Dylan’s Red River Shore: another tale of the lost.

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.

All the songs reviewed on this site.


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21 Responses to Dylan’s Red River Shore: another tale of the lost.

  1. rw says:

    You miss the amazing irony and hopelessness in this line:

    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

    ((“a guy” He’s calling Jesus “a guy.” This Guy (Dylan) is calling Jesus ‘a guy.’ after all he has been through with Jesus; its BD playing with his persona))

    (And then desperate he thinks: “maybe I’ll call that guy and see if he can help me with this girl.”

    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

    So yes i think that is very interesting, drives the song forward and has nothing to do with reincarnation.

    In analysis of songs i always remember some dylanologist saying something like “dylan, in his salad days, often had many forgettable lines woven between and connecting pure genius.”

    I am saying this is a genius of a song, warts and all, probably a tweak or two away from a classic.

  2. Glenda says:

    People over-think art. It’s like telling a spider they missed a stitch in their web. Really? How many web’s have you spun? Of all Dylan’s CD’s. Tell Tale Signs-Disc One, stays on my Player. The singing on these “lost songs” are among the best he has ever done. The band’s “sound” is lovely and sweet.
    Most of the songs have a mystery to them that I never get tired of. The conversational tone is awesome. There is an understatement and relaxed acceptance that is real and haunting. It is sitting on a porch swing music–letting the mind float away like leaves on gentle waters. Dylan is spinning poetry – not puzzles. These are the kind you can return to and re-find, re-experience, and re-love YEAR after YEAR. Good Job Mr. D. The “art” is often buried in the “forgettable lines”…which tie these to the very breath of life itself. The ordinary-mixed with the magical is the secret of good writing. You can’t have one without the other. I learned to walk and talk near the southern Red River. It once flooded our chicken coop. But I always picture the northern Red River-and I’ve never been there. There are Red Rivers all over the globe. It “works”. The same way a spider web “works”….let yourself float like the leaf–you will enjoy the river more that way. That is what art is all about.

  3. Dwigt says:

    To me, it’s actually a song about poetic creation.
    The narrator was in love with a girl who didn’t love him back. She gave his life a meaning, as he wanted to conquer her, in vain. He obeyed her word, and still didn’t win her.
    Years after, she’s gone, and nobody remembers her. Maybe the people who knew her are gone, maybe she wasn’t that unforgettable to begin with, but the important thing is that the only form in which she now survives is what the narrator tells us about her, a tale that mixes myths with personal memories, in which she actually becomes a poetic creation herself. In her death, she now becomes a literary construct by the narrator, who actually gives her immortality through this evocation. And the disappointing and sad life by the narrator becomes a rather memorable tale.

  4. hans altena says:

    This beautiful song is lost on you, your loss. It evokes much more than your psychological categories that are rational and in fact dead, while Dylan’s poetry says much more than you can imagine. It evokes instead of offering stuff for analysing. Poor soul…

  5. Kevin says:

    The magic of this song is in the complete sound of Dylan’s recording. The impact of the song is not in the lyrics alone, or in the lyrics plus transcribed melody, but in Dylan’s complete performance. That is why he is such a powerful singer, and not merely a lyricist or songwriter. The effect of the song is not found in an analysis of the lyrics, but in the personal stories that the performance evokes within each individual listener. And to “RW”, it certainly is a “classic”.

  6. Matt colclough says:

    Agree with Hans. You are over analyzing it to death. Sometime you just have to let it wash over you and take it as a whole. It is beautiful, mysterious, and unlike anything out there. Dylan often warned about over analyzing. It takes the fun and mystery out of it.

  7. TonyAttwood says:

    Thanks for the comments, and of course I’d welcome any more.

    What I am still puzzled by is if the song works as many argue, why was it not included on a mainstream album? That’s the question I’ve posed to myself on a number of songs, and tried to answer – and the only way to answer that is to analyse the song I feel.

  8. Dwigt says:

    The version on the first disc of Tell Tale Signs is the first take. That’s why the musicians join the song after a few verses. They needed Dylan to give them the chord progression. Dylan, for some reason, wasn’t satisfied with the performance, and tried it a few more times, but the version on disc 3 is much less interesting, as the voice struggles compared to take one.

