“‘Blood on Your Saddle’: Bob Dylan’s Homicidal Voices.” World of Bob Dylan 2023,  June 2023, Tulsa, OK.
BY Paul Haney, Emerson College


On May 8, 2020, amid the uncertain early days of Covid, Bob Dylan released the third and final single from his latest album, Rough and Rowdy Ways. That single, “False Prophet” – which takes its arrangement nearly wholesale from Billy “The Kid” Emerson’s 1954 Sun Records single, “If Lovin’ Is Believing” – seems to confront the decades old notion that Bob Dylan himself is some kind of prophet, a speaker of unbounding truth, a proclaimer of God’s will. Dylan toys with this notion, which goes all the way back to the folkniks in the early 60s who proclaimed “he speaks for us!”; runs through the late 60s hippies who were prone to centering Dylan and his self-proclaimed “vision music” in their cosmic hallucinations; became all too literal in the “Dylan-as-prophet” gospel era; and persist even today in a strain of Dylanology that holds Dylan as some kind of codemaster whose writings we can decipher for deeper truths.

“I ain’t no false prophet,” Dylan declares in that 2020 single, which would become the album’s second track. “I just know what I know / I go where only the lonely can go.” The declaration leaves open the possibility that Dylan, or his lyric speaker, the voice of his song, could be a true prophet, confirming all of those timeworn suspicions – though it seems more likely the speaker, as sinister as he is reverential, perceives himself to be no prophet at all. No matter what he is, though, or what he fashions himself to be, this speaker is powerful, passionate, fierce – an entity which cannot be ignored.

The next verse after that first “false prophet” refrain rumbles with pomposity, braggadocio, and contempt: “I’m first among equals, second to none / Last of the best, you can bury the rest.” Soon the speaker claims to have “climbed the mountain of swords on my bare feet,” reveals his “ghostly appearance,” and by the end of the second refrain divulges, “I’m just here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head.” Who that somebody is – or who the speaker is even speaking to – seems to shift around with each verse, if not couplet. To one subject he beckons, “open your mouth / I’ll stuff it with gold.” Then there’s a “poor devil” looking upon the “City of God”; a “stranger” who “ruled the land” and who might be one in the same as the “lusty old mule” with the “poison brain,” the one whom the speaker promises to “marry … to a ball and chain.”

The subjects shift as readily as the speaker’s tone, approach, agenda. Behind Dylan’s weathered yet elastic growl, and the band’s borrowed blues, the song encompasses everything and nothing at once, congealing behind the song’s shape-shifting persona, a persona equal parts reflective and flattering, philosophical and funny, bombastic and homicidal. It’s the homicidal part that I find most interesting as a lyrical mode, a rhetorical device, a facet of Dylan’s songwriting identity that has been there from the beginning, finding its roots perhaps in the murder ballads Dylan performed on the streets and in the clubs of Dinkytown, Greenwich Village, and elsewhere. This murderous voice bleeds into Dylan’s “finger-pointin’ songs” of the early 60s and rears its head occasionally in the decades to follow before becoming a cornerstone of Dylan’s twenty-first century songwriting, increasing in scope and intensity with each new record.

These homicidal voices, strung through Dylan’s lyrics, challenge the listener to take Dylan’s side, or face his wrath, or both. Aesthetically, they imbue Dylan’s music with a hard edge that gives him swagger and poise, like a boxer in the ring, a hitman in a hollywood noir, a fugitive outlaw trying to stay alive, or simply a strongman responding to an insult, whether personal or political, real or perceived. These voices sometimes parody the violent masculinity they enact; other times the bloody threat lands square on the nose. Combative, biblical, and fundamentally patriarchal, Dylan’s murderous threats provide an oppositional guise within his catalog of faces as he builds and rebuilds his multifaceted persona.

