By Tony Attwood
Red River Shore combines a series of themes that are as old as folk music, and uses lines that can turn up anywhere. Even the title is akin to a Ledbelly song Red River Blues, although that is quite a different piece.
But Dylan more than likely had heard that song – and the title it is one of those that just stays in the mind. There’s even a book called Red River Blues which describes the blues in south east USA. (There are incidentally two Red River’s in the US – Red River of the North, Red River of the South. I will leave it to a citizen of the USA to tell me if either is relevant here as the location for the girl’s home).
This is a song that combines lots of traditional themes about wandering, walking away, regrets, loss etc. In more detail…
- Lost love – as I have noted before this is, in the classic analysis, one of the three fundamental concepts within popular music (the other two are love and dance).
- The myth of mutual attraction – that just because I love you, you should love me. “Why don’t you love me,” cries the man, “when I love you this much and I’d give you everything.” But to no avail. Reciprocated love is not that easy to find.
- Endless pining – I’ve waited for ever, my entire life has been the waiting for this girl. Sorry old friend, that’s just how it goes.
- The notion that desiring possession of another is just plain wrong. Now that is rare to find in a song – most of the folk and blues tradition treats the woman as an object that has no feeling. But in this piece Dylan does reflect in passing that “possession” is not a good desire, although that gets twisted at the end.
- The sadness much later of not taking advice – the “if only” songs. In this song she says, go away and live the quiet life, but he can’t and he doesn’t. But if only he had, had much sweeter life might have been.
- The hopelessness: “I’ve had everything the world can offer but not the one thing I wanted more than anything.”
- The lack of reality. The most important thing in my life is unknown to everyone else who was there. The twist of memory – I remember, it is so real to me, how come they don’t.
And if all that were not enough, there’s even a thought of raising the dead from the grave at the end which is just plain spooky.
Such reviews as there are of this song, insist on saying there are 16 verses in the song – but that is not right at all. There are eight verses. It is a strophic song (ie verse, verse, verse, going on as long as you want). Each verse has to be the same basic construction as each other verse, to be a Verse and make the song strophic. But the first four lines of this song are not the same as the second four lines. So the verse is all eight lines. (In musical terms the first four end on the dominant chord, and the next four lines end on the tonic. It is an eight line construction, not four.)
Dylan famously couldn’t get the song to sound right after several attempts in the studio, and abandoned the idea. Which can happen to the best of songs. The aim is not just to write nice words and a good tune, but also to get a good production with the instrumentation available. Dylan didn’t manage it this time, but even the greatest songwriter of the age can hit a brick wall.
Besides he set himself one hell of a task. Eight musically identical verses of eight lines are going to be hard to devise in a way that will keep everyone interested. Yes the words might be plaintive and emotional, but normally there has to be more.
And the sudden changes of direction really cause us problems in a way that they don’t in such songs as “Tangled up in blue”.
But there is a huge amount here worthy of note of course. The opening line “Some of us turn off the lights and we live” is everything you could want from an opening line. Some of us would pay a month’s salary to write a line like that.
But the second line is a disappointment – we want the same level of mystic intensity but we don’t get it. And the same happens to three and four. Line three is unexpected and challenging line four a disappointment.
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
To be where the angels fly
But we do need the intensity because as I say this chordal sequence comes up eight times in the song. In such a restrictive structure we need a huge level of intensity in the lyrics – in my view (and of course that is all it is) we don’t get it.
Even bringing the instrumentation in very slightly in the second verse, and then with the full blown burst from verse three on doesn’t really sustain us as there are still five verses to go.
But Dylan looks to have tried everything in the song to make it happen. For example he uses Pretty maids all in a row. Now here I have to hesitate, because although every English person will know this as being from “Mary Mary” (an 18th century nursery rhyme) I am not sure if that is how it is understood in the US. (It is also a Joe Walsh song on Hotel California and a 1971 murder mystery movie but surely that’s not relevant is it?)
Here I think it is just a phrase – and to me this is the problem, and the reason why Dylan did not proceed to release this on a mainstream album. He has 64 lines of lyric, but only five lines of music. Musically lines one, two and three each come up 16 times. Line four and line eight each turn up eight times. As I say, in a structure like this every line needs power.
So a verse such as
Pretty maids all in a row lined up
Outside my cabin door
I’ve never wanted any of them wanting me
‘cept the girl from the red river shore
really doesn’t carry it off. Even the profound thought of the girl that he should go home and lead a quiet life seems to fall a bit flat – we are really wanting something a bit more powerful as a way of expressing this simple concept.
Well I sat by her side and for awhile I tried
To make that girl my wife
She gave me her best advice and she said
“Go home and lead a quiet life”
But these oft-repeated lines just keep getting repeated
Well I’ve been to the east and I’ve been to the west
Of course some of the writing is very fine – the cloak of misery verse works singularly well and is indeed memorable, but by then it is hard to know where we have got to in the story. Dylan’s famous ability to tell a story back to front intrigues in some songs, but not here, because by the cloak of misery, it seems to be all over.
