Last semester, I took an Intro. to Poetry class, and we had to write a paper about the author of a poem. The professor had a list of poems, and we were to choose one poem from the list. I chose Bob Dylan’s “Man in the Long Black Coat,” because I wanted to learn more about Bob Dylan as a person. This is what I wrote…
“Man in the Long Black Coat” by Bob Dylan
I chose the poem “Man in the Long Black Coat” by Bob Dylan because I have always been a fan of the music from the days when he was more popular, and I wanted to learn more about him as an artist. Although I never listened to more than one of his albums, I have always found him interesting and seen a sort of mysticism in his artistry. When you read this poem aloud to the class, I knew that I had to dig into it. I like his use of symbolism, and the way the story is told. When you initially read the poem, without giving it much thought, you read a short story about a girl who gives in to temptation. However, when you begin to look at it on a deeper level, you see that its about the incessant battle between good and evil, or God versus the Devil and humans are constantly battling themselves to decide which side to choose. This is intriguing, because so many people are afraid of reading or hearing about things that have any kind of religious or spiritual motif these days, yet Dylan presents this story in a way that doesn’t exude religion in an obvious way. This is what makes this poem more likable by those who may not believe, or might be at a crossroads in their lives.
Robert Zimmerman was born in Duluth, Minnesota, and began his musical career during his high school years at Hibbing High, in Hibbing, Minnesota. He formed several bands while in High School and performed for the first time publicly when he entered a school talent show with some classmates. Their performance was so loud, that the principle had to cut off the microphone. Perhaps that was the beginning of Dylan’s musical career, and a tell-tale sign that he was made for performing. Throughout the remaining years of the 50’s, Zimmerman performed with other artists doing various back-ups under the pseudonym, Elston Gunn. Zimmerman moved to Minneapolis to attend the University of Minneapolis in September of 1959. It was here that, while studying rock ’n’ roll, he discovered an affinity for folk music. While in college, Zimmerman performed at a coffee house just a few blocks away from the school. It was during that time that he began to introduce himself as we know him, Bob Dylan, after his poetic influence, Dylan Thomas. Thus inspiring his name change, and perhaps giving him the first step into the artist he is today. Although, he didn’t legally change his name until 1962, after he moved to New York City and performed folk music in Greenwich Village at various clubs.
His interest in folk music and continuous performances was a gateway to further spiritual exploration. Dylan was born Jewish, but converted to Christianity in the late 1970’s. This religious affirmation caused some conflict during performances when he’d preach or “evangelize” to the crowd or whoever he was on tour with. He produced two gospel albums just after his conversion to Christianity, neither of them being as successful as those produced previously. After his conversion and the two gospel albums, most of his music reflected some sort of religious motif or tone, and for a period of about twenty years, he seemed to go through a drought of success. Meaning, any albums that were produced weren’t doing as well as they had before he became “born again.” In 1989, Dylan produced the album “Oh Mercy,” which contains the song “Man in the Long Black Coat.” In his book “Chronicles: Volume 1,” he briefly mentions the album and the song, reaffirming it’s religious tones.
The first time I read the poem “Man in the Long Black Coat,” I got the immediate impression that this had something to do with good versus evil, or man versus temptation. The repetition of the of the phrase “man in the long black coat,” and its use in the title tells me that this image is significant in the meaning of this work. The overall context of the poem reminded me of Star Wars, when the inner conflict began with Anakin Skywalker trying to decipher if he should follow Chancellor Palpetine to the dark side. Anakin would be the girl in the poem, and Chancellor Palpetine would be the man in the long black coat.
There is a sequence of events, a definite beginning, middle, and end. The beginning alludes to a slight possibility that she will stay home, in a place that is familiar with those who know and care for her. The turn around is in the line “It ain’t easy to swallow, it sticks in the throat/ She gave her heart to the man in the long black coat.” This is where her decision is solidified, and it is made known to everyone around her that her mind is made up, and she is leaving her life as she knows it.
The setting and voice is an onlooker or acquaintance who sees a woman who, over time, gives in to temptation due to unfortunate circumstances. This, again, made me think of Anakin’s decision to become a Sith lord, or a kid with a troubled childhood who turns to drugs, or someone who turns their back on God. There are always loved ones surrounding the troubled person who can see the mistake that is about to be made, and no matter what they do, they can’t change the decision that has been made.
The only thing I felt needed clarification was the line “[t]here’s smoke on the water, it’s been there since June.” I immediately got the impression that Dylan was referring to the song by Deep Purple “Smoke on the Water,” so I did some digging. He did, in fact, reference the song, but it brings deeper meaning to this poem. The song is about a fire that destroyed a casino complex and the fire spread over Lake Geneva as the members of Deep Purple watched from their hotel room on the other side of the lake. The fire took place at a Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention concert the night before Deep Purple was set to record in a mobile recording studio rented from the Rolling Stones. The speaker of the poem is seeing someone’s life be destroyed right before his eyes, much like the members of Deep Purple watched the casino be destroyed by the fire. The fire was caused by a concertgoer who decided it would be a good idea to light a flare inside the casino. That was a bad decision that ended in disaster, like the girl in the poem who went with the man in the long black coat. The speaker of the poem sees disaster coming from her decision, and there’s nothing he can do about it.
