Girl from the north country: the meaning of the lyrics and the music

By Tony Attwood

The reports suggest that for some time Dylan was in the habit of announcing that “this was a song about the first girl I ever loved, but she left me for an older man and she’s in the audience tonight” – or words to that effect, which had all the people who think such things are important, rushing around trying to work out who it was all about.

It doesn’t really matter of course, and indeed the whole little tale might be untrue.  Dylan has always laid false trails; it seems to amuse him.

Indeed many, many songwriters write songs which take bits and pieces from their lives – but rarely do our lives make a complete story.  In fact that is the difference between fiction and life – in fiction there is some sort of sequence and we can make sense of it all.  Life isn’t like that – it is more often a muddle and set of confusions and coincidences.  We select out certain bits that fit into the theme of life we want to have, and then remember those moments.

So any song that pretends to be about a real life situation is often a chopped and changed version of reality, and the search for a real set of events in “Girl From The North Country” is probably fruitless as well as liable to take us away from the absolute beauty of this piece.  In fact such queries are unnecessary, because it is a beautiful piece of music in its own right, and doesn’t need such detective work.

As everyone points out it was written in 1963, and is very similar in a musical sense to “Boots of Spanish Leather.”  And in terms of the text both songs are about a lost love… but not the lost love that leaves the man crying in desperation anxious for the woman to return on any terms.   Rather these are songs of an acknowledged parting, a sadness but a moving on.  Indeed Red River Shore has much the same sadness – although in that case he goes back to try and find his lost love, while here it just sends a message without any real thought of whether it will arrive or not.

These lost love songs with the traveller moving on down the highway  offered a romantic vision of a past age, the sad traveller, the drifter, forced by his own inner drive to move on down the highway leaving events and people behind.  And already by the time Dylan was writing about it, that world (if it ever had existed like that) was passing away.  Such a world is as far from the one night stand as it is from love and marriage forever – for although it is temporary, it comes with a real depth of feeling.

It is the world of the wandering blues musician, the pedlar who wanders from town to town, the travelling minstrel and in English literature goes right the way back to mediaeval times with the Wandering Jew who turns up in Chaucer (as I’ve mentioned before).  Indeed I am reminded of the Parting Glass which I’ve dealt with in some depth elsewhere on this site.

So for me, the exact details of the trip to England in December 1962 the search for Suze Rotolo in Italy and the fact that she had just left to return to the US, is of passing interest and obviously relevant to Dylan’s interest in this type of lost love song, but the debate about whether he was talking about Echo Helstrom or Bonie Beecher or Suze Rotolo isn’t so important.

That’s not to deny that any of Dylan’s life is important.  That Suze Rotolo moved into Dylan’s rooms on Fourth Street is interesting, because of what Dylan later said about Fourth Street, but then you can go on finding links everywhere.  The key point to me is that this was a style of writing that Dylan had for a while – songs about the wanderer moving on.  At other times in his life he was concerned about seeing all the strange characters around him as a surreal freak show.

Hearing this as a youngster, at school, living with my parents, isolated from a world in which one could get up and go to Italy looking for a woman who had left you, was an ideal… I wanted that, I wanted those experiences.  It didn’t seem sad, it seemed an ideal to be able to have such a depth of experience rather than be in a village in Dorset, being told (as I was in a school report) that “what this boy does to the English language should be a criminal offence”.

And looking back I can see how all through my life that desire to go wandering on my own stayed with me – and I still do it today sometimes.  Something in me always reached out to that concept – although at times I have been quite often been very frightened by it too.

These days I still explore it by occasionally going to a dance in a venue where I’ve never been before, where I won’t know anyone, and so being forced to ask for dances (rather than relying on meeting up with people I already know).  (I’m cheating in a way because at jive venues in the UK the convention is that everyone dances with everyone else, but even so, not knowing anyone can be a little daunting).

I only mention my own reminiscence because it seems to me that for most of us Dylan’s songs work especially keenly when we can grasp what lies beneath his vision – we make an emotional link with where he is, and I certainly do with this type of song.

But perhaps the most interesting point about these trips to Europe is that Dylan met Martin Carthy (a man famous within the English folk tradition) with his phenomenal knowledge of and insight into English traditional folk music.

Many have suggested North Country is related musically to Martin Carthy’s version of Scarborough Fair, and although I think this is stretching the point a bit, I think the influence of meeting and listening to Carthy was profound.

Scarborough Fair is a song that goes back at least to the 17th century – although the lyrics (in which a man and woman give each other impossible tasks to complete) are quite different from the topic Dylan chose.

Scarborough, incidentally, is a real place – a coastal town in north east England, also famed for its close association with the playwright Alan Ayckbourn who established a theatre there.   The line “remember me to one who lives there” comes from Scarborough Fair.

The place that Dylan sings about could well be Scarborough – especially in winters past…

Well, if you’re travelin’ in the north country fair
Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline

But the “north country” is also commonly used in English folk music as a symbol of a place unharmed by the horrors of industrialisation, where people live still in a calm way at one with each other and nature, and Dylan may well have taken this idea as his central notion in the song, either consciously, or unconsciously.   There is certainly no hint of this being the “North Country” that turns up in North Country Blues.

What it is, however, related to is

Where we go up in that North Country,
Lakes and streams and mines so free,
I had no better friend than he.

The phenomenally moving Ballad for a Friend, (which if you have meandered around these commentaries you will know is one of my top ten all time best Dylan songs) expresses the same delicate sadness and regret at past times gone – although in Ballad, they have gone for a quite different reason.

