Saturday, July 26, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #15: Girl of the North Country

Ed. note: As recently as 5 minutes ago, I was planning on combining this entry with the Nashville Skyline version, both because it's the same song (essentially) and because I have a great affection for that version and wanted to jump the gun and write about it. In the end, I decided against it; not only would it be cheating, but there's enough things to talk about for both this and the NS version that I could keep the entries separate. Also, the Freewheelin' version of this song deserves its own post. So there you go.


Those of you that have seen Citizen Kane will surely remember the "white parasol" speech delivered by Mr. Bernstein, Kane's business manager and greatest admirer, who is important enough to warrant interview but not important enough to be granted a last name. At any rate, Bernstein, in the course of talking to inquiring reporter Thompson, discusses just how powerful human memory is, and brings up a specific example from his own life. One day, many years previous, he was on a ferry about to disembark just as another ferry was pulling in, and he saw a woman on that ferry holding a white parasol. Quoting him, "I only saw her for one second. She didn't see me at all, but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl."

It's a very powerful moment, one often cited as a highlight of the movie. Roger Ebert has stated that it's his favorite scene, even though it has nothing to do with Kane. And I'm not going to disagree - rarely do you get to see a sentiment so universal and beautiful as that one condensed as well as Herman Mankiewicz did for that screenplay. It really doesn't have anything to do with the story proper, but that doesn't even matter.

Regret is an emotion that doesn't get the same billing as some of the bigger ones - love, hatred, anger, etc. And yet it's hard to disagree that regret plays a major part in our lives, and often drives us far more than we would ever admit. Think about parents pushing their kids into sports or God knows what hobbies, or about someone buying a used '72 Mustang because he wishes he'd spent more time with his dad in the garage, or somebody trapped in a loveless marriage and sleeping around in the hope of rediscovering the man that got away. To me, that's why the concept of the time machine holds such interest (other than the desire for wealth and fame); who wouldn't want to go back in time to fix their mistakes, to kiss that girl, to take that job in Italy, or simply to tell someone you know that you loved them?

People often talk about "moving on" and "not looking back", and they're right, of course - the only thing dwelling in the past does is to take away from the present. But the damn problem with the past is that it isn't something abstract, like the future, or continually in flux like the present. It's already happened. It's there forever, both for good and for bad, and will always remain as a reference point whenever you feel the need to think about it. Nobody's life is every really informed by what they might do in 20 years, but everybody's life is informed by who they were 5 years ago. How often can you really just leave something entirely behind, ridding yourself of any physical/emotional/mental evidence that that something ever entered your existence? Hardly ever. It's almost like being an addict - you can get only so far away, but you'll never truly be free, and you have to live with that until you die.

It is the very luckiest of us that can take our past, then, and create something out of it. Whether it's a book, a poem, a painting, a song, or even just a particularly emotion-fraught entry in a journal, the ability to face your experiences head on and bend them to your will is truly remarkable. And, if you're really lucky, that piece of work will become as beloved as the memory you're writing/singing/what have you about, if only because so many of us share those same emotions, the same hurt, and the same desire to go back and either do it different or exactly the same. We all want that woman in the white parasol, and who knows - maybe she likes Illmatic as much as I do.


Try to follow me on this. Let's say you've got a centuries-old English recipe for chicken noodle soup, passed through generation after generation, learned by only a select few and renowned as a classic, beloved recipe. You teach the recipe to some young kid in New York visiting London, along with a few other old recipes you've learned over the years; he then takes that chicken noodle soup recipe, keeps only the soup base part, and makes a brand new recipe for beef and potato soup, which he then releases to an adoring public. You then teach that soup recipe to another kid from America; he then takes that recipe, combines it with a recipe for dumplings, and releases this new recipe as his own, without crediting the original source. That would probably get your goat a little bit, wouldn't it?

It got Martin Carthy's goat, and I can't really blame him for it. He held a grudge against Paul Simon for three decades, based around "Scarborough Fair/Canticle" being released as an original Simon/Garfunkel composition, instead of a traditional, or even "trad arr. Simon/Garfunkel (at least Young Bob was smart enough to know that racket). For somebody like Carthy, who holds a very deep respect for traditional English music, that had to be a pretty ugly slap in the face. I'm not sure he holds the same grudge for "Girl of the North Country", but that probably didn't sit too well with him either. There's a lot to be said for upholding the past, and Carthy deserves a ton of credit for his stance.

