Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #33: Boots of Spanish Leather


It's hard to believe that it's already been over half a decade since I'd graduated from college, and yet here I am, now able to look back on those years with the proper amount of gravitas and nostalgia (as opposed to, say, 2004, when all I looked back on was how much I liked waking up at 10, watching The Price is Right, then rolling into my first class of the day). I graduated from the University of Michigan with a BA in English, the prototypical "I have no idea what I want to do with my life" degree. To be honest, if the U of M had offered me a degree in basket weaving, I'd have jumped on that in a second; at least there would be a more fixed career path in the offing, pathetic though that career path may be. At least, with my English degree, I had a number of paths I could take and start from the absolute bottom with, since I didn't have a specialized degree. That's the college experience for you.

As anybody that gets an English degree knows, the vast majority of your time is taken up with papers - lots, and lots, and LOTS of papers. I achieved a certain mechanical grace by the end of my college career in terms of writing papers, to the point where I had an almost exact scientific formula, incorporating block quotes and big words and every possible trick in the book to earn at the very least a B, and occasionally (if all cylinders were firing) an A. That writing style, in many ways, is mirrored in the way I write all my recreational work, including this blog you're reading right now. So you've got my schooling to thank, or curse, depending on how you feel about my little scribblings.

One year, however, I found myself having to take a poetry course, as a prerequisite for my major. Let me state, for the record, that I have very little use for poetry on the whole. I can appreciate well-written poetry, and there are a few scattered pieces here and there that I think the world of, but the genre as a whole is not my cup of tea. The only poet, as a matter of fact, whose work I actually own is T.S. Eliot - partly because I read "The Waste Land" over and over during my poetry class to relieve some of the boredom, and partly because he actually practiced the sampling aesthetic nearly a century before Grandmaster Flash and the Dust Brothers helped pioneer the genre. Eliot's work is rife with allusions to past works, both famous works and his own poems, popular expressions of the day, and even lines lifted directly from other texts. It's pretty cool to see even now, and must've been mindblowing when first released.

Anyway, about halfway through the semester the class was charged with an assignment any poetry class attendee is probably familiar with - the poetry reading. Yes, we would all have to stand in front of the class and recite, direct from memory, a poem of our choosing from our textbook. Now, I've already mentioned that I'd been an open mic participant many times, including during my college years, and you'd think that any butterflies in my stomach had long since disappeared. But that was a different animal - nobody was grading my performances then (at least, not out loud), and a potential failing grade which would surely lead to my failing out of school and becoming a wino on the streets of Ann Arbor was not at risk during an open mic. I'm kidding, of course, but I sweated that assignment a lot more than I should have.

So I'm flipping through my gigantic textbook, wondering to myself if there's any chance I could get away with William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow" without being failed on the spot, when I happened to flip to a section marked "Popular Ballads of the 20th Century". For whatever reason, through the numerous times I'd dug through my textbook during that semester, I'd either missed that section entirely or passed through it without any thought. This time, however, in desperation, I gave the section a more thorough once-over, hoping to find something I could easily memorize...and what did I stumble upon but "Boots of Spanish Leather".

Now, this was when my Dylan fixation had reached its glorious apex, where I was spending money on bootlegs, both straight purchases and B&Ps, devouring any books I could find on him (the school's library had an original printing of Ratso Sloman's Rolling Thunder Revue diary), and immersing myself in the man's music. I'd heard "Boots of Spanish Leather" a few times, and hey, it's Bob, so this should be no sweat! A quick visit to Napster (RIP, original version) got me a copy of the song, since I actually didn't have The Times They Are A-Changin' at the, uh, time, and I spent the next few days listening to the song over and over and over, along with reading the lyrics like a young Jewish boy reading the Torah in time for his Bar Mitzvah. I can safely say that, had I not found a Dylan song (of all things), I probably would've struggled to find a poem I could recite right to the very end.

The day came for my recital, and I stood in front of the class, eyes cast downward in concentration, and recited the lyrics to "Boots of Spanish Leather". I still remember rocking back and forth on my heels, occasionally shutting my eyes when a word was a little slow in coming, speaking in a slow, even tone. The lyrics, so beautiful and graceful in song, sounded a little strange and stilted as a spoken-word piece; sometimes the music can mean just as much to a song as the lyrics do. Finally, I finished the song, with maybe one stumble somewhere in the middle, and beamed as the class gently and politely applauded. My teacher applauded as well, a smile on her face, and I knew that I'd been saved by the divine providence of Bob Dylan being great enough to have a song of his printed in a freakin' poetry anthology.

