walkin’ – is too narrow to walk
Every step of the way another stumblin’ block’
What the stumbling blocks are we’re left to imagine – more available women, perhaps.
The excuse is reinforced with a cynical condemnation of biblical advice. In saying the path is ‘too narrow’, he’s implying he’s been following the biblical injunction to:
‘Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction …. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life …’ (Matt 7. 13-14)
That the road the narrator has chosen is too narrow implies, ironically, that it’s leading to his destruction just as much as the wide one would. The fault, we’re led to believe, is not in himself but in the bible.
He finds another excuse. The road he’s following has changed:
‘… it’s not the same as it was a minute ago’
In what sense it’s changed is unclear. He seems, though, to be implying that he would have been able to take it if it had been easy due to its familiarity. In so doing he’s ignoring the fact that taking the narrow road is expected to be difficult. The excuse seems to demonstrate a lack of commitment.
Here, not only does the narrator use the Black Rider addressee as a device to enable him to avoid blaming himself, but we find he uses metaphorical, alliterative, and euphemistic language to deceive himself about the extent of his responsibility and commitment to self-reform.
He’s loath to quash the aspect of his character he represents as the Black Rider, seeing it as accounting for the richness of his life:
‘You’ve seen the great world and you’ve seen the small’
He begrudgingly recognises that he needs to act against this part of himself. Using the image of fire to represent disaster, he says:
‘You fell into the fire …’,
Once again, the tone is one of self-pity, but it’s unjustified. The alliteration on the letter ‘f’ seems designed by the narrator to make us not notice the significance of ‘fell’. The word ‘fell’ implies (as ‘jumped’, for example, wouldn’t) that the disaster was not of the narrator’s making. But since we can also take ‘fire’ to represent the narrator’s passionate behaviour, then whatever disaster ensued would seem to have been his doing.
The narrator’s language now becomes euphemistic. While he advises himself about how to avoid:
‘… eating the flame’,
(i.e. how to avoid wilfully accepting the consequences of his behaviour) it’s not for any moral purpose. It’s merely so that he can:
‘… stay in the game’.
The ‘game’ is presumably a euphemism for a sex-orientated lifestyle, as its similarity with the expression ‘on the game’ might suggest. He seems to be implying that his aim will be at best to modify, rather than significantly change, his lifestyle.
The verse ends:
‘Be reasonable, Mister – be honest be fair [or ‘be honestly fair’]
Let all of your earthly thoughts be a prayer’
While this looks at first like a genuine attempt to act appropriately, this isn’t the case. The commitment to prayer is unlikely to be heartfelt given that his commitment to the biblical ‘narrow way’ wasn’t. That he’s just giving an appearance of honesty is further suggested by his addressing his Black Rider aspect rather than himself. He’s passing the buck. If he ends up not being reasonable, honest and fair, he’ll be able to kid himself that it’s the Black Rider’s fault rather than his own.
By the third verse, the narrator has apparently made some progress. The verse begins with him proudly convincing himself that he’s been successful in giving up his licentiousness. He’s:
‘… walking away’,
– the word ‘away’ hinting that he’s following the biblical, narrow way that he’s been only pretending to follow earlier.
Nevertheless, he’s tempted to return to it:
‘You try to make me look back’.
Once more he’s blaming the Black Rider, this time for tempting him rather than admitting that the temptation is a product of his own desire.
When he says about his heart being at rest:
‘… I’d like to keep it that way’,
the word ‘way’again reminds us of the biblical narrow way. We know he’s not going to be able to ‘keep it that way’ without effort. Alas, though, he wants to have his cake and eat it:
‘I don’t want to fight – at least not today’
The final clause is reminiscent of St Augustine’s prayer, ‘Lord, make me chaste and strong willed but not yet’. The procrastination, like his earlier excuse, suggests the narrator lacks commitment to a more moral way of life.