Before Dylan began writing and performing his own murderous songs, he was learning and singing murder ballads. Laura Tenschert is currently in the midst of a two-part series on Bob Dylan’s murder ballads double episode on her show, Definitely Dylan. In that first episode, Tenschert digs into folk ballads like “Omie Wise” and “Pretty Polly” from Dylan’s early repertoire, when he was singing about betrayed and jilted lovers exacting their revenges, all to grab the attention of listeners filtering through the coffeehouses and city streets of Greenwich Village. When Dylan started writing and performing his own songs, those themes of death and devastation melded with the social consciousness of the folk movement to create, as Tenschert points out, such sophisticated songs as “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “Ballad of Hollis Brown.” In the first, a wealthy southerner whacks a server with his cane, killing her, while in the second the conditions of poverty in South Dakota lead to the murder-suicide – a kind of mercy killing – of a farmer and his family. In both cases, Dylan recounts the deadly scenes from a distant perspective; while he does engage in second-person moralizing (“You who philosophize disgrace…”), he never slips into the first-person “I.”

More germane to my purposes, though, are two other early Dylan folk songs that harness the murdering impulse from a first-person perspective. The existence of a first-person speaker – one a singular “I,” the other a plural “we” – allows Dylan to sing these songs with even more venom and invective. The first is “Masters of War,” containing arguably Dylan’s most brutal proclamation: “I’ll stand o’er your grave ‘til I’m sure that you’re dead.” This promise, coming on just his second album, harnesses a youthful disgust post-World War II, and the Korean War, at the start of the Vietnam War, but also takes its aim at all the bloodthirsty warmongers past, present, and future. One might imagine the folkies in their legions of knit caps and corduroy pants peering contentedly over Dylan’s shoulder at the warhawks in their graves. Likewise, “When the Ship Comes In” constructs a watery grave for the speaker’s foes who will “jerk from their beds and think they’re dreamin’ / But they’ll pinch themselves and squeal / And they’ll know that it’s for real.” When that crew tries to surrender, however, a collective “we” emerges, Dylan promising “we’ll shout from the bow ‘your days are numbered’.” Whereas the Masters of War are buried in the earth, these transgressors are “drowned’ed in the tide.”

A zeal for this brand of retribution through social reform circulated through the folk revival, and Dylan harnessed this sentiment in song. After he expanded as an artist beyond folk music, however, that brand of righteous anger seemed to flag. Sure, Dylan harnessed hostility in “Positively 4th Street,” intoning, “you’ve got a lotta nerve to say you are my friend.” He wasn’t so kind to Miss Lonely in “Like a Rolling Stone,” and he argued Mr. Jones should be stripped of his senses and made illegal, but these are less self-righteous proclamations with the weight of social history behind them than the complaints of a young hipster who’s made it on the scene, who’s made his own scene, one filled with flashing Beat images, jokey surrealism, the whole complex drama of young love and scorn. Save for some risible taunts to Cassius Clay, later Muhammed Ali, in “I Shall Be Free No. 10”: “14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, Gonna knock him clean right outta his spleen,” it would be many years, and many albums, until direct threats, or at least prognostications of death, would reappear in Dylan’s lyrics.

In one song from the mid-70s, Dylan reprises the deadly voice. “You hurt the ones that I love best / And cover up the truth with lies” Dylan sings in the fourth verse of “Idiot Wind,” a venomous side-one track from 1975’s Blood on the Tracks. “One day you’ll be in the ditch / Flies buzzin’ around your eyes / Blood on your saddle.” Here the I-speaker seems not to threaten as much as predict that the “idiot, babe” second person of the song will find her fatal end, most likely due to her own idiocy. Eight verses, four choruses, and nearly eight minutes long, the snarling, driving rock tune drips with resentment and disdain, the speaker informing the subject “your corrupt ways have finally made you blind” and musing, “it’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe,” even while he calls her “sweet lady” and points out her “ragin’ glory” and her “holiness.” Now, I’m not here to tell you Dylan based “Idiot Wind” on his marital separation, and that he had a real person in mind for his descriptors and invectives. That kind of biographical reading is superficial at best. We have to take the song for what it is, beyond the biography. But Dylan himself told an interviewer, Bill Flanagan, in 1985, “I thought I might have gone a little bit too far with ‘Idiot Wind.’ … I didn’t feel that one was too personal, but I felt it seemed too personal. … ‘Cause usually with those kinds of things, if you think you’re too close to something, you’re giving away too much of your feelings, well, your feelings are going to change a month later and you’re going to look back and say, ‘What did I do that for?’”