I got an A-. I think Bob would've been proud.


Of the two Bob Dylan songs that use the chord structure of Martin Carthy's interpretation of "Scarborough Fair", "Boots of Spanish Leather" would actually be my favorite by the slimmest of margins. It isn't just because of the story I just told you (although that doesn't hurt in terms of warm fuzzy feelings); the song hits me in a more ethereal way, like I'm listening to a great romance film being transcribed into lyrical form. Anybody that's seen the play "Love Letters" knows that the play's central conceit very closely mirrors that of this song, which alternates letters/mash notes/what have you between two lovers, an ocean apart (in two different senses - see what I did there?) and slowly drifting away from each other, even though it takes the man a little while to realize this. Suze Rotolo, who actually has done a good job keeping herself from being sucked into the Dylan mythmaking vortex, recently affirmed that the song was about her, and her trip to Italy that crushed our young hero's heart. Given all I've written about this album's mood, it makes sense that such a brokenhearted lament would find its way here.

Ted Leo, who I've made mention of here before, named one of his albums The Tyranny of Distance, a reference to a Split Enz (of Neil Finn/"I Got You" fame) lyric, and that's the phrase that immediately pops into my head when I think about this song. That phrase, "tyranny of distance", is apt in so many ways when it comes to a relationship. From an obvious standpoint, nobody likes being away from the one they love, either in a physical or psychological sense - I remember times where I'd literally go weeks without contact from the woman I loved, and it was nothing short of Chinese water torture. There's a reason that most long-term relationships don't last; the farther away you are from somebody, the harder it is to keep your feelings for them intact and the easier it is to stray towards somebody else. That's just human nature.

Dylan gives us both the physical and psychological sense in this song; not only is the lady of the song heading to Spain to see the sights (and, one can imagine, to see los hombres guapos), but she's making it clear that she's over her man. Like one of Doyle's best Sherlock Holmes stories, the feeling that this relationship has reached its Waterloo slowly unwinds over six marvelous verses, the gulf between the two speakers widening and widening, until Dylan's narrator receives the fateful letter where she tells him "I'll see you when I see you, pal" and he knows that she's never coming back. It's hard not to feel for him at that moment - one can actually see in their mind a young man, letter in hand, slowly hanging his head in defeat. And it's also hard not to feel a little satisfaction when that young man pulls himself together, says "que sera sera", and asks for some nice boots as both remembrance, kiss-off, and (let's face it) quality footwear. It's almost a happy ending, in a way.

One more note: my fine friend Wikipedia points out that the famous last line of the song, where Dylan gives up hope of his love's return asks only for "Spanish boots of Spanish leather", is very close to a line from "Blackjack Davey", a folk song Dylan would later cover for Good As I Been To You, one of the two 90s folk albums that have more or less been forgotten due to Dylan's late-career resurgence. In the song, an outlaw named Blackjack Davey woos a young (very young, according to the lyrics - we're talking "put you on a list" young) maiden married to a richer man, and asks her to "pull off, pull off them high-heeled shoes/All made of Spanish leather" before she rides off with him; probably as a symbol of casting aside wealth for love, who knows. At any rate, it shows you how well-versed in old folk Dylan was even then (as though we needed another reminder), and how occasionally something will just stick in your mind, only to be regurgitated in a different form. Dylan has a way of doing that, doesn't he?

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Anonymous said...

I enjoyed that. Thanks.


Unknown said...

I always took it to mean that he wanted her to be IN the boots he asks for. That is he wants her to return to him.

Anonymous said...

i wake up everyday looking forward to another post of yours. you're a tremendous writer who has the ability to almost pinpoint the exact nature of these songs. keep up the good work, tony!

Pete said...

Thanks as usual -- always good to read.

I don't have any stats available, but Bob played this a lot in the 90s and since, and very well, as an acoustic band number. Ironically, I enjoy those for the sound and feeling more than the words themselves. I think Larry Campbell used to play great on it. Maybe Bob (too) thinks he nailed a folk song.

