Song of the Day #714: ‘Man in the Long Black Coat’ – Bob Dylan

Oh Mercy was the first Bob Dylan album I heard as a new release. I had spent my 15th year soaking up all of his early material — the 60s albums — but I hadn’t really been aware of the new releases he was putting out at that time. Good thing, considering what they were.

But in my junior year of high school I suddenly became aware of a new Bob Dylan album that was receiving strong critical praise. My memory is a bit fuzzy on this matter now but I believe I might have received Oh Mercy as a gift from my older sister, in college at the time.

At any rate, it was the beginning of my active real-time involvement in Dylan’s developing career, and I’ve been on board for the 20 albums he’s released since then.

Oh Mercy features quite a few memorable songs, from the propulsive, brainy opener ‘Political World’ to one of the most heartfelt heartache songs Dylan ever wrote, ‘Most of the Time.’ Album closer ‘Shooting Star’ is among his more lovely compositions (and another in the long line of stellar closing tracks).

I’ve always been a big fan of ‘What Good Am I?,’ a forgotten little gem about regret and self-loathing: “What good am I if I say foolish things, and I laugh in the face of what sorrow brings, and I just turn my back while you silently die? What good am I?”

But my favorite song on Oh Mercy has to be the centerpiece track ‘Man in the Long Black Coat.’ This baby just bleeds atmosphere… it sonically stalks those creepy New Orleans streets just like the dude in the title. This is one of my highest ranked Dylan tracks and half of the credit probably belongs to Daniel Lanois for making that harmonica sound like the wail of a lost and lonely soul.

Crickets are chirpin’, the water is high
There’s a soft cotton dress on the line hangin’ dry
Window wide open, African trees
Bent over backwards from a hurricane breeze
Not a word of goodbye, not even a note
She gone with the man
In the long black coat

Somebody seen him hanging around
At the old dance hall on the outskirts of town
He looked into her eyes when she stopped him to ask
If he wanted to dance, he had a face like a mask
Somebody said from the Bible he’d quote
There was dust on the man
In the long black coat

Preacher was a talkin’, there’s a sermon he gave
He said every man’s conscience is vile and depraved
You cannot depend on it to be your guide
When it’s you who must keep it satisfied
It ain’t easy to swallow, it sticks in the throat
She gave her heart to the man
In the long black coat

There are no mistakes in life some people say
It is true sometimes you can see it that way
But people don’t live or die, people just float
She went with the man
In the long black coat

There’s smoke on the water, it’s been there since June
Tree trunks uprooted, ‘neath the high crescent moon
Feel the pulse and vibration and the rumbling force
Somebody is out there beating a dead horse
She never said nothing, there was nothing she wrote
She gone with the man
In the long black coat

4 thoughts on “Song of the Day #714: ‘Man in the Long Black Coat’ – Bob Dylan

  1. Martin says:

    A wonderful song. When I took my copy of Oh Mercy home for the first time I had it playing as my wife and I had tea.
    As soon as he came to the hook line of Man In The Long Black Coat , (“There are no mistakes in life …….. “) my wife, not quite as keen a music fan as me, said, impersonating my voice ” He’s good ya know ! “. 😉
    My first thought was that the song sounded tailor made for Johnny Cash although as far as I know he never recorded it.

  2. Dana says:

    This is a great song. It could have been a Springsteen, Cash or Knopfler song, but it is quintessential Dylan. And let’s face it, with the possible exception of Cash, if any of the others had done it, they would have been following in Dylan’s footsteps anyway.

  3. dss says:

    ‘What Good Am I?,’ is not about “regret and self-loathing.” It’s a call to action. Every listener should be asking these questions about himself. I think a protest song about apathy and inaction towards suffering and injustice. It’s like a coda to ‘Blowing in the Wind’ where he says, stop being the guy who turns his head pretending that he didn’t see.

  4. rob! says:

    Like you, Oh Mercy was Bob’s newest album when I “discovered” him. I hadn’t heard anything from it until MTV(!) played his video for “Political World” and after just one playing I was hooked on the song, and eventually the album.

    If I believed in such things, I’d say it was Fate that arranged me discovering Bob post-OM. If it had been earlier, it might have been during the EB-KOL-DITG period, which were by almost everyone’s estimation the single worst stretch in the man’s career (not to mention Dylan and the Dead).

    On a separate note, I’ve seen that Bob has been performing “What Good Am I?” at recent shows. Interesting…

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