from the desk of H. Bowie...

desktop with typewriter

"Girl From The North Country"

A song written by Bob Dylan in 1963

Album Cover for The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan

This is a deft example of the songwriter’s art.

Dylan has such an inimitable bag of tricks that many of his songs are unmistakably marked as his, either through attitude, theme, use of language, unusual length, or some combination of these factors.

Here, though, Dylan is like a master magician: even after you’ve taken away all the props, and had him roll up his sleeves, he can still effortlessly reach behind your ear and come back with a gold doubloon in his hand.

No railing against authority here, no diverse, divergent set of cultural references, no rolling series of verses, no hallucinatory imagery, no put-downs, no fancy words.

And yet Dylan still manages to produce a masterpiece.

Let’s review the lyrics. It won’t take long.

Well, if you’re travelin’ in the North country fair,
Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline,
Remember me to one who lives there:
She once was a true love of mine.

Well, if you go when the snowflakes storm,
When the rivers freeze and summer ends,
Please see if she’s wearing a coat so warm,
To keep her from the howlin’ winds.

Please see for me if her hair hangs long,
If it rolls and flows all down her breast.
Please see for me if her hair hangs long:
That’s the way I remember her best.

I’m a-wonderin’ if she remembers me at all.
Many times I’ve often prayed
In the darkness of my night,
In the brightness of my day.

So if you’re travelin’ in the North country fair,
Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline,
Remember me to one who lives there:
She once was a true love of mine.

The first thing to note, I think, is the physicality of the words and images. The words are all short and consist primarily of nouns and verbs. There’s not a concept or complexity or any kind of abstraction mentioned anywhere in the entire song.

And what do these words describe? There is the soft sensuality of the remembered girl’s hair hanging long, rolling and flowing all down her breast. And then this is contrasted with words describing the harsh winters of the northland, with winds hitting heavy, the snowflakes storming, the freezing rivers, the howling wind, and the need for the heaviest of coats.

Although this is a song of remembrance, Dylan frames it as a one-sided conversation with a third party. By doing so, he is able to put almost all of his verbs in the present tense. And so, even though this is a song about a girl that the singer has not seen in a long time, almost all of the action of the song is happening in present time. He’s making a request of someone who is in front of him right now. He’s asking this third party to see what the girl is doing now, to check on her current state. And he’s wondering right now if she remembers him at all. We’re not simply looking at an aging photograph of what once was, with all the emotional distance and safety implicit in such a situation: we’re eavesdropping on a private conversation happening right now.

There’s also a timeless quality to the song. Even though Dylan wrote the song in the 1960's, the words he used could have been written, and could apply, to anyplace in the world, and almost any time in human history. The most technologically advanced item mentioned in the song is a coat.

This implied lack of technology helps to support the primary dramatic tension of the song. For the singer is not in a world where he can send an email to the girl from the North country, or text her, or jump on a plane and visit her. Either due to limitations of technology or finances or some other unmentioned aspect of his situation, he is unable to communicate with her directly in any way.

And yet… even though he’s not even sure if this girl remembers him, even though he harbors no hope of physically reconnecting with her, the physical presence they once enjoyed has left him with such caring for her that he is asking someone else to make sure she is well and protected from elements that might threaten her.

And so this is, finally, I think, the message we are left with: that the depth of feeling that one human can feel for another can abide, that there is some human bond, even if unacknowledged, even if one-sided, even if separated by time and geography, that need not fade or diminish, that can stand unassailably.

There are many great versions of this song to choose from. Dylan’s original version was recorded in 1963, and released as the second track on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Then a second version, a duet with Johnny Cash, appeared on Nashville Skyline in 1969. Cash liked the song so well that he included in on the list of essential songs he passed on to his daughter Rosanne, and so another version appears on her album, The List. Leon Russell and Joe Cocker also deliver the song as another duet on the 1970 album Mad Dogs and Englishmen. And admittedly the dramatic situation of the song, with one man talking to another about a girl that one of them once knew, certainly lends itself to a duet featuring two male voices.

For my money, though, it’s hard to beat the version performed by Sam Bush on his live album Ice Caps: Peaks of Telluride, with Sam playing mandolin and accompanied by Jerry Douglas on dobro. Sam’s singing is as poignant as one could wish, and the stinging traditional instrumentation adds an urgency to the song that emphasizes its emotional immediacy.

August 21, 2017