So, what did Dylan do that for? Self-expression? Poetic effect? Simply to get the song across? Whatever the case, he seemed to have discovered a danger inherent in embodying the voice of masculine rage – namely that it can put people off, make people uncomfortable, especially if they can imagine the person behind the castigations. And though “Idiot Wind” still stands as one of Dylan’s most powerful tracks, perhaps Dylan scared himself, because going forward through the 70s and 80’s, he rarely used the first person in such a menacing way. “Go get my pistol, babe,” he commands in “Baby Stop Crying” from 1978’s Street Legal: “Honey, I can’t tell right from wrong.” But here the speaker isn’t threatening to shoot the woman, but protect her, avenge her honor, if she would only stop crying. “Why would I want to take your life?” he asks on 1981’s “Shot of Love”: “You’ve only murdered my father, raped his wife / Tattooed my babies with a poison pen / Mocked my God, humiliated my friends.” Here at the far end of Dylan’s gospel era, he seems to have synthesized his truculent religiosity into one verse. In fact, in 1983 Dylan called “Shot of Love “my most perfect song. It defines where I am spiritually, musically, romantically and whatever else. It shows where my sympathies lie.” From this view, Dylan has landed on a rationale for righteous condemnation that ends in bloodshed, framing such behavior as a mandate from God, yet that mandate, chilling as it is, fades into the background for the rest of the decade. Dylan, again, seems to have said his piece and moved on.

In 1990, however, midway through Dylan’s album Under the Red Sky, the jumpin’ blues number “10,000 Men” begins with the kernel of a lyrical style Dylan would go on to leverage with great success in what we now refer to as his late era. “Ten thousand men on a hill,” Dylan relays. “Some of ’m goin’ down, some of ’m gonna get killed.” This suggestion of some epic battle ever-unfolding lends the song historic depth, the glory and agony of warfare, even as he belted out “Masters of War” just five months later at the Grammys while accepting his Lifetime Achievement Award. The twin facets of Dylan’s bellicose late-era songwriting – the personally affronted, the historically aggrieved – appears briefly on Dylan’s subsequent album of originals, 1997’s Time Out of Mind. “I don’t know if I saw you / If I would kiss you or kill you,” Dylan sings. “It probably wouldn’t matter to you anyhow.” One would think it would matter if one were to be kissed or killed – that nothing could matter more – though the line goes by breezily, almost like a smoky tune from the song’s “jukebox playin’ low.”

Of course, between 1990’s Under the Red Sky and 1997’s Time Out of Mind, in order to fulfill a contract with Columbia Records, Dylan reached back into the folk canon and interpreted two albums of old British and American folk songs and, tellingly, murder ballads. Those two albums, Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong contain such haunting and pointedly vengeful songs as “Frankie and Albert,” “Delia,” “Stack a Lee,” and my personal favorite, the leering and lecherous “Blood in My Eyes.” Accepted wisdom goes that this roots return helped reconnect Dylan to some ancient inspiration he’d been lacking for a decade or more, and it does seem clear the 90s saw a broadening of Dylan’s aesthetic range. He met the twenty-first century with the jaunty film single, “Things Have Changed,” and the stylistically diverse album, “Love and Theft”, expanding his musical persona into even more genres of American music, and various forms of lyrical expression.

In the span of Dylan’s discography, 2001’s “Love and Theft” is as colorful and eccentric as any other release. Characters spring forth, like Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum, the one who is a “low down, sorry old man,” the other who “will stab you where you stand.” More significantly, that first-person speaker reigns over the proceedings with humor, emotion, and yes, homicidal rage. From the broad, epic view, that speaker claims in “Bye and Bye” that, “I’m gonna establish my rule through civil war.” Juxtaposed with his “lover’s sigh” and jokes like “I’m sittin’ on my watch so I can be on time,” though, this civil war threat actually falls in service to proving “how loyal and true a man can be.” Similarly, in “Honest with Me,” Dylan claims “I’m here to create the new imperial empire / I’m gonna do whatever circumstances require.” In this song, however, the speaker concedes some of his power, moaning, “I’m glad I fought / I only wish we’d won.”