Well I’m wearing the cloak of misery
And I’ve tasted jilted love
And the frozen smile upon my face
Fits me like a glove
Dylan does deliver a hefty punch later on when he reports the more difficult concept of the fact that no one remembers her.
Well I went back to see about her once
Went back to straighten it out
Everybody that I talked to had seen us there
Said they didn’t know who I was talking about
It is a concept debated in psychology – not just that we remember things different from those who shared past events, but the events we select and give great meaning to, are often not recalled at all by others.
Indeed a while back I met, for the first time in many a decade, the guy who had been my best friend at primary school (age 5 to 11) in north London. We were both taken with seeing each other again, but then each of us told the other our most profound memory of that time. Neither of us could even remember the occasion, or the events around it, that the other chose.
It is quite a stunning experience to have a memory challenged like this. I told my best pal from my childhood years of the incident I remember more powerfully than any other from those years, and he had no recollection of it, or the issues around it. None at all. He doubted it happened. He then told me his memory, and I had no recollection of that. That really challenges one’s sense of the past!
But back to the song. If you live in the UK and watched the recent BBC TV adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell the ending of Dylan’s song will ring quite a bell.
Now I’ve heard about a guy who lived a long time ago
A man full of sorrow and strife
That if someone around him died and was dead
He knew how to bring him on back to life
Well I don’t know what kind of language he used
Or if they do that kind of thing any more
Sometimes I think nobody ever saw me here at all
‘Cept the girl from the red river shore
Those verses of contemplating reincarnation are, for me, just weird. Too weird for the song. This is not, “oh how I miss her,” this is black magic and the land of the Raven King. To me, it doesn’t work alongside this melody, nor indeed the rest of the song. You just can’t do a plaintive melody over thoughts about raising the dead.
And maybe that is another part of the problem. Those points I highlighted with the bullet points above – normally each one is enough on its own for a complete song. Dylan gives us all of them – but with this unchanging pattern of music.
Now I know that many Dylan fans find this a beautiful, delicate song, and some debate the notion that the girl is just an imagination – the woman the singer would have loved to have met, but somehow because he kept on moving around, never did.
It’s an interesting interpretation, and certainly reminds us of the vast number of Dylan songs that sing of getting up and leaving – One to many mornings is always the one that comes first to my mind but there are so many, many more.
Some find it as a song of warning – no the grass is not greener. Take what you have found and what you have got. But for me such interpretations fall short of the mark, because the song is not particularly about endlessly looking for the perfect woman, but instead is about finding a woman whom he loves, but who won’t reciprocate that love. The wandering woman, totally self-contained and content who just moves on.
So, in coming to review this song, my intention moved on to other songs of the same type. Songs about the individual who seems removed from everyday concerns, who can just be there but not be shackled by the conventions and concerns of the everyday.
Try thinking of another long detailed song (this one with ten verses) Shelter from the Storm. This is another regular theme as old as story telling – the mysterious passer by – again the sort of person who turns up in so many Dylan songs – the magical, mysterious stranger.
Or if you prefer, leave the CD running after Red River Shore, and see what you get – “Tell Ol’ Bill“. It dates from about seven years later, but it is still playing the same theme, still using the four line sections. Still the wandering stranger – just from another perspective.
Here the role is reversed it is not the observed woman who is so mysterious and disappearing, but the singer who seems to fade in and out of reality.
Shelter from the storm shows that these long sequences of repeating verses can work if the central concept is unified. Tell ol Bill shows us that the theme of the dislodged person can on occasion demand a much more complex set of musical patterns changing across each four line section.
In Tell Ol Bill the singer has experienced it all and dealt with it all. He’s removed from our everyday, but he copes. In Red River the singer is still pining away. So Tell ol Bill says…
You trampled on me as you passed
Left the coldest kiss upon my brow
All of my doubts and fears have gone at last
I’ve nothing more to tell you now
But he has also taken command
All the world I would defy
Let me make it plain as day
I look at you now and I sigh
How could it be any other way?
What connects the songs is the notion that “I’m livin’ in a foreign country but I’m bound to cross the line”. The isolated wandering person looking for what has been, what was lost, what might have been. The Outsider. The theme that goes back to Chaucer in the 14th century, and undoubtedly long before.
And being an Outsider is always tough – you are walking a razor’s edge half the time, as Dylan so clearly pointed out. You get trampled on as you pass. And that is the problem with Red River – these strongly emotional challenging lyrics are missing.
And maybe the opening thought I had is the key. There are so many themes here – all those bullet points – that really, in the end, there’s just too much trying to be crammed into one very simple musical structure.