What I think we have here (and what, in my humble opinion, has led most commentators astray) is one of those cases where someone says Girl from the North Country is taken from Scarborough Fair, and then everyone else just copies that notion without really thinking about it.

If you play the two songs one after the other, the linkage between them isn’t that great, nor is it that clear.  The melodies are different, Scarborough Fair is always sung in 6/8 (that lilting 123,123 time that is unmistakable whether you have studied music or not) whereas North Country is a straight four beats in a bar.  And the lyrics really don’t have much to do with each other at all.

In North Country Dylan expresses his love, not for the girl, but for the memory of her that he now carries around with him.  An idealised memory of a past when he was happy.

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.

It is idealised.  He hopes she is doing well, but his feelings are dominated by the notion that if she has forgotten him, he is somehow diminished.  He remembers her, and he desperately wants her to remember him.  The past was happy, and he needs that memory to be complete at all levels.

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

It is a common feeling – that we want the people who are important to us to feel the same about us.  The worst thing is to find someone you recall from the past with great fondness looks at you and says, “Yeah I think I remember you.  Were you the guy with the….”  Such a situation diminishes us greatly.

But as I say, this is an idealised world.  To me the notion of all this wandering around, always moving on, is a reflection by Dylan of part of the blues genre, not a tale of a real person on a real day.  The images he creates are as unreal as anything in Scarborough Fair itself, with the exchange of impossible tasks.

Dylan obviously was fond of the song for, as undoubtedly you know, it turned up not only in the classic version on Freewheelin’ but also on Nashville Skyline.  But to me, even though as with All I Really Want To Do I have heard it a million times, and although when I was about 16 and started to play in folk clubs it was one of the songs I loved to play and sing, (before I had the confidence to create and perform my own songs), the Freewheelin version is for me, still the best by far.  I’d not heard the outtake version that is on the internet before writing this review, but still that original album version is the one I want to hear.    Although I did quite enjoy this complete alternative version that I found!

For me, what makes this song work so beautifully now, as it did when I first heard it, upon its release on Freewheelin’, is the way a simple plucked guitar accompaniment and use of images from somewhere in the ill-defined idealised past, combine with a feeling of language from that same lost period.  The idealised “north country” of old English ballads is brought back to life because no one, either today, or in the 1960s would ever say “if you’re travelling in the north country fair.”  Simply by saying “north country fair” we are back in an older time.

And in speaking about a true love that has somehow been lost, we are in that older time before jealousy and delusion crept in to corrupt us all.  There’s no central heating, there are no cars, there is no TV, this is the natural world before it all went wrong, the world where nature and your inner most feelings are at one – and the language reflects that.

The image of the girl is classic as well – the notion of the long hair rolling and flowing gives us an image from a picture gallery, not a modern day woman.  She’s living in this romantic rural past, and the lyrics and the music reflect this utterly.   She’s an ideal, just like the girl in Love Minus Zero.

That is why the song works so completely perfectly: the combination of lyric, melody, rhythm, accompaniment all work as one, all give us the same sense of place and time.

And this is why, for me, Dylan used this as a starting point for the similar “Boots of Spanish Leather”.  The song works so wonderfully of course he wanted to explore it further, to take the notion of the traveller moving on, further.

I know, if I’d written something this good, I’d have used it one hundred times over.  But then I don’t have Dylan’s creativity.  So I didn’t.

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7 Responses to Girl from the north country: the meaning of the lyrics and the music

  1. Bent Fabric says:

    You need to read Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis as a start to maybe understanding America and reinvention and their importance to this song..

    That cover of the song is atrocious.

  2. Bob Clary says:

    Sorry, corrected.

    I really like the analysis of this great song, but as an Englishman I have to worry about this bit:

    “But the “north country” is also commonly used in English folk music as a symbol of a place unharmed by the horrors of industrialisation, where people live still in a calm way at one with each other and nature”

    In England the north country is the heart of industry, hard work, mines and dark satanic mills and the people and folk singers from the north (of which I am not one) are proud of that.

  3. Peter Hill says:

    Sorry for being anal, but the correct title of the song is “Girl Of The North Country” (the title it’s copyrighted under).
    Really enjoyed the article. Bob gave a very moving performance of the song in Australia last year.

  4. TonyAttwood says:

    Bob – sorry I did not make myself clear. When I said in folk music, I meant in traditional folk music which has its origins in rural Britain prior to the industrial revolution. Songs like Scarborough Fair and Widecomb Fair.

  5. This link is included in The Bob Dylan Project at: (Additional Information)

  6. Susan says:

    I am from Minnesota. Bob Dylan was born in my hometown, Duluth, Minnesota, which is at the point of Lake Superior. Dylan grew up in Hibbing Minnesota, about an hour northwest of Duluth. Here, at Dylan’s origins, when we say “North Country”, we are referring to a vast area of wilderness, lakes, cabins, rivers, and small towns that encompasses pretty much the entire state, north of us, up to Canada. Thousands of acres of nature getaway.
    One sumner long ago, camping with my family up north (in the north country), I met a boy my age (16)… a local small-town boy who took me fishing and showed me how to skip rocks on the water surface. And we had a magical two weeks together. I’ve always thought of him when I hear this song. I wonder if he still lives in Ely, Minnesota?
    Because I’m sure that Dylan was talking about Minnesota’s north country.

  7. TonyAttwood says:

    Susan very many thanks for that insight. I really appreciate it.

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