Thursday, September 11, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #31: North Country Blues

Back when I had disposable income to play around with, one of my favorite little vices to spend money on was Criterion Collection DVDs. Since I don't mess around with drugs or alcohol, those exorbitantly priced DVDs were for me what cocaine famously was to Robin Williams (God's way of telling you that you have too much money), and at one point I owned somewhere around 60 or so, which at $40 a pop is no mean feat. They're certainly worth it, as any videophile will tell you, but at a certain point I realized I couldn't possibly devote enough time to watching them all, and slowly began to take my collection apart, piece by piece. I still have my fair share of them, but they're all movies I return to over and over, and can safely keep in my possession without feeling like a wastrel.

One movie I'd wanted to buy from the Collection, but never did, was the Oscar-winning 1976 documentary Harlan County, USA, about a coal miner's strike in small-town Kentucky and the brutal living conditions the striking miners operated under. I still want to see the movie someday, partially because of its reputation, and partly because it's always educational to see, as the phrase goes, "how the other half lives". I've made no bones about the fact that I've lived a relatively privileged lifestyle (as seen in the "Ballad of Hollis Brown" post, which was justly criticized, albeit gently, for naivete), and the gaunt, dirt-streaked faces of the miners of that town seem a million miles away from my own. But those faces still make up a sizable proportion of our population, and their problems still remain as relevant today as ever (witness the recent Sago mine shaft disaster, which captivated the nation for at least two whole days; no small feat in today's modern fast-paced news cycle).

"North Country Blues", which would have fit nicely into the Harlan County, USA soundtrack, is Bob Dylan's way of bringing the plight of mine workers into our homes, through our stereo systems. Dylan, taking the voice of a woman in Anytown, USA (effectively, as well - it's no small feat to pull that off), unwinds a tale of sorrow and pain not unfamiliar to the impoverished mining community, as the narrator marries a miner and bears him three children, only to see him slowly waste away as the mine closes from foreign competition (in South America, where "the miners work almost for nothing") and finally leave his family behind. The story's told with brutal detail, as you can smell the gin on the unemployed miner's breath and see the blankness of his eyes, and the narrator's own heartache seeps through every word. In a more subtle way, it's one of the better finger-pointing songs on here, although the finger-pointing is kept to a minimum to properly give the more personal story its due.

There are plenty of jobs, incredibly necessary and integral jobs, that manage to be thankless and painful; there are, however, not many of those kinds of jobs that can actually end your life if you're not careful. The life of a miner must be painful in a way totally incomprehensible to most of us - in some ways, it's as close to the Third World as we can get in America (not to mention the staggering fatality rate of miners around the rest of the world). Much like the farming industry, massive strides have been made technologically in mining, and the dangers of the job are far less than in the 60s, when "North Country Blues" was written, and even the 70s, when Harlan County, USA was filmed. All the same, the prospect of death hangs around the profession, either in the immediacy of a mine shaft collapse, sudden explosion, or mechanical mishap, or in the more drawn-out deaths from lung disease and gas poisoning. And the pay for this kind of work, as it's been since time immemorial, is brutally low; this is not a job for somebody looking to advance in the world. It is hard not to feel sympathy for miners, especially since we know that modern life would not function in many ways without them.

Dylan, in his folk-style memorial to those hardy workers (the song starts "Come gather 'round, friends", after all), manages to build even more sympathy by looking at their world from an outsider's perspective, seeing their very specific misery through another form of misery. From the death of her own family members from mine accidents, to the destruction of her nuclear family through brutal economics, that toughest of American lives is illuminated and brought into clear focus. The solemnity of the album works against this song, actually; on an album without as many similarly dark tracks, this song might've received more attention. Dylan, with only two chords and the merest ghost of guitar accompaniment, sharpens the lyrics even further - there is nothing to distract you from the narrator's resignation to her fate. I don't know if there was anything that terribly sad as the narrator's fate in Harlan County, USA, but for the sake of those miners, I can only hope not.

Special note: this post was written on Thursday, but will be read by most people on Friday. Hopefully you all know what Thursday is the anniversary of, and have kept it in your thoughts, if only for a moment.

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Anonymous said...

First time I heard the song, I thought her husband's name was John Thomas A. Miner. Next time, I thought "John Thomas, A-minor" was an oddly-placed announcement of a chord change.

It's always kind of unusual when Bob Dylan, big time sexer of all women, sings as a distinctly female narrator. You got this, House Of The Rising Sun, Dink's Song, Searching For A Soldier's Grave, Young But Daily Growin' ... probably other stuff. what'm I missing?

Strangely, of the six (!) Bob Dylan songs included on the soundtrack to North Country, that Charlize Theron a movie about A FEMALE MINER, North Country Blues was not one of them. Girl From The North Country was, though -- they could've grabbed Something There Is About You and Went To See The Gypsy for the clean sweep of Minnesota-namechecking songs. Dylan, if you want to take him at his word, also told Don Was that Under The Red Sky was about his hometown. Going under that assumption, I might clumsily read "one day the man in the moon went home and the river went dry" as a loose metaphor for the mine closin' and the stores foldin'.

