North Country Blues: there is no solution. The meaning of the lyrics and the music

By Tony Attwood

Dylan is strong on the decline of communities and traditional economics – as can be readily seen from two totally different pieces of music.

There’s Union Sundown

the car I drive is a Chevrolet
It was put together down in Argentina
By a guy makin’ thirty cents a day

And North Country Blues

it’s much cheaper down
In the South American towns
Where the miners work almost for nothing.

The theme of economic change and the destruction of communities and individuals by an uncaring economic system is very a Dylan theme.   Hollis Brown is another obvious example.

But he’s not so good on solutions.  Indeed when does Dylan do solutions to problems?  We might be living in a material world, just like they might be selling postcards of the hanging, but Bob’s not going to make a recommendation, other than “You gotta serve somebody” – at least some of the time.

It is not something I have considered before and I am sure you can immediately tell me some solutions other than the religious one, but when I start thinking about problems I get problems in the economic system, as above, and problems in personal relationships, problems with TV, the problems of self-doubt (“What good am I) and personal relations (“You’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend”).

Indeed he even kindly summed it all up once for us

Trouble, trouble, trouble
Nothin’ but trouble

And the solution is… to walk off down the road, One too many mornings style.  The drifter, wandering from town to town, is the model solution.  Or else there is no solution, and the past and the future merge, as with Tangled up in blue.  Or, God comes along and determines what we should do.  There’s no solution that is man made and that works.

True, Times they are a changing (the song not the album) offered a solution, but as I noted before, the album’s title song is quite out of line with the rest of the album, which offers no hope.

So this song is a forerunner of this bleak desolate outlook, modelled on his childhood home – a theme that runs and runs on to one particular high point when Dylan said,

Mercury rules you and destiny fools you
Like the plague, with a dangerous wink
And there’s no time to think

You rush around forever trying to put things right, but you really don’t have time to work any of it out.   We are what the world makes us (except for the time Bob thinks we are what God makes us).

Musically the chord sequence is as sad and simple as it could be: A minor and G major alternating.   That rocking slowly backwards and forwards, not of the old timer on the porch enjoying the later years of life, but the desperate sad starving woman trying to hold herself together.

Above it the bleak lines echo.

  • Line 1/2 ends on a down note
  • Line 3 answers and rises high and energetic but…
  • Lines 4/5 repeat lines 1/2
  • Line 6 gives up the battle and goes down into misery.

Even the sixth line of the third verse, “To marry John Thomas, a miner.” which ought to be upbeat – she is getting maried after all – isn’t upbeat at all, because it echoes with the knowledge that nothing ever changes until the mine goes bust.  Capitalism always wins.

The song was composed in 1963 and has huge elements of the Woody Guthrie and (separately) the blues influence in it – that representation in black and white of the old communities broken up and swept aside.

The actual town is considered by those who study such things to be the Mesabi Range on the Iron Range in Minnesota where open pit mining took place, near Dylan’s home of Hibbing.

So we have desolation row – not the desolation row of the mind or of a total and utter collapse of a society’s way of thinking, but of a twon now empty, a mother who dies young, a brother and father killed in mining accidents, he husband put partially out of work, the failure of the government to act over cheap imports, the husband who walks out but unlike Hollis Brown seemingly kills only himself, and now there is nothing left here.

To me one of the prime accomplishments of the song is its ability to move between settings as one verse follows another.  Consider this..

‘Til a man come to speak
And he said in one week
That number eleven was closin’.

They complained in the East
They are playing too high
They say that your ore ain’t worth digging
That it’s much cheaper down
In the South American towns
Where the miners work almost for nothing.

From the impact on the individual to the problem of capitalism all in these few lines.

And ending with the collapse both of the little community and the family itself

The summer is gone
The ground’s turning cold
The stores one by one they’re a-foldin’
My children will go
As soon they grow
Well there ain’t nothing here now to hold them.

And what of the widow of John Thomas?  Her children will go, and she?  What of her in this desolate wasteland?

For her there is nothing.  Not now, not in the future.  Nothing.

I’ve not thought about Tales of Bleakness before as a way of considering Dylan, but now I come to it, it seems to encompass so much of his writing.  Times they are a changing was never the real Dylan.  Mostly it is decay, decline and dissolution.

