Bob On Johanna - outta sight  

Black Crow Blues Revisited

by Patrick J. Webster

927 words on
Autobiography and Art and Lies

I read with interest Robert’s piece on the above song in last month’s issue of Freewheelin'’. I agreed to an extent with the comments Robert made, but also found myself taking issues with other aspects of this piece.

What I found of most interest was the assumption that the narrator of the song had anything to do with the writer of the song. For example, in his discussion of the fourth stanza of the song:

Sometimes I’m thinkin’ I’m
Too high to fall ...

Robert argues that this was a reference to Bob Dylan’s recent rise to fame:

‘It seems an intensely personal line to have written - something he must have thought to himself in those days, as a young man, we treated his every word like one of Moses’s tablets; the word of God’.

Now I would suggest that the textual object before us here does not suggest this at all. It is a song written in the first person, from a masculine perspective, to get technical: it is an autodiegetic narrator - a narrative voice who is inside his own narrative and acts as a principle character. However, this does not imply that the ‘I’ in the narrative has anything to do with the physical being, the biological life-form called ‘Bob Dylan’.  Quite the opposite, in fact wholly the opposite! I would suggest that ‘Bob Dylan’ does not enter any of his songs and to imagine he does is to engender a wholly reductive arena of interpretation.

I am not wholly sure how many songs Dylan has written in the last forty years (if anyone knows, please tell me) but I would estimate it is somewhere between 500-1000; and of these the vast majority are written in first person/masculine narrator - however - and this is the polemical point I know - none of them, not a single one, need be interpreted as being in any way autobiographical.

I think Dylan himself would agree with me here, I think any writer would.

If I can quote another of my hero/heroines, Jeanette Winterson:

There is no such thing as autobiography, there’s only art and lies.

In 1968 Roland Barthes wrote a ground breaking essay called The Death of the Author, an essay which denied authorial intent and empowered the reader. His ideas have yet to fully catch on, but let me tell you this - like it or not - we live in a postmodern and poststructuralist world and the only way to understand it in any meaningful sense is to acknowledge this. To be aware, for example, that it is the text that speaks not the author, that a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination, that it is language that is speaking to us, not the Author. And furthermore, that there is no sacred authorial meaning to a text, in a postmodern world meaning is splintered, polysemantic, and the very act of reading a text changes its meaning, and that meaning is endlessly deferred. And you cannot ask the author he/she doesn’t know - when they wrote their texts they were not aware of the diverse social, cultural, ideological - all embracing intertextual - factors that operated in their conscious and unconscious thoughts as they inscribed the words they inscribed.

So, if we free this little text from authorial intent, if we place it in a decentred poststructuralist environment - what then is going on?

A male narrator (although this is in itself an assumption) wakes in the morning and he is either wonderin’  or wanderin’ or an abstract combination of the two - as Dylan’s voice slurs these two signifiers together.

He is wishing for a long lost lover, which I read as a direct allusion to Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Raven’ a poem that constantly meditates on the ‘lost Lenore’. This points to the song’s title, as I think Robert pointed out. The title points more directly to another source, it reminded me of Ted Hughes’s ‘The Crow’. If this is the case Hughes (were he still alive) would no doubt have commented on the careless nature of the title: ‘Black Crow Blues’. Crows are black to describe them as being black is to be tautological, although I think this may have been deliberate. You find such purposeful slippages throughout Dylan’s songs, take that basement down the stairs in  ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ for example.

In stanza two the narrator is standing on a side road, why a side road? Why is he listening to a billboard knock? Why has he lost his watch? Why are his nerves kicking, ticking like a clock. The original title of the song, found on the Columbia recording sheets, offers a clue here, the song was originally entitled: ‘Weird Consumption’  which is a good title and one I might steal!

I agree with Robert, the third stanza is blatantly sexual.

As to the fourth stanza, I think the narrative voice is talking about us all here, the human condition and the unstable nature of it - the way in which we have left our real instincts behind and are left with life's of great happiness and great depressions.

The final stanza has a gratifying sense of closure, there are black crows in the meadow, but they are across a broad meadow, and the narrator doesn¹t feel like a scarecrow. The crows - the black crows - are harbingers of death - but they are safely at a distance - and the narrator has the life force, he is going to move on, no matter how meaningless that sense of moving on may be.