But don’t take Dylan too lightly, either. “I might need a good lawyer,” he hypothesizes in “Cry a While”: “Could be your funeral, my trial.” Meanwhile in “Floater (Too Much to Ask),” he warns, “If you ever try to interfere with me or cross my path again / you do so at the peril of your life / I’m not quite as cool or forgiving as I sound.” Part of these lines Dylan cribbed from John Bester’s English translation of Junichi Saga’s Confessions of a Yakuza, and it does seem that oftentimes when Dylan mines other texts for lyric material, he gravitates toward the gruesome and the deadly. The same holds true on Modern Times, which features darker tones, denser sounds than its predecessor, even as it continues its romp through American musical forms. From within its thick blues and spare ballads spring lines like:

Gonna raise me an army, some tough sons of bitches
I’ll recruit my army from the orphanages (“Thunder on the Mountain”)

I can’t go back to paradise no more
I killed a man back there (“Spirit on the Water”)

Sooner or later you too shall burn (“Rollin’ and Tumblin’”)

I’m going to make you come to grips with fate
When I’m through with you, you’ll learn to keep your business straight (“Nettie

Gonna get myself together, I’m gonna wring your neck
When all else fails I’ll make it a matter of self respect (“Someday Baby”)

If I catch my opponents ever sleepin’
I’ll just slaughter them where they lie
I’ll avenge my father’s death and then I’ll step back (“Ain’t Talkin’”)

Some of the lines have antecedents in earlier songs, poems, and Shakespeare plays, and others don’t. As is widely known, on Modern Times Dylan borrows lines not just from old blues and lounge singers, but writers such as the so-called Poet of the Confederacy, Henry Timrod, and notably, the ancient Roman poet, Ovid. While the most murderous lines seem to belong to Dylan himself, these notions of both the Civil War and of Ovid’s exile to the barren and desolate Black Sea infuse the album with both belligerence and yearning. Akin to Ovid, Dylan himself has claimed, “I was born very far from where I’m supposed to be, and so I’m on my way home.” On Modern Times, Dylan’s and Ovid’s voices intertwine, deepening the historical valence of Dylan’s own voice, proving Dylan’s grievance with this world is nothing new. And since he’s not actually a murderer, as far as we know, it’s through his lyrics that he exacts his revenge.

Released just two years later, Together Through Life is an aberration in this rising tide of bloody voices. Yes, on “My Wife’s Hometown,” Dylan sings, “One of these days, I’ll end up on the run / I’m pretty sure she’ll make me kill someone.” In Jolene, “I’ve got a Saturday night special, I’m back again.” And on “It’s All Good,” Dylan threatens, “I’ll pluck off your beard and blow it in your face / This time tomorrow I’ll be rolling in your place.” But that’s all the violence Dylan dispenses for the entire album, and this tameness we can safely attribute to Dylan’s lyrical collaboration with Robert Hunter of the Grateful Dead. With 2012’s Tempest, however, the rampage returns. The sweet, melodious “Soon After Midnight” finds that “they” – whoever “they” are – “chirp and chatter,” but “what does it matter / They’re lying there in their blood.” As for “Two Timing Slim,” Dylan will “drag his corpse through the mud.” The threats are then directed outward on “Narrow Way,” the speaker “armed to the hilt and struggling hard / You won’t get out of here unscarred.” For “Early Roman Kings,” the speaker will “strip you of life, strip you of breath / Ship you down to the house of death.” And right in the middle of this snarling, gravelly album, perhaps the bloodiest Dylan song of all, one he relished during live shows up until the pandemic, “Pay in Blood” operates on a double meaning. “I pay in blood / But not my own.” Whose blood is the speaker paying with as he “could stone you to death for the wrongs that you done?” Is it the listener’s? Jesus’s? With cagey confidence, Dylan observes, “Sooner or later you’ll make a mistake / I’ll put you in a chain that you never can break / Legs and arms and body and bone.” These words are tactile, visceral, all the more so because they spill blood as they unfold. “I got something in my pocket make your eyeballs swim / I got dogs could tear you limb from limb.” This is not someone you’d want to meet in a dark alley, or sit next to on a train. In fact, murdering seems to be this speaker’s reason for living:

This is how I spend my days
I came to bury, not to praise
I’ll drink my fill and sleep alone
I pay in blood, but not my own

Floating on the surface here is Marc Antony’s burial speech from Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasar. “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,” Antony begins, “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” In lifting and trimming this line, Dylan invites us to read on: “The evil that men do lives after them; / The good is oft interred with their bones.” If evil lives on, then it’s through evil, not good, that Dylan’s lyrical personas will succeed him. No wonder his work becomes more violent by the year.