There is a low and deep intonation, with a sort of good versus evil/right versus wrong/ God versus Devil nuance. Dylan used very easy language with a touch of “old school” lingo (“preacher was a’talkin’). There is the imagery of darkness in “the man in the long black coat,” eerie contentment in the environment “crickets are chirpin’,” and “soft cotton dress on the line hangin’ dry.” The line, “[s]omebody said from the Bible he’d quote,” gives a sense of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
When I read the poem aloud, the darkness became more clear through the repetition of “the man in the long black coat.” This wouldn’t have had the same effect if Dylan had used different words. For instance, if he said, “the tall man in a long coat,” that would have given off a different view from the reader. It would have seemed more like the man was pressuring the girl into doing something, and that would have sent a completely different message throughout the story. The use of a stale type of environment also helps to create the imagery of danger or an eeriness to the poem. If there had been green grass and birds chirping, then that would have created the illusion of pleasantness, and brightness. The crickets show that it’s night time, which gives the vision of darkness which symbolizes the evil that happens under the cover of darkness.
Reading this poem again, gives me a different impression. If you’ve ever read “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by William Shakespeare or “Miss Julie” by August Strindberg, then you’ll understand what I mean. The very first stanza gives the setting, it’s very hot, it’s night time, and it’s sort of a lazy night because the dress is still hanging on the line. The plays referenced take place on midsummer’s night, a time when strange things happened because the people were somewhat temporarily crazy due to the intense heat. Sometimes they did things they normally wouldn’t do, especially at night when they had the cover of darkness. This first stanza, perhaps, alludes to a similar situation between the girl and the man in the long black coat. He comes to her like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, talks nicely to her using quotes from the Bible, and the girl uncharacteristically goes along with what he’s saying, because she’s not in her right mind, perhaps due to the intense African heat. This is definitely not what I saw the first time I read this, but this new perspective definitely shows that a poem can have multiple meanings each time you read it.
From the reader response lens, the first stanza paints the scene like the beginning of a story. The crickets chirping gives the illusion of darkness and the single dress on the line in the breeze makes me feel like this is an eery and ominous scene. Couple the first stanza with the second one and it made me think the girl slipped out of town under the cover of darkness because she knew that she was doing something wrong. The first thing that came to my mind in the third stanza was the “Phantom of the Opera” and how the cast members would catch glimpses of the Phantom as he moved about the opera house. Christine called to the phantom, and asked what the phantom had planned for her, similar to the girl in the poem asking the man in the long black coat to dance. The man having a face like a mask further drew me to that illusion. The fourth stanza, “[s]omebody said, from the Bible he’d quote/[t]here was dust on the man in the long black coat” reminded me of the book of Romans when Jesus and Satan argue using quotes from the Bible. It’s like saying that if she tried to resist him, he’d use the Bible or other positive/ encouraging words to manipulate the woman. “There was dust on the man in the long black coat” insinuates that the man comes from the ground or our perception that Hell in beneath us and the man in the long black coat is from Hell—or is Satan.
The fifth stanza tells me that we are all sinners and even though we may have bad/evil thoughts, it is up to us to know what thoughts we should act on. We need to always be aware of what is a temptation of the devil and what is going to lead you down God’s path. It was, also, apparent to me that Dylan was a Christian due to the bible references and symbolism.
Coming from an observer or acquaintance of the girl, it’s hard to see this woman make this bad decision, knowing that there are better options for her. The line, “[I]t ain’t easy to swallow, it sticks in the throat,” makes it clear that this is from the perspective of someone who knows the girl, either because he is a friend or family member, or because he’s someone who has lived in the same town/neighborhood for a long time and has, perhaps, seen her grow up.
I firmly believe that everything happens for a reason, and the line “[t]here are no mistakes in life, some people say,” says just that. However, we never know what that reason is until all is said and done. At that point, retrospectively, we see why our life went the way it did. Like the saying, “hindsight is always 20/20,” we always see the error of our ways down the road, but not usually in the moment. “But people don’t live or die, people just float,” says that no matter how hard you try to make the right decision, there is a higher power that dictates how your life goes. Or, perhaps, that we are all just mindlessly wandering this earth without really thinking about how we live our lives.
“There’s smoke on the water, it’s been there since June,” gave me the feeling of something heavy lingering and the visual of a heavy fog over a wooded lake. The trees surrounding the lake have fallen down at the roots and not only do the words paint a dark scene, but the suggestion of the moon helps paint the picture of darkness with a glimpse of light. This also suggests that someone told the woman repeatedly not to go with the man, but she never listened. “She never said nothin’, there was nothin’ she wrote,” tells me that she’s rebellious, and the seemingly incessant nagging from a significant person in her life is exactly what caused her to give in to the temptation impulsively and go along with the man in the long black coat.
Reading this poem, and researching Bob Dylan has definitely taught me numerous things. I learned that not only was Dylan a singer/songwriter, but he was also an artist and writer. He was born Jewish and later converted to Christianity, resenting those who referred to him as “born again.” He has deep ancestry from the Russian Empire on his father’s side, and his mother’s parents were Lithuanian Jews who emigrated to the US in 1902. He is a free spirit, is deeply connected to spirituality, and he shows it freely in his lyrics. Dylan’s beliefs and connection to the universe heavily influence his lyrics, and his creativity allow him to tell stories that leave the reader looking deeper into him/herself.
I honestly can say that I don’t think I’ve learned anything specific about poetry that I didn’t already know. I’ve been writing poetry for about twenty years now, so I’m familiar with what goes into writing a poem. However, I see art differently than some people. I don’t like to pick apart other’s work, because I feel like I’m tearing apart their soul. I understand that comes with the path I’ve chosen academically, so I do what is asked of me, and I give it my all when doing so. However, when I read a poem, I always feel as though it is meant to be taken however the reader perceives it. Poetry is art, and all art is open to its own interpretation.