    Then, there was the issue of the song being mostly a mixture of lines from other traditional songs recombined by Dylan, so it may have been in competition with “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” for the same slot. By the way, how could you miss that there’s another song titled “Red River Shore”? It’s a traditional song played by the Kingston Trio that features the line “She wrote me a letter, and she wrote it so kind” that Dylan quoted on “Not Dark Yet”, so he knows it for sure.

    The original “(Girl From the) Red River Shore” is a song of mutual love, but the father of the girl disagrees and the narrator fights 24 gunmen the father hired, before he’s left dying from his wounds.


  9. Timothy Allen says:

    The answer to your question is obvious. It was recorded during the Time Out Of Mind sessions for inclusion on that album. It did not fit. Take any song off that album and replace it with Red River Shore. It doesn’t work, wrong atmosphere, wrong style, etc etc. That’s all. Brilliant song, brilliant track.

  10. DamianBlassone says:

    “What I am still puzzled by is if the song works as many argue, why was it not included on a mainstream album?”

    Personally I like the fact that such a mysterious, enigmatic song did not appear on an album. It sort of adds to the mystery. I don’t think the song would have quite fitted on “Time out of Mind”. But non-inclusion on an album certainly does not preclude a Dylan song from being great e.g. Angelina, Caribbean Wind, Foot of Pride, Blind Willie, etc.

    But I take your point, some of the lines could have done with a slight re-write.
    It almost seems like a rough first draft. The phrase “died and was dead” is crying out for a redraft surely? He is just padding out the syllables in the line, to get to the next bit.

    Always wondered who Dylan was saying needed to be raised from the dead? Was it the girl (did she even exist to begin with)? Or is it himself? Is he saying he is spiritually/emotionally dead without her?

  11. hans altena says:

    I think Glenda expresses beautiful how art works, and if you want to analyze, than look at what Dwigt has to say, it points to the core of the song, yet the song itself, performance included, like Kevin points out, says so much more and works on all levels, heart included. Yes it is a first draft, but sometimes, even if it is not yet fully realized, it therefore becomes the more inspiring, like the scroll version of On the Road, it breathes. The great songs that Dylan did not include on albums stand alone, they are a world in itself and did not belong on the intended albums, or they were so good that Dylan wanted them even better, because he envisoned so much in them. Tell Tale Signs shows how by placing those songs together you get a whole entity just the same, because of this concept. And funny, this article has sprung a nice discussion, so thanks anyway!

  12. hans altena says:

    and p.s., Dylan uses street language together with poetry, and therefore manytimes writes things like died and was dead, or, unknown hour that no one knew… it’s the way people talk, dig?

  13. DamianBlassone says:

    I agree with you Hans. I wasn’t aware that the expression “died and was dead” was street language (I am not familiar with the saying here in Australia), but if it is then I certainly understand and accept the usage now.

  14. Kevin says:

    Dylan has often withheld a true masterpiece from whatever album he was recording at the time. Perhaps the songs were too deeply personal for him, but he has done it often since the earliest years.

  15. Yiannis says:

    Fantastic comments here people, agreed with most and couldn’t have written better, especially Glenda. Tell Tale Signs is an incredible CD. I’ll tell you what happened to me about the time the CD was out, I found myself in an upmarket club and restaurant in South Brazil, the kind where the really good-looking young crowd goes. We arrived with a friend of mine a bit early, before the party people arrive to dance and flirt, and sat down to eat at the restaurant area. The environment was kind of “fashion designer” (in rather good taste) and just as the delicious food arrives, Mississippi starts playing. I thought great, the dj has the guts to play Dylan in a place like that and he plays something from my favourite CD no less. I would have been happy with just one song of course, but he actually let the whole CD play! I couldn’t believe it, I was in a beautiful place (that you’d be excused to suspect it was too “superficial” to play Dylan), enjoying great food and listening to Red River Shore. I couldn’t have written scripted it. That set the perfect tone for the rest of the memorable night…

    Anyway, I cannot believe Tony really didn’t think that the “guy” is Jesus. I mean it’s so obvious, isn’t it?

  16. Dave says:

    And this is a song of so many parts of my life. But I like it best because of his voice – his voice is the story.

