Northern Claim; Bob Dylan with an idea, and we’re left with a struggle

By Tony Attwood

This is one of those songs where Bob has an idea which focuses around the beat of the verse and the sudden variation of the scansion in the “Northern Claim” chorus.   But it hasn’t got any further than that.

Knowing that Bob could take weeks and on occasion months playing around with songs before he became fully comfortable with them there is no way of knowing where this song was supposed to be going or indeed what his intention was with the Northern Claim / Southern Claim dichotomy that emerges.

It might be that friends from the United States can explain it to me.  For the moment all I can think is that it could be any number of debates, arguments, points of view of battles between the north and south in America.  I don’t have enough information even to take a guess, but if this is a phrase that comes out of American folklore or the civil war or anything else in US history I would be most grateful if you could write in a let me know.  I haven’t got a clue.

And of course there is the fact that the composition is not just unfinished but also that it is poorly recorded.  Dylan however could take even the simplest of song elements and turn them into something well worth listening to if he felt so inspired – but here it seems the muse never took him.  And so where this was going and where it might have gone we’ll never know.

A lot of the lyrics below are pretty much guess work, so if you want to work out a variant version please do.  I’m not saying my version is right – it just is a version.  There are other versions available on the internet.

Well I took a first built engine on a travelling charge
Calling to darling and southern barge
Well it’s hard to make my getaway with pouring rain
Left myself inside the northern claim

Northern claim such sound of rain
Northern claim
Now all my life depends on a man of my dependence on a northern claim

Well I was found myself an ocean with a $10 fly
And the tombstone ladies looking passed on by
Well it’s bodies a-coming and my drive mobile
And I spend bullets flying, I rob, murder or steal

And it was northern claim beg borrow sound of rain
Northern claim suicidal rain
Well it don’t matter what you,
Don’t matter, just a southern claim

To me it sounds a bit plodding and uninspiring musically and would need a fairly nifty set of lyrics to make a song of real interest out of the current version, in my opinion.

Indeed I was even thinking of a plodding version of “Tombstone Blues” before I heard the word “tombstone” in the lyrics, and that got me remembering that I had compared “Next time on the Highway” with “From a Buick Six”.   Both this song and “Next time” are travelling songs, and maybe Bob had been thinking back to his work in 1967.   Consider this period of writing…

These songs of disdain and songs of the highway were very strongly represented in this brilliant period of writing, and maybe, just maybe, with a lot of work this song could have become part of that epoch.  But, it didn’t.

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6 Responses to Northern Claim; Bob Dylan with an idea, and we’re left with a struggle

  1. Morten Jonsson says:

    It sounds to me like he means a land claim, a claim he’s staked up north. Like in the Klondike Gold Rush. Think of where Dylan was right then: holed up in the woods, north of the city, with a bunch of Canadians. His manager, the bearlike Albert Grossman, is just down the road, in Bearsville. Maybe he’s just seen a Charlie Chaplin film on TV. (Dylan admired Chaplin, wanted to be Chaplin; his early stage persona was Charlie Chaplin playing Woody Guthrie, or vice versa.) Maybe the film was [i]The Gold Rush[/i], or maybe it just made him think of [i]The Gold Rush[/i]–of Charlie Chaplin being chased by a bear, or trapped in a cabin with a hulking prospector–another Grossman avatar–who sees him (as managers will) as a fat chicken to be plucked and eaten.

    I don’t offer that as an explication of the song. Probably none of it would have occurred to him. But if you want an explication, it’ll do as well as anything. And it wouldn’t be the only song from those sessions that ended up being about Albert Grossman (“All American Boy,” for instance; and notice that in “Big Flood,” Tupelo and Bearsville are somehow the same place).

    In the verse, there’s a bit of “You Can’t Catch Me”—same rhythm, same melody; he and Chuck Berry are both driving in the rain; “drive mobile” in the second verse is probably Berry’s “airmobile.”

    I’d guess that this was recorded close to the same time as some of the songs on disc 1, like “Edge of the Ocean.” Same arrangement: electric piano, tambourine, bass, Robbie on lead. Maybe Garth was still working on the microphone placement and recording level when this one was recorded.

    I think, by the way, that looking at these songs as sketches that never got completed may not be quite accurate. Something like this, or “I Can’t Come in with a Broken Heart,” is complete enough for the purpose. It’s what he felt like playing at that moment: here’s the rhythm, here’s the verse, here’s the chorus, let’s do it. Now what can we do next? One song that I’m pretty sure [i]is[/i] a sketch, though, is “Edge of the Ocean,” which would surface later that year as “I Dreamed I Saw Augustine.” So who knows how he though of these songs.

  2. Morten Jonsson says:

    I see coding doesn’t work here. And I can’t revise my comment. Oh well.

  3. Larry fyffe says:

    Yes, Dylan is tinkering about with a bunch of ideas, sketching out a song -for example, like buzzing around with the claim that the Red River could be in North or it could be in the South, doesn’t really matter much because it’s a hard suicidal rain’s a-gonna fall in any event?

  4. Larry fyffe says:

    There was also the issue of who had legal claim to put steam riverboats on the South Red River – Dylan has an avid interest in American history.

  5. Larry fyffe says:

    And the other Red River flows north from the Minnesota, Dylan’s home state, into Manitoba, Canada.

  6. Larry fyffe says:

    And of course, Louisiana, through which the Red River flows, was originally French, and had a very large black slave population when the North won the Civil War and Reconstruction was violently resisted by the white population, and many blacks slaughtered.

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