There’s an alternative interpretation of the line:
‘I don’t want to fight – at least not today’
which requires it to be taken together with the final two lines of the verse:
‘Go home to your wife stop visiting mine
One of these days I’ll forget to be kind’
While these lines purport to be spoken by the narrator to the Black Rider, they make better sense if they’re taken as spoken by the husband of the woman the narrator is hoping to seduce. On this interpretation, the three lines represent a desire for an amicable resolution on the part of the husband. They’re unlikely to be the husband’s actual words, of course – he’d be extraordinarily forbearing if they were! They are more likely to be a representation of how the narrator unrealistically hopes the husband will react if he catches his wife and the narrator together.
What also suggests the language is really the narrator’s rather than the husband’s is the phrase:
‘One of these days …’
– it’s another example of the narrator’s tendency to procrastinate.
If this latter interpretation does represent how the narrator is thinking, he’s not only fooling himself about a possible outcome of a potential or actual affair but he’s fooling himself that he’s decided to go no further. Like Augustine, he’s happy to be neither chaste nor strong willed.
Suddenly any remnant of the narrator’s resolution has gone to the wind. Now he’s making himself subservient to the Black Rider. Whereas in the previous verse it seemed he wanted nothing to do with the Black Rider, in each of the first three lines of this one he begs for the Black Rider’s help:
‘Black Rider, Black Rider tell me when – tell me how
If ever there was a time then let it be now
Let me go through – open the door’
He wants help in achieving – what? There are two possibilities.
The first possibility is as follows. In pleading:
‘… tell me when – tell me how’,
he’s wanting to know when and how he can begin, or can continue, an illicit relationship. He is no longer opposing the adulterous outlook the Black Rider part of him represents. Accordingly, the demand to:
‘… let it be now’,
represents an impatience for such a relationship (and along the way a further about turn, since the demand conflicts with his claim in the third verse to not want to fight – ‘at least not today’).
On this account, his plea:
‘Let me go through – open the door’
is a plea for access to the woman. In demanding the door to be opened, he’s reneging on his earlier advice to his Black Rider aspect to ‘seal up your lips’. We might even see the Black Rider morphing, in the narrator’s mind, into the woman. It’s her he is pleading with to let him in.
The change of attitude is accompanied by another change. His heart is no longer ‘at rest’ but, as he declares:
‘My soul is distressed my mind is at war’.
In admitting this, he seems fully aware of the gravity of his change of attitude, for he sees it as harming him mentally.
The final lines of the verse seem to be an anticipation of the woman’s response to his desire for an immediate, illicit relationship:
‘Don’t hug me – don’t flatter me – don’t turn on the charm
I’ll take out a sword and have to hack off your arm’
It’s curious that ‘arm’ in ‘hack off your arm’ is in the singular. Is he imagining hugging her with just one arm? More likely it’s that he can’t bear to admit that it’s not his arm which the woman would see as the offending part in need of hacking off!
At all events, the anticipated response is not what he wanted. In his mind she’s rejecting him, and doing so forcibly. Abandoning his decision to avoid immoral sexual relationships is a strategy destined to fail.
The second explanation for what might be going on in this verse is that the narrator is keeping to his decision to avoid immoral sexual relationships. In demanding:
‘… let it be now’,
he’d be trying to summon the courage to end the relationship. That too would explain his distress. The active part of his mind would be ‘at war’ with the promiscuous aspect represented by the Black Rider.
This interpretation can also accommodate both the third line of the verse:
‘Let me go through – open the door’
and the penultimate line:
‘Don’t hug me – don’t flatter me – don’t turn on the charm’
The narrator, addressing the woman, is attempting to prevent her from undermining his efforts to end the relationship. She’s attempting to stop him from leaving. She is now indistinguishable from the Black Rider part of him that wants the relationship to continue – hence in addressing the Black Rider, he is also addressing her.
Once again, the words need not actually be spoken by the narrator.
