It was only quite recently that I became aware of the spiritual context of Bob Dylan‘s Señor (Tales of Yankee Power) even though it was released on the B side of Changing of the Guards as well as the 1978 album Street Legal, which also contains Love in Vain.
A performance recorded in 1987:
This is yet another Dylan song that has been covered by many artists, including Willie Nelson (there is a version together with Calexico), Jerry Garcia Band, Tim O’Brien, and many somewhat less famous artists, including Blue Grass bands.
Initiation Through the Ages
The song can be read as questions of a disciple to his master about which path to take. But who is the disciple and who is the master? My take is that initiation processes necessarily change over time, as mankind’s consciousness evolves. A strong dependence of a student on a master doesn’t fit in our modern times – nowadays it is more about personal responsibility, and thus self-initiation. From that perspective, I’d like to read the lyrics as a dialogue within a seeker: characters and places symbolize aspects within her or him.
Can you tell me where we’re headin‘?
The seeker adresses the master, hoping for guidance. So he (or she) does not follow personal ideas any more, he is not driven by personal desires, ambitions, or hopes – he is ready to follow the source of wisdom deep within him.
Topics and Approaches to Interpreting Señor
Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?
David Weir of Bob Dylan Song Analysis refers to Sam Peckinpah’s movie Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid, the music of which was written by Bob Dylan (including the famous Knockin‘ on Heaven’s Door, which turned out a hit for Eric Clapton and Gun’s N‘ Roses), and where Dylan even played a minor acting role. The film relates to the 19th century Lincoln County War. According to Weir, this sets both revenge (the narrator as Billy the Kid) and Christ (the narrator as son of the Lord) as topics of the song.
I’d prefer to leave historical references aside and see the song as an inner process that can take place in any seeker at any time. From that perspective, I see Lincoln County Road as a worldly aspect (be it in a geographical sense or as a symbol for worldly conflicts), contrasted by Armaggedon (bible: Book of Revelation) as a symbol for a radical departure from old ways, the downfall of the life the seeker lived previously, to create space for a far-reaching transformation. So it is about a fundamental life decision: Whether to continue in the old ways, or whether the seeker is prepared to embark on a completely new path.
Longing for a Conscious Connection to the New Soul
Seems like I been down this way before
Is there any truth in that, señor?
It is not the first time the seeker has reached this point – it seems he has matured to take the next step. We don’t know if this just relates to unsuccessful attempts in his own life, or even to previous incarnations.
Do you know where she is hidin‘?
How long are we gonna be ridin‘?
How long must I keep my eyes glued to the door?
Will there be any comfort there, señor?
Who is “she”? Seeing the journey as an inner process, he longs for a conscious connection to the living soul. Nothing in the outward world can console him any more, he is searching for a different state of being.
While his yearning guides him, he still feels torn – the door inside him hasn’t opened yet.
There’s a wicked wind still blowin‘ on that upper deck
There’s an iron cross still hanging down from around her neck
There’s a marchin‘ band still playin‘ in that vacant lot
Where she held me in her arms one time and said, „Forget me not“
The upper deck may be an image for his head, his thinking. Those who appreciate references to the bible may think of Luke 22, 7-13 – the last supper in a “large room upstairs”. A decisive step on the spiritual path is achieving unity of head and heart. The new impulses are first received in the heart – then the seeker needs to align his mental state accordingly.
“There’s a wicked wind still blowin’ on that upper deck” – chaotic, uncontrolled thoughts and impulses dominate the candidate’s mind.
The iron cross hanging around “her” neck may refer to the focus on the material world that the seeker still maintains at this point – the living soul has not yet been liberated, she cannot unfold freely. The iron cross is a stiff, inflexible caricature of the living cross that is erected within the seeker: He receives the impulses from a higher sphere of life (vertical bar of the cross) and transforms them to concrete actions in his personal life on earth (the horizontal bar).
The space that is meant to be populated by the new soul within is still being occupied by a marchin’ band that we may relate to all kinds of distractions the old life still has to offer and which still claim the seeker’s attention (no offense against real-life marching bands intended!). At least he knows now that his path is about a completely different state of being, a state that his innermost part is already familiar with: She once held him in her arms. He remembers the former unity that was lost. His yearning intensifies.
