Released in 1963, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was Dylan’s coming out party. Boasting a number of songs that would eventually become classics, Dylan announced to the world that he had arrived as a songwriter and performer. Freewheelin’ displayed Dylan’s full breadth of songwriting talent as it included finger-pointing protest songs (“Masters of War”), humorous wordplay (“I Shall Be Free”), visionary hallucinations (“A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”) as well as unabashed love songs such as “Girl from the North Country.”
Dylan researchers have long speculated about the identity of the girl who inspired the composition of the song. It could have been two girls from the North Country of Minnesota – former girlfriends Echo Helstrom and Bonnie Beecher – as well as Suze Rotolo, his girlfriend at the time of the writing from whom he was separated. Whichever girl it was, Dylan writes and sings about her with tenderness. “Girl from the North Country” shows off Dylan’s brilliance as a singer and an interpreter at a young age.
In a podcast meet-up between two uber visionary music producers, Rick Rubin asked Brian Eno if lyrics are important to him when listening to music. Eno said:
“They’re very rarely the thing I’m most listening to in music. I think the base requirement for me in lyrics is that they don’t make the music stupid, which turns out to be quite a high bar in many cases. Now, people say doo wop lyrics are stupid but I don’t think they are at all. They serve the music absolutely. Doo wop lyrics are the way to make a voice become musical.”
The inessential function of lyrics in music may be a strange statement to include in a blog post dedicated to a musician who is known primarily for his lyrics, but it applies to Dylan as with any other musical performer. Every now and then, Dylan’s lyrics – which may work on the page – can fall flat in performance. This may be the reason why Dylan often changes the arrangements and chord progression of his songs, either in studio recordings or concert performances. He is ensuring that the pairing of music and lyrics aren’t stupid, to use Eno’s words. “Girl from the North Country” is a perfect example of what Eno is talking about in that the lyrics make Dylan’s voice become musical. This is seen especially in how Dylan sings the rhymes of “fair” and “there” as well as “storm” and “warm.” These are soft words, and Dylan gently holds them in his singing, underlining the care with which he asks the girl to be regarded.
The central motif of “Girl from the North Country” is Dylan asking the listener of the song to heed his call in the treatment of a girl from his past. Dylan borrows the line “Remember me to one who lives there / She once was a true love of mine” from the old ballad “Scarborough Fair” which he learned from English folk singer Martin Carthy. A couple of years later, Paul Simon also learned “Scarborough Fair” from Carthy and released it as “Scarborough Fair/Canticle.”
Undoubtedly, Dylan was playing off of the folk song in the composition of “Girl from the North Country.” Alternatively, we know that Dylan was such a huge fan of Johnny Cash from a young age as Dylan recounted in his statement on Cash’s passing:
“In plain terms, Johnny was and is the North Star; you could guide your ship by him…Of course, I knew of him before he ever heard of me. In ’55 or ’56, ‘I Walk the Line’ played all summer on the radio, and it was different than anything else you had ever heard. The record sounded like a voice from the middle of the earth. It was so powerful and moving. It was profound, and so was the tone of it, every line; deep and rich, awesome and mysterious all at once.”
Knowing this persuasive influence of Cash on Dylan, Cash’s “Give My Love to Rose” must be embedded in Dylan’s musical persona:
“Give My Love to Rose” is all about the perspective of the singer beseeching a passerby to pass along sentiments to a loved one, strongly similar to “Girl from the North Country.” Though Dylan never makes the connection between the two songs explicit, “Girl from the North Country” is the one track included on Nashville Skyline after Dylan and Cash joined forces in the studio on February 17-18, 1969.
There are many highlights from the Dylan/Cash sessions – later released in full on The Bootleg Series Vol. 15: Travelin’ Thru, 1967–1969 – but “Girl from the North Country” is not one of them as it loses the tenderness of the original cut. For my taste, the less said the better when comparing the two versions.
A better rendition of “Girl from the North Country” is from 1978 when Dylan was rehearsing a new band to go out on the road to support Street-Legal. The recordings of those rehearsals have been bootlegged and produced this version of “Girl from the North Country:”
There’s so much to love here. Fifteen years after the composition of the song, Dylan reimagines the delivery of the words while still capturing the tenderness of the original recording of the song. Accompanied by a heart-stoppingly beautiful organ as well as support from saxophone and guitar, it recalls the sound of Van Morrison, especially “Tupelo Honey.” This comparison is not a reach as the two songs have virtually the same chord progression. The re-adjusted arrangement of the 1978 version also prefigures Dylan’s 21st century trilogy of recording standards on Shadows in the Night, Fallen Angels, and Triplicate. This is Dylan in his Sinatra phrase, covering romantic classics and attempting to make them his own.
While Dylan is known for many types of songs, he has a through-line of overt love songs across his recordings from “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” to “I Want You” to “Lay Lady Lay” to “Make You Feel My Love.” “Girl from the North Country” is one of the earliest examples and remains one of, if not, the most powerful of Dylan’s love songs.
Photo by: Jenny Bunn