  17. Mark C says:

    “Blind Willie McTell” was left off the mainstream albums and that’s one of BD’s masterpieces. Like this one, that song was very sparse – and all the more haunting for that. This has a beautifully tentative accordion pushing in the background – tentative because working out the chords (per another commenter) or because that discreteness fits the aesthetic really doesn’t matter. “Red River Shore” is likewise a masterpiece, and I suspect a previous commenter was right: it just wouldn’t have fitted into the then current album. And has anyone said that it sounds like another Sara song?

  18. Pete Shanks says:

    I love this song. I got obsessed by it for a while, and it’s still #1 AND #3 of my iTunes all-time played list (which admittedly only goes back a decade; Born in Time is #2). Personally, I think the music holds up for the length of it and the typical faux-street-talk works just fine for me. Yes, Red River Shore would have been disruptive to TooM, but I’m with Jim Keltner who was really mad it was left off because he thought it the best piece recorded in those sessions.

    My latest theory (which is mine and I made it) about the leaving-off of masterpieces like this is that he heard something specific in his head and it wasn’t what he heard in his ears on playback. Listening to the 65-66 outtakes makes it pretty obvious that he didn’t, and maybe doesn’t, like instructing the musicians so much as hinting to them. When it works (most Bloomfield, most of the BoB sessions) the results are amazing. When it doesn’t (most of the Hawks sessions) they’re disappointing. He’s said (IIRC) that he felt he didn’t nail Blind Willie McTell and he probably thinks that about this. I think he’s wrong!

  19. I am 61 and 99 percent of the music I’ve heard since I was 15 is BD, with a smattering of others, all guessable. I don’t know if there’s a point to that, but it pigeon-holes me a little. I’m not technically fluent in music or rhyme, but I’m as versed in Bob Dylan songs as the next guy, and the collection of them to me is just a big ol’ super nice jigsaw puzzle that for 46 years has been integral to my life and private thoughts and quiet moments. In that way, and I’d guess in many ways, I’m a lot like the readers and writer here, and I agree with many of the comments. The don’t overanalyze, esp.
    RedRiverShore is right up there with any of his songs. It’s one of about 150 Bob Dylan songs that are in my personal Top Five. You know how it is: Picking a single favorite is as hard as picking a favorite line or a favorite four-word fragment.
    But anyway, I find zero lines in it disappointing. Sometimes the “died and was dead” kind of lines that sound like a fourth to sixth grader could have written them are best appreciated in the whole song’s context. Over analyzing alert: They seem to be Bob taking a breather, or letting US take a breather from the usual magical intensity. Go, Bob! Thanks to all!

  20. Mohammed Hanif says:

    “Died and was dead”

    Is perfect. It emphasises that Jesus overcame the utter finality of death (not jysy as process “died” but also as state “dead”) but the singer no longer has the means to revive his own (spiritual?) loss because he doesn’t even know the language Jesus.

    It’s a song about existential failure. BD’s admitting that the two mainstays of his life, Jesus and the power of words, will not help him recover this Girl from the Red River Shore. It’s a complate admission of failure in both his own ability or even his ability to seek God’s help.

    And who is she? Whatever she is, the narrator gave up everything for her (all those pretty maids) and she left him.

    It’s a song of utter hoplessness and despair.
    He’s searched everywhere for her and even despairs that she wasn’t even with him at all. So were those thousand nights he slept in her arms a phantasm?

    The narrator’s estrangement from life is so great that even his Saviour who could bring the dead back to life is just a “guy”.

    It’s Not Dark Yet? It is now.

    Sorry for my ramblings. As a total work of art – aside from it’s individual parts – it is an unqualified masterpiece and his greatest song.

  21. Robeert Kennedy says:

    like all accomplished writers, dylan has followed the only poetic road he knows. He does not ever emulate. Not WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS, JACK KEROUAC, NOR ALAN GINSBERG. His personal pain has driven a major heave of his work, His rehearsal eccentricities feed his need for truth and spontaneity. He cannot be expected to legislate for the response of his millions of followers.We are all philosophers.. I have followed him in all possible ways since 1963. He has been a consistent and fluent conduit for the flow of natural rational coalescence of emotioal experience felt by us all. `blonde on Blonde could not have extended. He has given himself to us. EMBRACE OR READ KEROUAC

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