I can see that painted wagon
Smell the tail of the dragon
Can’t stand the suspense anymore
Can you tell me who to contact here, señor?
The dragon is a mythical creature: It reminds us of a world of fairytales and myths which refer to a realm beyond our material world. This realm can reach the soul via images and symbols while being pushed aside by the rational mind, judged as an unreal dream world. The seeker experiences the tension between two worlds more and more strongly. He strives for a renewed state of being that extends beyond merely being touched inside, so as to be led from growing tension to a new form of harmony.
Humbleness and a New Focus in Life
Well, the last thing I remember before I stripped and kneeled
Was that trainload of fools bogged down in a magnetic field
A gypsy with a broken flag and a flashing ring
He said, “Son, this ain’t a dream no more, it’s the real thing“
He entrusts himself more and more to the inner guidance. Taking off one’s clothes is a frequently used image in spiritual contexts for leaving an old state of being behind, with special regard to the subtle bodies (etheric, astral and mental aspects). See posts on Scarborough Fair, Harry Styles’ Sign of the Times, as well as Avicii: Wake Me Up. He kneels, so he realizes his unworthyness more and more clearly, and he is ever more prepared to entrust his will to the new soul.
Now he perceives the world around him with new eyes. The contrast between worldly oriented life and the realm of the soul becomes more and more distinct. People who are not yet prepared to let go of the old life are tied up by a magnetic field: They react to worldly topics, be it fear or temptations, and thus miss out on giving way to impulses of the soul.
Referring to his own life alone, the trainload of fools may relate to all aspects of the seeker that react to worldly impulses in an automated way, like iron filings react to a magnet.
While the dragon in the previous verse may give rise to doubt in the rational mind (“It’s only a fairytail! It is nonsense to adapt one’s full life to that!”), a shift in focus now becomes more evident. A gypsy, an outsider similar to the joker and the fool in All Along the Watchtower, encourages the seeker: Not the impulses of the soul are the dreamworld, it is the other way round – the outward life is unreal, and your path leads to the truth! (An experience well captured in movies like Matrix, 13th Floor or Truman Show.) This is a great image for soul impulses arising from unexpected or unknown aspects of one’s own system. The flashing ring may indicate that he keeps receiving impulses while a lasting, uninterrupted connection to the soul has not yet been established.
Dedicating One’s Life to the New Soul for Good
After this clarification and encouragement, a phase of fulfillment, of self-realization starts.
You know their hearts is as hard as leather
Well, give me a minute, let me get it together
Just gotta pick myself up off the floor
I’m ready when you are, señor
Now the seeker needs to develop an ever more subtle perception of the impulses from the soul. Each step on the path releases new energy and brings about new tasks. He sees the hearts of his fellow human beings who have not embarked on this process as hard as leather. This is also true of his own heart, as far as it is still bound in old dependencies.
After having fully internalized humbleness, he may rise – in the sense of the both magic and radical “Your will be done”.
Let’s overturn these tables
Disconnect these cables
This place don’t make sense to me no more
Can you tell me what we’re waiting for, señor?
Now the process reaches a point where the seeker can leave his old state behind for good, so that his transformation becomes irreversible. Overturning the tables may remind us of Jesus throwing the money lenders out of the temple. If we relate this image to words from 1 Corinthians: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?“, we may see this step as a purification of the seeker’s whole being: thoughts, emotions, will, ambitions in life, habits, (emotional) ties, …
The cables are disconnected, old connections are cut off. Man in the sense of a personality and a material as well as several subtle bodies is mortal. The immortal aspect of man, that we may call a microcosm, surrounds these bodies like a magnetic field. Man’s karma is stored in this magnetic shell, shapes his fears and desires, and directs him like a puppet. At this point on his path, these connections are neutralized one by one. It is no real battle, no suppression, rather being absorbed in a new vibration in which old patterns lose their power over man. This process culminates in the soul re-uniting with the spirit, to form the spirit-soul.
Enriched by new insight, life in the old patterns seems more and more foolish. He embarks in the absolute Here-and-Now.