Good art will reflect the human experience. Some art has wide appeal because it reflects or relates to the experiences of everyone. Other art has minor or cult like appeal to it as its experiences relate to only a niche group. Bad art ultimately fails to relate to people, its experiences repulse the senses and the artists intent seems rife with inauthenticity.
But art has never been original. There’s always been an influence, an inspiration- a nudge towards creation. Whether subtle or obvious, art defines itself. Bob Dylan’s track Girl from the North Country is no exception.
The song was written during his first trip overseas to England in December 1962, where he performed and grew friendly with the local folk musicians of London. Here he met folksinger Martin Carthy who introduced him many classic English ballads, including Martin’s own version of Scarborough Fair. Here Dylan found a melody and a few lyrics that would inspire the song he would finish writing in a few months.
But the melody isn’t enough to garner a tune. You need raw and authentic emotion behind it. Like Carthy’s original song, The Girl from the North Country dedicates itself to a girl. But while Scarborough Fair is a centuries old ballad dating back to Pagan times, Dylan’s song is closer to home- it’s personal.
There’s a lot of debate about who the girl described in the song actually is. The two greatest arguments fall between are High school sweetheart Echo Helstrom and his then girlfriend, Suze Rotolo.
Echo and Dylan had broken up before he had gone to College, where she remained in Minnesota before moving to Minneapolis and later Los Angeles. Many believed it was her, citing the reference to cold weather is a call back to their time in Minnesota.
Others argue that the song is dedicated to Rotolo, seeing as Dylan had left England to pursue her in Italy- later finishing the song upon learning she had already left the country. The heart was raw at this moment- why would Dylan be thinking about his ex?
In the end the only person who truly knows who the song is about is Bob Dylan himself. He has admitted that Rotolo had a great influence on his works during this period, but he never disclosed who the girl was. Echo believed it was her, conceding that the inspiration may have come from Rotolo but the girl in the song is her- “because who else could it be?”
Recorded in 1963, Girl from the North Country is the second track in the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, his second studio album. The original version is pleasant but is eclipsed by other tracks such as Masters of War and Blowin’ in the Wind. His guitar backtrack is almost identical to that of his later song, Boots of Spanish Leather, another love song.
Music is an audible artform. Good music will trigger a visual interpretation. Some songs can bring you back to a certain point in time, elicit a certain mood- or simply paint a scene. My interpretation of this rendition triggers an image of the final moments of a house party.
Everyone is having a good time, some are heading home, others passed out- you hear the strum of a guitar upstairs. You move up, open a bedroom door and find a small group of people sitting around this singer. You listen as he retells this ballad. The song is warm, his tone is not as sad as the lyrics demand. It’s as if he’s talking about wounds that have long been healed. As the song comes to an end you close the door, warmth of the music comforting you as you head on home. That’s what this rendition feels like, to me.
It’s a stark contrast to the version recorded with Johnny Cash, in Dylan’s 1968 album Nashville Skyline. Over the course of seven years Dylan’s life had changed exponentially. Being rejected by the folk community for turning electric and following a mysterious motorcycle crash, Dylan became reclusive. Cash’s career was more successful than ever, even managing to get his own TV series in which he and other musicians performed live music.
One of these shows included a duet between Cash and Joni Mitchell who performed Girl from the North Country. It’s an interesting take, but nowhere near the quality of the rendition we would later see in Nashville Skyline.
Cash and Dylan had been fans of each-others work for year at this point, even becoming good friends and at one point neighbours in New York. But despite having a friendship spanning over forty years, they only shared one recording session. During February of 1969, the pair recorded fifteen duets with one another but only one was released- their rendition of Girl from the North Country.
There’s a stark contrast between this version and the original. The melody is more sombre, certain lines are exuded- specifically those in which Dylan question whether or not this girl even remembers him- and is replaced with the chorus. Dylan’s voice had always been prone to change. The original cut of the song presents his typical gentle growl, this rendition however is smoother. It’s tenderness contrasts Cash’s baritone voice.
There is no harmonica in this version. Just guitar and singing. While the original felt warm, this melody feels cold, as if you were being hit by the cool north country winds in person. The interpretation changes as well. The visuals that pop up in my mind are that of a dark and dreary pub, near closing. Two men sit at opposite ends of the bar, telling their heartbreak to anyone with ears.
This version is both colder and more heart-breaking than the original. The 1963 track sounded like the ramblings of a boy. Its warmth implied that this longing and heartbreak was temporary, time heals all wounds. The 1969 version however strikes the opposite cord. It sounds like the drunk ramblings of two men stuck in the past.
The lyrics describing the girl are superficial, focusing almost entirely on her looks. While this is endearing for a young man, there’s something tragic about an older fellow talking this way. The younger redeems himself by possessing the self-awareness to question the validity of the relationship “I wonder if she even remembers me at all” but this self-awareness is lost on the two men.
This line is cut and replaced with the chorus, in which they repeat how she was “a true love of mine” meaning their self-awareness has either tarnished over time or never existed in the first place- hence why two grown men who are still obsessed with a relationship that was really quite superficial. There’s hope for the younger, but not much for these two.
Dylan kept this singing voice throughout his Nashville Skyline tenure, even going on Cash’s show to perform the duet live. But while Cash’s iconic voice remained still, Dylan felt the need to change everything all the time. No performance is ever the same. He once played Mr Tambourine Man while emulating the Irish singers he’d met in Greenwich village, New York. Likewise, his later performances of such songs like Don’t think twice, it’s alright sound like the squeals of a dog being lynched.
The thing about art is that while we can try and define it as either good or bad, it’s ultimately subjective. Dylan’s voice may sound grading to some while it sound enlightening to others. Likewise you can interpret different things from the same song, artists intentions are irrelevant- that’s why artists such as David Lynch flat out refuse to explain their works.
Influence and inspiration are integral to the pursuit of art. The need to create, to mark down our experiences. It’s exactly why our ancestors painted wild beasts onto their cave walls. The origins of music dawn back to the discovery of fire, in which life was cruel and barbaric. Life is hard and gruelling but as you gaze across the flames you see someone whose just so beautiful. It bewilders you how someone like that could exist, it fascinates you- they’re living proof that survival doesn’t have to be ugly. You want to explain yourself to them, to convey your experiences, to make others understand you. That’s how it begins.
Dylan’s song writing however is impeccable. So much meaning is conveyed in so few lines. But his reworking of the Girl from the North Country goes to proves that not only does art define art, but art improves art.