Given the bloody trajectory of Dylan’s late-era albums, it’s no surprise that Dylan’s latest album, 2020’s Rough and Rowdy Ways, wields this rhetoric of violence to enhance his patchwork of historical episodes and moody vignettes. The first single released, before the album was even announced, was “Murder Most Foul,” the epic, groaning ballad about, to cite Dylan’s own allusion, “a day that will live on in infamy.” On her recent podcast episode Laura Tenschert says “It would take Bob Dylan over 56 years to release a murder ballad based on the story of JFK’s assassination, and even that song still seems to struggle to make sense of it.” In the voice of JFK’s killers, Dylan threatens, “You got unpaid debts and we’ve come to collect / We’re gon’ kill you with hatred and without any respect.” Later, the third-person narrator observes, “They mutilated his body and took out his brain / What more could they do, they piled on the pain.” The sense Dylan can make of this pivotal U.S. American tragedy lies in the murder itself, along with the equally bloody post-mortem exam. The meaning’s in the violence, a topic he’s long been exploring.

Elsewhere on the album, Dylan asks “Can you look in my face with your sightless eye / Can you cross your heart and hope to die?” Here he’s playing Dr. Frankenstein, but he still invokes the listener with a second-person “you,” commanding, “Show me your ribs – I’ll stick in the knife” before resuming character: “I’m gonna jump start my creation to life.” In “Black Rider,” the speaker seems to be speaking to the titular character himself. “Go home to your wife stop visiting mine” he says before warning, “One of these days I’ll forget to be kind.” Later, the speaker admits, “My soul is distressed my mind is at war.” But don’t try to comfort him, either: “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.” Likewise, in “Crossing the Rubicon,” a vulnerable position makes the speaker defensive as he can “feel the bones beneath my skin and they’re tremblin’ with rage / I’ll make your wife a widow – you’ll never see old age.” The threats create distance between the speaker in his moments of weakness and any sort of sympathy. “Others can be tolerant,” the speaker says, “others can be good / I’ll cut you up with a crooked knife and I’ll miss you when you’re gone.”

What does all of this violence, warfaring, and cold murder add up to? Is Dylan just cranky and dishing out idle threats? Grouchy? Hangry? In a mood? These lines I’ve enumerated certainly do create a mood, one that contrasts and enhances many of the other moods characteristic of Dylan’s late-era songwriting: the romantic, the historic, the sublime. Of late, Dylan’s songwriting has not only reanimated the past, but it has embodied the virtual jumble of voices that typify contemporary existence. After all, we live in a digital era where messages stream at light speed, where all music is available at all times, where information is cheap and always at the ready. Or, as Dylan told Jeff Slate in a recent interview, “We seem to be in a vacuum. Everything’s become too smooth and painless. We jumped into the mainstream, the big river, with all the industrial waste, chemical debris, rocks, and mudflow, along with Brian Wilson and his brothers, Soupy Sales, and Tennessee Ernie Ford. The earth could vomit up its dead, and it could be raining blood, and we’d shrug it off, cool as cucumbers.” In this age of oversaturation, Dylan’s own music has doubled down on a polyvocal, multifarious quality. In other words, as the first track of Rough and Rowdy Ways claims, paraphrasing Whitman, Dylan contains multitudes, and even that song finds Dylan fighting blood feuds, carrying “four pistols and two large knives,” showing his heart, “but not all of it – only the hateful part,” selling you down the river, putting a price on your head, sleeping “with life and death in the same bed.” Dylan, as much as any other major artist, has managed to pack his persona with a multitude of voices that reflect our twenty-first century reality. The murderous impulse – whether in the personal or historical sense – is only one facet of that protean persona, but it’s the one snarling, sneering face that often catches your attention and lingers in your mind. It’s the face of mortality that reminds you you’re alive.


Paul Haney is Editor of the Dylan Review. Although it is normally our policy not to publish articles by our editors, Haney contributed this paper to the World of Bob Dylan 2023, and we felt it appropriate to reproduce it for this special section.