"Special note: this post was written on Thursday, but will be read by most people on Friday. Hopefully you all know what Thursday is the anniversary of, and have kept it in your thoughts, if only for a moment."

Indeed. It was the day that Love & Theft was released, so one of the greatest days in Bob Dylan history! Yayayayay.

'course, we'd already had the leaked mp3s for, I feel like, at least three weeks? This was my first new Bob Dylan album, as I'm guessing it was for most cool people around our cool age, and I felt kind of guilty that I didn't wait it out properly. In the years that followed, I swore that if I were ever so blessed with a new Bob Dylan album again, I would definitely not take the shine off the momentousness of its release by looking for my Christmas presents before the big day. I'd get to go to a store, come out with a Brand New CD of Brand New Bob Dylan Songs, and proceed to immerse myself in them.

Then Modern Times leaked about ten days before the day of its 'drop' (don't say drop) and I caved without hesitation. :(

I don't know if I'll have any more resolve if/when the next new album comes out -- or even how much the entire concept of 'buying a new album' will have changed by then. But I'm pretty certain that if the Tell Tale Signs tracks became available, I would fall over myself for a sneak peek.

Tony said...

The awesome part is that, according to Dylanchords, A-minor is indeed one of the two chords in the song (the other being G), and as he sings "John Thomas, a miner", he actually goes into the A-minor chord. Either Bob's even more brilliant than we give him credit for, or it's the weirdest shout-out to the engineers and recorders next to "is it rolling, Bob?"

You could always assume, if you wish, that in the songs where he's not putting women down he's singing in a woman's voice - it'll make the listening experience funnier, I think. Like, "Hattie Carroll" could be sung from a woman's POV. Think of a woman singing "Subterranean Homesick Blues". Wouldn't that be CRAZY?

My L&T experience was that I bought it on that Tuesday, and I distinctly remember the local record shop I haunted in Ann Arbor, which usually played cool tunes over the stereo system, was instead playing NPR or a news radio station, talking about The News Of The Day. The whole campus had a creepy vibe - real quiet, kinda like a ghost town.

I hadn't heard the album in advance (I only download albums already out, Justin, you Pittsburgh Pirate), but I'd seen some strong advance reviews, and I was very excited. The advance reviews were all dead on - I listened to the whole album 3 straight times, then listened to "High Water" about 50 straight times. Lord willing, I'll get to that song someday, but that's one of the tracks I'm most excited to write about. It's a Top Fiver for me.

Anonymous said...

"as he sings "John Thomas, a miner", he actually goes into the A-minor chord."

Well that's just awesome.

I don't think I ever heard it as "I married John Thomas, a minor," although that would match Young But Daily Growin'.

God, even the rhyme scheme is a downer in this song -- aabccb where half the a's and the c's are unfulfilled and the b is always an unfailing two-syllable kick in the pants, especially since something terrible happens in every single verse. It makes me yearn for the sing-song racial hostility of Only A Pawn In Their Game.

Have you ever heard a girl sing a Dylan song and change the gender? Joan Baez singing Daddy You Been On My Mind is what it is, but the girl on the Masked And Anonymous soundtrack who switches all the pronouns in Most Of The Time is awkward, particularly when she rhymes "endure" and "sure" with ... "him." I'm pretty sure Joan has recorded North Country Blues, come to think.

Unknown said...

Isn't the thing about this song that it's the story of Hibbing. and then there's the wonderful play that this is called a blues whenit's a ballad and Hollis Brown is called a ballad whenit's a blues

Azor said...

Actually, miners make pretty good money today. Obviously, that hasn't always been the case, and it is still dangerous, hard work, but it is much better than it used to be:

andrew! said...

What record store did you buy Love & Theft from? I credit my insane desire to buy cd's from visiting downtown Ann Arbor in high school where there was at least four miles. My favorite was Schoolkids.

Love & Theft was also the first Dylan cd I bought on the day of the release, I sort of feel guilty about going out & buying a cd on a day like that. I got let out of my first day of my internship at a museum early & walked down to Vertigo records & bought it, but like many people I didn't hear it proper until a few days later.

I got nothing to say about North Country Blues, I've never paid much attention to it, to be honest.

Tony said...

andrew, the place I bought L&T from no longer exists - I want to say it was called Record and Tape Traders, but that doesn't really sound right. Schoolkids was great (and, sadly, no longer around), as is Wazoo.

Azor, that link really surprised me; $64,000/yr. does sound like quite a bit for mining work.

tim, I suppose it wouldn't be a shock if the song was about Hibbing; "North Country" and all that. I also like that little twist that you pointed out.

David George Freeman said...

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