Except when he found God.

Index to all the reviews.


  1. magnificent put up, very informative. I ponder why the other
    experts of this sector do not notice this. You must continue your
    writing. I am sure, you’ve a huge readers’ base already!

  2. I dont think he needs to offer solutions; hes writing about how he sees the world. That doesnt necessarily mean he has to figure out a plan. But that said, he points out a lot of cold injustice that other people dont see or think about, and when people are exposed to injustice they become more able to be personal and be human instead of businesspeople in their lives. Art doesnt have to be a solution to a problem, it seems like theyre missing the point of these songs. These are Dylans experiences in art form, and they seem more human and effortless to me than some sort of 5 step plan song would. If you get a solution, its not going to be a quantitative concept like in Times They are A-Changin’ (which is clearly not uncharacteristic of Dylan btw, its just slightly more direct). If you want to analyze Dylan himself from it, fine, but I think youre missing a lot then by writing the whole article about him being cynical but finding hope in another world through God. My favorite thing about this song is how powerfully Dylan can make you feel for this person. His songs are so personal. Whether hes singing about the fake friend or out of touch press he makes it extremely personal. Or in the case of these older songs, he shows a lot of compassion and ability to feel peoples pain without having to have experienced himself. And of course his feelings about the injustice and the people causing the problems.

  3. Right on Emily. Having lived in that environment for 50+ years , the feeling transmitted in this song is very real to those people living that life. Most see no solution but rather go through life one day at a time hoping for the best. When the mines are open,times are good. When they close, life gets hard really hard.

  4. If Dylan was able to give solutions I suppose he would be in a different profession, economist, scientist, environmentalist, politician? As an artist he brings attention to these problems, and over the years this song and others by him have been prophetic. How many young people have left Michigan and other professions.

    Education and training have proven as successful option for many people in the industrialized world. Only this has not for those caught in a transitional world, or education access has not worked for them.

  5. I also think this song is a great example of one aspect of Dylan’s genius (which Greil Marcus persuasively argues in his new book on Dylan titled Folk Music: A Bob Dylan Biography in Five Songs): his ability to imaginatively empathize beyond the bounds of his personal experience. In other words, his ability to write and perform a song in another’s shoes. “North Country Blues” (along with its album-twin “Ballad of Hollis Brown”) is an early demonstration of this talent because it crosses lines of class and gender.

    While the Iron Range town depicted in “North Country Blues” features “cardboard-filled windows,” Dylan’s Hibbing was largely middle-class. Dylan once remarked, “Where I lived…there’s no poor section and there’s no rich section.” He had a comfortable upbringing; his father and uncles ran a business rather than worked in the mines. Nonetheless, Dylan was drawn to others who knew a different Iron Range. His brother David in Robert Shelton’s Dylan bio remarked, “Bobby always went with the daughters of miners, farmers, and workers in Hibbing. He just found them a lot more interesting.” One such girl, Bob’s high school sweetheart Echo Helstrom (and possible inspiration for “Girl from the North Country”), lived in a humble shack. She, like Dylan, fled Hibbing after graduating Hibbing High School in the late ’50s when the region was suffering an economic depression due to impending mine closures (the advance of taconite mining saved the industry in the 1960s and it endures to this day). The boom times of the war years were now just a memory held by the old.

    “North Country Blues” isn’t about Echo, but I think she and the other “daughters of miners, farmers, and workers” provided the spark of empathy and inspiration. Dylan paints a moving portrait of a woman who because of economic need and cultural expectations must forgo education–her only means of escaping the town and achieving economic independence. After her father and brothers–the family earners–perish in the mines, her “schooling [is] cut as [she] quit[s] in the Spring to marry John Thomas, a miner.” The verb “cut” in the season of Spring evokes the somber image of a clipped flower. And the subtext suggests that the marriage is not born of love but of economic circumstance.

    The brilliance of the song also lies in its fusion of the personal with the body politic. The final verse not only describes a lonesome widow approaching winter but personifies the town itself: “The summer is gone / The ground’s turning cold / The stores one by one they’re a-foldin’ / My children will go / As soon as they grow / Well, there ain’t nothing here now to hold them.” The town loses her stores and her youth, draining its lifeblood, before the winter freeze sets in.

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