Then isn't Carthy's song, now is it? You can defend something you didn't create as much as you want, but that doesn't change the fact that, at the end of the day, you didn't create it; somebody else did, and unless they're around to take credit for their own work (or, as the case may be, copyright it), that work is free to be used as someone wishes to use it. And it's not as though this is a melody that was written in 1962 and should be protected from that sort of blatant theft. "Scarborough Fair" was written centuries ago, derived from yet another traditional ballad (Scottish - damn those plundering English pigs!), and the melody has been around long enough that nobody's feelings ought to be really hurt if it's used in a different way.

The really amazing thing, to me anyway, is that the melody was actually written by somebody. Doesn't it sometimes astound you that certain melodies weren't just handed down by Moses, but were actually composed by somebody? Surely the Ramones didn't come up with "E-A-D" for half of their songs - somebody had to have thought of that progression long before, right? That's one of the coolest things about music, to me; great strides have been taken in this century, but there was a very long and established history of popular music before 1900, and there are still arrangements and chord progressions from that time being used today. And somebody, maybe sitting in a straw-roofed hut or in the fanciest English castle, had to write those melodies. It's a staggering thing to think about.


I'm probably not the only Dylan fan that hears the opening of the Freewheelin' version of "Girl of the North Country" and thinks, ever so briefly, of "Tomorrow is a Long Time", one of those great Dylan songs that nobody's really heard of, and a prime example of how often Dylan likes to leave classic songs off his albums, the jerk. The ringing guitar intro is basically picked the same way, made up of the same chords; hell, they were written about the same time, and Dylan just figured "Girl" was the better song to release. And it's not like Dylan doesn't do these sort of things - he'll take the chords of this song and attach them to a brand new one not much later. It's how he operates.

Dylan's future as a viable musician (not just a viable folk musician), brought into focus with "Blowin' In The Wind", is completely confirmed with this song; just two songs in, and it's already clear that this man is going to be around for a long time. After all, even though traditional "folk" songs often sang about love and lack thereof, the modern-day folk movement Dylan was spearheading was far more preoccupied with the issues of the day, with protest and trying to change the world. There are more than enough songs like that here (and that movement would consume Dylan on the next album, to its detriment), but there are still plenty of songs about emotions and about personal issues here, and thank God for that. Dylan is allowed to be a three-dimensional human on Freewheelin', not a moppet-haired mouthpiece for civil rights and Stopping The Bomb, and that kept him from being painted in a corner - or having to paint himself into one - down the line.

The Freewheelin' version is an instance where Bob's acoustic-only metier suits him quite well - who would want to hear this song electrified? There's a brief chuckle in the 3rd verse, but for the most part Dylan plays things low-key, quiet, and gentle - perfect for the lyrics, which speak of true love lost with the weary sigh of a man who knows he'll never see that woman again, and probably doesn't believe that the person he's speaking to will ever see her, either. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know immediately that Dylan's speaking from personal experience, both in the tired pleading of his vocal and in the words themselves, full of longing and hurt. His voice breaks on the very last word, only adding to the feeling that Dylan really does want you to travel up north, brave blizzards and winds, seek this woman out, and tell her "there's a man that still loves you". That final harmonica run, blown like a siren, is almost a cry of sorrow, heartache in musical form. It's a fitting end to a gorgeous, truly affecting song.

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andrew! said...

I listened to the album version for the first time the other day-I'd forgotten how subtle & intimate the album version was. It's been such a long time since I'd forgotten, I'd even forgotten there was a good harp solo in it. Some wonderful live versions that caused me to forget about the album version include Avignon 1981, Hammersmith 2003 & any version from the Euro 2000 tour.

Tony said...

The Avignon version is pretty great, but I haven't heard the concert in a long, long time, so that's just based on memory.

Dylan, in general, does this song right in concert. He must really love it as much as we do.

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot for your interesting text about "Girl Of The North Country", it's a pleasure to read.

Martin Carthy didn't mind Bob using "Scarborough Fair" as a starting point for "Girl...", in fact he saw very clearly that Dylan had created something new and took it as a compliment. Some of his comments can be found on Manfred Helfert's excellent site

Ca. two years ago I tried to write about the relationship of these two songs, maybe it's of interest to you:

Please note a general problem with this so-called "Folk songs": some of them are really not that old, they are often products of the Folk revival and are conflated from different sources. For example the melody of Martin Carthy's "Scarborough Fair" can only be traced back to the year 1956. The song itself in its different variations and its precursor "Elfin Knight" were obviously sung originally to many wildly differing melodies. One folklorist has collected 55 different melodies for "elfin Knight" from printed sources.

Keep up the good work (and don't get discouraged by the folks at the NEP, some of them are a little grumpy)

David George Freeman said...

Hello there, thank you for posting this interesting essay. When you have done enough writing join us inside Bob Dylan's Music Box and listen to every version of every song.