Christopher Rollason: Bob Dylan's "Señor": a wasteland with no easy answers

`Can you tell me where we're heading?': Bob Dylan's `Señor' (first released on his 1978 album `Street-Legal', and also available on his compilation `Biograph') is a song full of questions, to which, as Dylan reminds us elsewhere, there are no easy answers. Political and religious readings are both possible, but, at least on first listening, this song propels the listener into a dark and desolate borderland world, where nothing can be taken on trust.

The Mexican/Hispanic element is obvious enough, and can be confirmed from numerous other Dylan references to the theme, from `Farewell' through `Romance in Durango' to `Caribbean Wind'. In Dylan's writing, Mexico typically represents a world antithetical to the WASP culture of the USA - a way of being which may be more visceral and unrepressed than the rigid character-structure of the Puritans' descendants, but which is simultaneously sensed as threatening and potentially violent. In `Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts', Big Jim thinks he has once before seen his rival and soon-to-be murderer, `down in Mexico'; both `Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues' and `Brownsville Girl' deal with ambivalent border experiences, respectively in Ciudad Juárez (opposite El Paso) and Brownsville, Texas (opposite Matamoros); Juárez is a place of seduction and corruption, while the Brownsville Girl crosses to the Mexican side and `never came back'.

This is also the border territory whose darkness-on-the-edge-of-the-USA has recently, in the blessed post-NAFTA era, been explored by Bruce Springsteen (following the bleeding tracks of Woody Guthrie) in `The Ghost of Tom Joad'. The politico-economic dimension of the song should certainly not be excluded: when `Street-Legal' appeared in 1978, a Trotskyist publication hailed `Señor' as `anti-imperialist', and certainly the song's subtitle, `Tales of Yankee Power', recalls some of Dylan's other denunciations of Uncle Sam's exploitative activities in Latin America (`it's much cheaper down in the South American towns/Where the miners work almost for nothing' - `North Country Blues'; `Well, the job that you used to have/They gave it to somebody down in El Salvador' - `Union Sundown'). However, it should be stressed that `Señor' is a complex composition, not a tract, and works on various levels at once.

The song is structured around a series of questions, directed by the narrator to his guide, who may be supposed to be a Mexican (the situation in some ways recalls Graham Greene's novel `The Power and the Glory', where the fugitive priest is accompanied by a mestizo who is finally instrumental in his death). It is not entirely clear if the events are taking place on the US or the Mexican side of the border. However, I hazard a guess that the situation is as follows: the narrator is an American who has come down to Mexico, looking for a woman who has left him. At the moment when the song opens, he is still searching, guided by his Mexican companion, though with increasing desperation (`how long are we gonna be ridin'?'), as they find themselves just under the US side, not far from Lincoln County, the south-westernmost county (at least in the nineteenth century) of New Mexico. The action proper happens in a cantina where they have stopped along the road; this location is implied in the song's topography: `door', `floor' and `tables'. One may imagine the narrator sitting at a spartan wooden table, drinking beer or tequila with his guide, and meanwhile keeping his `eyes glued to the door', just in case the woman really does show up after all.

He has probably come to Mexico by sea (`there's a wicked wind still blowin' on that upper deck'), and made a train journey into the interior before the final stage on horseback (as is clear from the verb `ridin'' and the `hard as leather' image, implying a saddle). The brief encounter with the woman (`she held me in her arms one time') raised in his mind a hope of transcendence or salvation which is, however, as the song opens, all but burnt out - indeed, a meeting in a `vacant lot' can scarcely have offered much promise of plenitude.

From the beginning of the song, his hope of finding the woman (`do you know where she's hidin'?') is undercut by fears of apocalyptic disaster. He is unsure whether the road they are following leads to `Lincoln County' (back to the USA) or to `Armageddon'; indeed, there may not be much difference, if one recalls the `Lincoln County War' of the 1880s, which involved Pat Garrett (the sheriff of Lincoln County) and Billy the Kid in a cycle of violence commemorated by Dylan himself in the film soundtrack that gave birth to `Knockin' on Heaven's Door'. The name of Abraham Lincoln, the assassinated liberator, thus paradoxically only suggests, not reconciliation but yet more bloodshed. In the end, Lincoln County, or more generally the US, may actually be Armageddon, the site of the biblical last battle which Dylan was to evoke directly a few years later, in `Are You Ready?', and again, more obliquely, in `Angelina' (`in the valley of the giants/where the stars and stripes explode').

The hope of finding the woman, and embracing the salvation she represents, appears, then, to be illusory from the outset: the question `will there be any comfort there, señor?' seems purely rhetorical, doomed to a negative answer. As the narrative develops, images of darkness and despair multiply: `the tail of the dragon', suggesting fiery destruction; `stripped and kneeled', implying masochistic humiliation (as in `Dirge': `man forever stripped/Acting out his folly/While his back is being whipped'); and the `train-load of fools', symbolizing a whole society in the grip of illusion, with a probable sly reference to the late-medieval institution of the `ship of fools', or floating madhouse. The narrator may be in Mexico, but the epicentre of that insanity may be presumed to be in the US: the nightmare announced by the gipsy with his `broken flag' (the Stars and Stripes?) - `son, this ain't a dream no more, it's the real thing' - suggests a sardonic echo of the Coca-Cola song.

