Bob Dylan’s second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, was a massive step forward from his debut effort. It’s impossible to summarize the impact of Blowin’ In The Wind, Masters of War, A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall and Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right, so I’m not going to. Instead, I want to take a personal journey back to the mid-to-late 1990’s and early 2000’s to discuss Bob Dylan’s Dream and Girl From the North Country.
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
Everyone who has been through a longish relationship that they didn’t want to end can relate to this song. Unlike Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right, which is angry while trying to sound aloof (and failing), Girl From The North Country is wistful, with the narrator asking his friend to give his best wishes to his old love. In fact, the narrator is downright concerned about this person. While Dylan was awfully worried about marginalized groups in society at this time (see most of the other songs on this album), it’s not so often that we hear Dylan voicing a genuine expression of worry about a specific person.
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
But now the narrator’s concern is subsumed by memories.
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.
And having briefly watched that idealized image fly, we arrive at the devastating part of this otherwise simple song.
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
Is she still thinking about me? Obviously, the relationship here is over. But the narrator can’t help but wonder, like we all do after a breakup – is that person still thinking about me? Despite the concern for his old lover that the narrator has expressed at the beginning of the song, in the end it comes back to the self. Does she remember me? It’s self centered in a roundabout way. But that’s the kind of introspection breakups generate. What did I do wrong? Why doesn’t she want to be with me? What’s wrong with me? Dylan’s not asking all of these questions here, at least not specifically. But this verse hints at all of these other doubts – “I’m a-wonderin’ if she remembers me at all” doesn’t come from a person who knows these answers. It comes from someone who is questioning if he meant as much to someone as they meant to him. And he doesn’t know.
This song hit me hard back in 2001 because I broke up with a girlfriend who just happened to be from Minnesota. So Girl From the North Country was tailor made for the six month pit of despair that followed (although most of the time, I was listening to the Johnny Cash version from Nashville Skyline, which is like taking a hit of whiskey instead of sipping a beer when you really shouldn’t be having anything at all).
Which leads us to Bob Dylan’s Dream.
If you want to talk about wistful, this the Dylan song for you. In fact, it’s often dismissed for being overly sentimental and nostalgic, which is a perfectly valid argument if you hate songs about looking backwards, a la Glory Days. But if you like them, get a load of this tune, which Dylan ripped off, lyrically and musically, from a traditional song called Lady Franklin’s Lament. I’ll dive into the middle of it instead of starting from the beginning:
By the old wooden stove where our hats was hung
Our words were told, our songs were sung
Where we longed for nothin’ and were quite satisfied
Talkin’ and a-jokin’ about the world outside
With haunted hearts through the heat and cold
We never thought we could ever get old
We thought we could sit forever in fun
But our chances really was a million to one
As easy it was to tell black from white
It was all that easy to tell wrong from right
And our choices were few and the thought never hit
That the one road we traveled would ever shatter and split
Doesn’t this just sum up those late high school and college years? Reading these lyrics brings back a flood of personal memories: car rides to nowhere, sitting around the tables in our friends’ parents’ kitchens, staying out late, eating at diners until the sun came up, running through the city with no destination, talking, talking, endlessly talking about ideas and dreams and expectations and politics and song lyrics and history and thinking (at least this is what I was thinking) that this could go on for a long time (probably not forever, but at least through our twenties). And I, for one, thought those friendships would last, in some form or another, until today.
Except friendships aren’t like that, as Dylan points out in the next verse.
How many a year has passed and gone
And many a gamble has been lost and won
And many a road taken by many a friend
And each one I’ve never seen again
When I arrived back in my hometown (another wistful Springsteen song) having listened to Girl From the North Country too many times in the wake of that breakup, I ran into the end of a lot of those friendships I thought would be there forever. Some of us were out of school. Some of us were working full time (and some had been doing so for years). People were moving away, moving abroad, moving into new relationships and that 18-22 year old feeling of invincibility (or just complete, heedless naivety) was slowly fading away and the hints of something new and not so raw and passionate were starting to become more obvious. I wouldn’t say I was getting more cynical, and I don’t think my friends were either. We were just being exposed to more and more of the world and it was having an effect on all of us. By the end of the fall of 2001, I would move to Colorado and never use my hometown as my primary mailing address again. And a lot (but thankfully not all) of those friendships that I thought would last forever withered away. To paraphrase Girl From the North County, I was left wondering if they remembered me at all.
This next point is going to be obvious, but it’s important – when Dylan wrote these lyrics in 1963, the word “friend” had not been turned into a verb by Facebook and it was much harder to stay in touch. Ten years after I left home, I suddenly “reconnected” with a bunch of my old friends through the usual channels. We didn’t really get together in one physical place, but we caught up on the internet. We now know, in real time, who has kids, who just bought a house, who lives where and what we do for a living. We’re vaguely in touch. And every once in a while someone will post an old picture and those memories come rolling back, the way I remember them best.
Then, a couple of summers ago, a very important teacher of ours passed away and all of a sudden a lot of us were back in the same place for the first time in years.
I wish, I wish, I wish in vain
That we could sit simply in that room again
Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat
I’d give it all gladly if our lives could be like that