Nightly Song
Musings on Songs that Strike a Chord Tonight

Girl from the North Country by Bob Dylan

Girl from the North Country

Written by Bob Dylan

There are many recorded versions of this song, included a duet with Johnny Cash that you can listen to here. You can purchase the original version from iTunes here. There’s an interesting version by Roseanne Cash here.

A Dylan staple for over 45 years and covered by others “Girl from the North Country” can first seem like nothing more than a romantic remembrance of a past love, one told with great affection and telling detail. Yet this song is not as simple as it seems; it skirts the edge of sentimentality to resonate with a potent mix of desire, loss and longing not for a past love, but for meaning. It is not an easy song, refusing to wallow in the past and refusing to deny the loss of the love and a younger self.  Nor does the song take the easy way out, refusing to conclude with familiar bromides or clichéd resolves. Instead, the song ends with an uneasy sense of how our present depends upon the past.  

Like so many Dylan songs, “Girl from the North Country” takes inspiration from an earlier creation, in this case the English folk ballad “Scarborough Fair,” most well known from the Simon and Garfunkel rendition, though one Dylan learned from British folkie Martin Carthy in 1962. The main line from the refrain – “Remember me to one who lives there” – comes from the source material. Yet, as always, Dylan makes something new of his raw materials.

The song opens with the wistful wishes of the singer musing on a past love:

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

The language harkens to an earlier time (“north country fair”) and draws on the source material of “Scarborough Fair.”  The reference to the north country also mixes in some autobiographical facts as Dylan hailed from northern Minnesota. Like many men who want to appear unaffected by a past relationship, the opening affects a casual, almost coincidental tone. He addresses a traveler and mentions his past love only in case the traveler happens to be in the area, an attitude that re-appears years later in “If You See Her, Say Hello.”

The singer doesn’t have any specific message for her, no plea to come back, no wishes for a reunion, instead, he offers the more neutral, perhaps tentative, “remember me to one who lives there.”  Yet the singer makes clear of his affection for her, “she once was a true love of mine.” Surely, the song borders on the sentimental, casting back for memories of an earlier affair, yet Dylan stamps the relationship with meaning as a “true love.” The phrasing sets this relationship part from others; it is the one he remembers, it is the true one.

After the opening refrain, the singer turns his attention to the girl:

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

There’s a certain sadness in this scene. We picture the bleakness of winter; the words and singing stretch the long vowels in “snowflakes” and “storm.” The singer is leaning into the past, but pulls back with the wish for her well-being, “please see if she’s wearing a coat so warm/To keep her from the howling winds.” These lines sing of tenderness, of well wishes, but he does not fall into abject longing for the past love, nor does he forsake her.

With the focus on the season, the singer ties his love for this woman to his youth, a season that’s come to an end. The frolicking of summer has ended and now he is in the austerity of adulthood.

The next verse hones in on the girl:

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

We can feel his longing, picture her hair, the yearning that the image of her breasts brings, but again the song pulls back from sliding over the edge into a pool of melancholy. As in the last verse where he wished for her a long coat to guard against the wind, here he wishes that she still wears her hair long.

The next verse provides the pivot for the song. Here we are no longer looking to the past, but living in the present with memories of the past:

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

The song has flipped; the perspective has changed. Now it is not him musing about her, it is him wondering if she thinks of him. He doesn’t want to be forgotten. It is not a longing to rekindle the romance, it is a hope, a prayer, that their time together has meaning, that it remains alive in memory. We can hear the neediness of an insecure man: he remembers her, for her not to think of him would diminish him. But there’s something more here.  He wants their time to have meant something, to have made a mark.  Isn’t that what we all want? Meaning in our lives, meaning in our relationships.

He dwells on these thoughts in the “darkness of my night.” Think of a more recent song, “Red River Shore,” where the singer tells of nighttime fears:

Some of us turn off the lights and we live
In the moonlight shooting by
Some of us scare ourselves to death in the dark

It is natural to lie awake in the dark and worry, to fear that our time meant nothing, that our presence wasn’t felt, as if we did not exist. Yet it the next line that tells the tale, for the singer lives on “in the brightness of my day.”  Life does go on; the sun does come up. And here the singing matters, the way in every recorded version, Dylan lifts this line, for he is not wallowing in the past, he is not stuck in time. Instead, the past live on in the present. The singer does not look to return to the past, or to escape it. Quite contrary, his present depends on the past. It is vitally important that his old flame remember him as he remembers her.

We return to the opening refrain with a very different perspective. He wants the traveler to remember him to the past love for to be unremembered would invalidate this past and undermine his present. He’s not pining for the past, he’s in the present which, in part, depends on the validity of the last claim, “She once was a true love of mine.” No wonder in the duet with Johnny Cash they repeat this line for so much depends on the truth of that love.

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2 Responses to “Girl from the North Country by Bob Dylan”

  1. I like your assessment of this song. It pretty much hits the mark with me, but there is something very basic missing. My understanding is this song is directed towards his former sweetheart Suzie Rotolo. She appears on the album sleave in which also this song was recorded. That’s a pretty important point! When I listen to this song I think of that album sleeve.

    Thanks again.

    Matthew

    • I opted not to get into the biography behind the song. A few thoughts: some researchers have identified an old high school girlfriend, Echo Helstrom, as the source for the song. Others suggest Suzie Rotolo as he wrote the song during the demise of their relationship.

      The biographical stories become interesting, but I think they tend to obscure the song. The woman in the song is neither Helstrom nor Rotolo, but more an embodiment of youthful love. I think she has more in common with the women in Red River Shore and Shelter form the Storm than a specific woman. Your thoughts?


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