The ‘arm’ in:
‘I’ll take out a sword and have to hack off your arm’
would again be the narrator’s. He’s threatening to mutilate the philandering ‘Black Rider’ aspect of himself if he gives in to the woman. Again, the euphemistic use of ‘arm’ can be seen as a refusal to confront the gravity of the situation and so represents a lack of commitment. It’s also significant that in the printed version of the song (though not the sung version) he says he’ll:
‘… have to hack off your arm’.
The otherwise redundant ‘have to’ also suggests a lack of commitment – as if the effort required would be too much.
Either of the above interpretations seems to reflect the narrator’s thoughts equally well. Since, even for him, there may be no fact of the matter about which interpretation reflects his true state of mind, his decisions in the final verse might be taken as in response to either, or even both together. Thus, with respect to the first interpretation (that he’s once again contemplating having an illicit sexual relationship), his statement:
‘The size of your cock will get you nowhere’
would represent an abandonment of his decision to pursue such a relationship. With respect to the second interpretation (that he’s contemplating ending the relationship), it would represent an endorsement of his decision to end the relationship. On either account he no longer has to fear dire physical consequences, and for that reason he’s comfortable using ‘cock’ instead of ‘arm’.
Consistent with each interpretation is his decision to:
‘… suffer in silence …’
Suddenly he hits on a new strategy. He can make out his position is a moral one:
‘Maybe I’ll take the high moral ground’
Were he to adopt this strategy, it would be consistent with suffering in silence and seem to fulfil the advice of the second verse to ‘be honest, be fair’. The glib tone, however, suggests that opting for ‘the high moral ground’ would be no more than a pretence – a mere ruse for achieving his original, illicit end. There’s further support for this in his getting the expression wrong – saying ‘high moral ground’ when the usual expression is ‘moral high ground’.
But does he suffer in silence? Almost as soon as it’s adopted, the policy of silence is abandoned. Having just promised to suffer in silence, he backtracks – literally at least:
‘Some enchanted evening I’ll sing you a song’
Now, the possibility of a ‘moral’ approach is joined by a romantic one as part of a new strategy for seducing the woman. That this too is just a strategy is clear for two reasons. First, he’s using the title of a song rather than being direct, and in so doing is pretending there is such a thing as an ‘enchanted evening’. Secondly, there’s a reiteration in the last line of his doubts about his sexual prowess:
‘Black Rider Black Rider you’ve been on the job too long’
Were those doubts in abeyance, one feels he wouldn’t be bothering with the romantic approach.
Even now he may have not finally made up his mind. It still might be that he returns to his original, adulterous ways. Not only has he not committed himself to the disingenuous moral approach, but there are signs of his procrastinating again. It’s some enchanted evening, he says, that he’ll sing her a song. We can assume he might never get round to it.1
As so often with Dylan’s songs, the narrator is far from being a mere interesting or unusual character. He can be seen as representing human beings generally, thereby showing typical thought processes and, by way of those, our failings.
Here, the narrator is confronting a dilemma. On the one hand he wants to continue fulfilling his sexual desires, while on the other he knows he shouldn’t. In so far as he has good intentions, he lacks commitment and is too ready to make excuses for not acting as he believes he should. Constantly his choice of language gives him away, numerous expressions he uses demonstrating that he’s primarily interested in sex. He also disingenuously uses language which presents his situation in an overly favourable light, and to seemingly justify delays in putting his intentions into practice.
His moral weakness is apparent when he settles on one course of action and then adopts another. A veneer of honesty also helps him avoid accepting responsibility for his failings. In addition, his apparent desire for romance also seems to be just a ploy for use if all else fails.
The narrator’s creation of a Black Rider persona allows him to live in a fool’s paradise. It enables him to be inauthentic – to fool himself that he’s more committed to reforming himself than he is. It also enables him to effectively offer himself good advice and yet seem to avoid any responsibility if he doesn’t take it. He can step back from responsibility for the consequences of his actions by behaving as if it belongs to the Black Rider.
- The criticism cannot apply to the narrator of the Rogers song ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ because there is no particular woman he has in mind. Any such evening really may be in the distant future.