Anonymous said...

I was meaning to ask you if you had a English degree before you answered that in this post. It's clear that you have a great talent for writing.

I think "Boots of Spanish Leather" is my favorite Dylan song behind "Girl of the North Country". I was listening to it in the car one time and it really struck me--I, too, have gone through a similar experience, and felt a sincerity in that song that I haven't in any other. Not only is it a beautiful, emotional tale, but I think the way it is written (the verses switching back and forth between the letters of the two lovers) is such a genius thing.

Tony said...

jonathan, from how I read the lyrics (I haven't heard "Blackjack Davey" in years, and as much of a Dylan fan as I am, I'm just not going to listen to Good As I Been To You on a regular basis), it sounded like Blackjack Davey was asking the lady to take her boots off and join him on his horse, which is what she does. Were it the rich guy saying it, I think you'd have a point.

Thanks for all the praise, everyone - kinda needed it after the last post. :p And Cody, one could argue that the English degree is actually an impediment to my writing advancement. :D

Anonymous said...

"I'm just not going to listen to Good As I Been To You on a regular basis"

Gasp. I'm going to have to insist that you do.

Blackjack/Gypsy Davey also shows up personally in Tombstone Blues. Woody Guthrie recorded it, but I assume Dylan was familiar with plenty of versions. It's thematically similar to House Carpenter from Bootleg Series vol. 1, too -- mind-roamin' wives getting whisked away by a man in a long black coat. House Carpenter also begins, like BOSL, by addressing "my own true love" in the first line, and sees its heroine abandon her husband to sail off to Italy (...Italy), only to end up sinking to the depths of helllllll. Hmm. Neither song is a very flattering allusion to invoke about your girlfriend.

I really like the acoustic band versions of Boots Of Spanish Leather from the late 90s too, even if it can be almost impossible to distinguish from the late 90s acoustic band versions of Girl From The North Country until he starts singing. BobDylan.com used to offer a few good performances of both of them. Here's an mp3 of a semi-officially-released performance of Boots from 1998 (it was one of the bonus tracks on a Time Out Of Mind single).

andrew! said...

My love for poetry started almost simultaneously with my first listen of Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie & a poetry class where the professor spoke with great passion about Philip Larkin. The poem he spoke about was Born Yesterday.

Born Yesterday
for Sally Amis

Tightly-folded bud,
I have wished you something
None of the others would:
Not the usual stuff
About being beautiful,
Or running off a spring
Of innocence and love -
They will all wish you that,
And should it prove possible,
Well, you're a lucky girl.

But if it shouldn't, then
May you be ordinary;
Have, like other women,
An average of talents:
Not ugly, not good-looking,
Nothing uncustomary
To pull you off your balance,
That, unworkable itself,
Stops all the rest from working.
In fact, may you be dull -
If that is what a skilled,
Vigilant, flexible,
Unemphasised, enthralled
Catching of happiness is called.

26 January 1954 TLD
p. 84
http://www.emule.com/2poetry/phorum/read.php?4,43170,157865 accessed on 23 April 2007

Boots of Spanish Leather is my favorite of Bob Dylan's unrequited love songs-the story comes to life, & there's the ambiguity of why he wants the boots of spanish leather.

My favorite versions of this song come from fall of '03, particularly Hamburg. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H8G1Q8wuYLc

By the by, I graduated college with an English degree & I've been selling paint ever since.

Tony said...

Justin, I'm going to have to give both of the 90s covers albums a once-over again, and not just for this blog. That's such a forgotten period of Dylan lore.

andrew, thanks for posting that poem; it really is beautiful. And I'd be very happy to sell paint right now. :)

Unknown said...

Something just occurred to me while reading your comments on the structure of this (beautiful, wrenching, etc etc) song ... the winsome question and answer between two lovers walking different paths is very like (and I say this in full awareness of it exposing me as a terrible geek) the poem Treebeard recites about his long-lost wife.

Um... sorry everybody. Sorry Bob.

David George Freeman said...

Hello, thank you for posting this fine analysis. When you have finished reading come inside Bob Dylan's Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/90/Boots-of-Spanish-Leather and listen to every version of every song.