Yet even as the darkness encroaches, the careful listener may sense a change taking place in the narrator. At a certain point, his attitude mutates: from his initial tense halfway-house between passive acquiescence and clinging hope, he shifts towards angry revolt. The moment of change comes in the line - which at first hearing seems awkward, but reveals itself as dramatically necessary -: `well, give me a minute, let me get it together'. At this point, the narrator can be heard suddenly gathering up all his strength (`just gotta pick myself up off the floor'), finally to confront his circumstances firmly and decidedly (`I'm ready when you are').

In the last stanza, he turns around to attack an environment he no longer has any faith in (`this place don't make sense to me no more'). We may still imagine him in the cantina, but now he no longer cares whether the woman shows up or not: he would rather smash the place up: `Let's overturn these tables/Disconnect these cables'. This act of revolt may be read in religious terms (two critics, Aidan Day and Robert Shelton, have compared it to Christ overturning the tables of the money-changers, and Day also thinks the song anticipates Dylan's later `Christian lyrics' - a suggestion also made by Clinton Heylin); or it may be interpreted politically, as a gesture against `Yankee power' (Shelton also argues the song is a `rueful political statement' on `American foreign policy'; I would add that the `cables' may be telephone wires, and may point to the ITT company and its well-attested involvement in the CIA-backed 1973 coup in Chile).

Whatever exactly may be happening, the narrator is obviously rising up against his fate; self-realization through revolt now means far more to him than the lost woman. He has lost his bearings, in a wasteland that has become meaningless (`can you tell me what we're waiting for, señor?').

At this point, one may ask who this man's mysterious guide, the `señor', actually is. Apparently a Mexican, he is a highly enigmatic figure: across the song, the narrator addresses a whole series of questions to him, without, as far as we know, receiving any answer (`is there any truth in that, señor?'; `can you tell me who to contact here, señor?', etc.). Who is this silent companion? Heylin quotes Dylan himself (introducing `Señor' on stage in 1978) on the genesis of the song: Dylan says he encountered an old man on a train in Mexico, `just wearing a blanket' and looking `a hundred and fifty years old', with fiery eyes and `smoke coming out of his nostrils', and concluded: `this is the man I want to talk to'. If this is how we are to imagine the `señor', he seems hardly a realist personage at all, but some kind of dream-figure or archetype.

By the end of the song, we may even wonder if the `señor' exists at all in the material sense; if the narrator has not been talking all the way through to a phantom partner (in `Every Grain of Sand', an elusive Other suggests a possible divine presence: `sometimes I turn, there's someone there/Other times it's only me'). It is certainly significant that `Street Legal' is the last album before Dylan's conversion and `Christian period'. In Spanish, the word `Señor', as well as meaning `sir', is a form of addressing the Christian deity: could the `señor', the narrator's imaginary companion, actually be God - a divinity sometimes present, sometimes absent, whom Dylan's traveller, as he fares onward on his journey, may believe in some of the time but not all of the time? It is just possible that the narrator may, like Graham Greene's priest, have discovered divine grace in the nick of time: this could be one reading of `I'm ready when you are, señor' (the believer surrenders to divine grace, and to his destiny, at the moment when his God wills it). Alternatively, however, the answer to the final question - `can you tell me what we're waiting for, señor?' - could be `Armageddon'; and so the song would come around full circle, with the narrator staring at a bleak wasteland in renewed desperation, and the listener anxiously repeating: `there must be some way out of here' ...


- The Trotsykist publication was `Socialist Challenge' (UK).
- The late-medieval phenomenon of the `Ship of Fools' - `boats that conveyed their insane cargo from town to town' - is described by Michel Foucault in `Madness and Civilization' (1961, trans. 1967; Tavistock Publications, 1971, pp. 7-13; quote from p. 8). There is a Grateful Dead song `Ship of Fools', on `From the Mars Hotel' (1974), where the image seems to represent the insanity of `straight society', as seen by the drugged eyes of 60s dissident culture.
- Aidan Day, `Jokerman: Reading the Lyrics of Bob Dylan', Oxford and New York: Blackwell, 1988, p. 95; Robert Shelton, `No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan', 1986; Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1987, p. 478; Clinton Heylin, `Bob Dylan Behind the Shades: A Biography', New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991, p. 312.
- thanks to Ben Taylor (, 5 October 1996), who confirms Heylin's account of the genesis of the song; Stephen Scobie (ibid., same day) gave information on the `Lincoln County War'. Information on Lincoln County was also supplied to me personally by Bob Cutrofello.

This article was first published on, an Internet newsgroup devoted to the study of Bob Dylan.

Christopher Rollason, M.A., Ph.D.
Metz, France
(readers are invited to email me with any comments)