Why does Bob Dylan like “I’ll not be a stranger”

by Tony Attwood

“I’ll not be a stranger” is a song that Bob Dylan has performed twice, and it is something of an interesting choice.

It is a rather obscure piece and it is listed, (where it is listed at all), as “traditional”.  Which is in itself interesting, in that it is longer and it feels more complete and more complex than most traditional songs.

But I don’t have any evidence to cite a composer, so we’ll take it that “traditional” it is.

I’ve also not found many ensembles who have recorded it – just a couple in fact.

The Traditional Grass

And so here is Bob singing the song…


Two very fine performances in November and December 1997 have been the only ones so far.   Here are the lyrics:

I’ll not be a stranger when I get to that city
I’m acquainted with folks over there
There’ll be friends there to greet me
There’ll be loved ones to meet me
At the gates of that city four square

Through the years, through the tears, they’ve gone one by one
But they’ll wait at the gate until my race is run
I’ll not be a stranger when I get to that city
I’m acquainted with folks over there

I’ll not be a stranger when I get to that city
I’ve a home on the streets paved with gold
I’ll feel right at home there
In that beautiful somewhere
With the loved ones whose memory I hold

I’ll not be a stranger when I get to that city
There’ll be no lonely days over there
There’ll be no stormy weather
But a great time together
On the streets of that city four square

The Stanley Brothers were an American bluegrass duo of singer-songwriter-musicians made up of actual brothers (as opposed to supposed brothers, as many “brothers” groups of the period were) Carter Stanley (1925–1966) and Ralph Stanley (1927–2016).

Ralph and Carter performed with their band, The Clinch Mountain Boys, from 1946 to 1966. Ralph continued as a solo artist after Carter’s death until his own death nearly 40 years later.

Here is an album of their music

So why does Bob like this music?

I suspect this is a song Bob heard early on in his life, and it stayed in his affections.  It is really interesting to hear how he has changed it to make it a much more emotional piece – I find the original much more sanitised – Bob has put a lot more feeling into it.  The original has so much focus on the harmonies and the perfect timing.  Bob does it from the heart.  Certainly, at the instrumental break, it sounds as if the band isn’t quite sure what Bob is about to do.  So I guess he just gave them a quick run through during the sound test.

Perhaps, sadly, Bob had just had the news of the passing of a good friend or relative and he added this to the show for two nights by way of tribute.

We’ll never know, but he sure delivers it with some profound feeling.

What else is on the site?

We have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with over 3400 active members.  (Try imagining a place where it is always safe and warm).  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

You’ll find some notes about our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page of this site.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

The index to all the 598 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found on the A to Z page.

If you are interested in Dylan’s work from a particular year or era, your best place to start is Bob Dylan year by year.

On the other hand if you would like to write for this website, or indeed have an idea for a series of articles that the regular writers might want to have a go at, please do drop a line with details of your idea, or if you prefer, a whole article to Tony@schools.co.uk

And please do note our friends at  The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, plus links back to our reviews (which we do appreciate).

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4 Responses to Why does Bob Dylan like “I’ll not be a stranger”

  1. nissi says:

    Tony,

    Another surprise for me as I have never heard this song before even though I have listened to a fair amount bluegrass. And Bob covering it just adds to the joy of discovery. There is nothing quite like bluegrass to pull on the heart strings and make you look upward.

    Bob is very much acquainted with Hank Williams music and probably was influenced greatly when he became friends with Johnny Cash, June Carter and indeed all the Carter clan. It is also well woven into the fabric of American consciousness and hails from the very desperate times such as the Great Depression. It’s roots could even go further back to the black slaves and just modified overtime.

    Like you, I enjoy Bob’s rendition best because he just makes it more believable in his delivery of the lyrics. His inflections are just right where it has the most impact and I think this comes natural to him. This is exactly why when he does live performances I think he just lives his music in the moment and also reads his own mood and the mood of the audience. He then emphasizes differently on words or phrases to evoke things organically. I have listened to a vast amount of Live renditions of the same song and find this to be true, he is never the same twice even if the musical arrangements might be the same throughout a tour. Bob manages to use rhythms (phrasing) and cries, groans, or sharp sounds to covey what is in his heart at any given moment. This is one of the things about Bob Dylan that I love the most and causes me to listen again and again! He feels and breathes his songs with such authenticity I feel comfortable to just sit down beside him and enter that same mood! That is some powerful medicine and even the heartbreaking, militant, or tender Dylan has my complete investment to what he offers.

    Really great choice for your article and other versions of this song as well!

    love denise

  2. jastour 2010 says:

    Very nice uploads of the song, thank you very much Tony for them and for the article with lyrics!

  3. Robert Ford says:

    Denise, that is one of the most brilliant descriptions of Bob Dylan’s singing that I have ever read. Thank you.

  4. We are actively promoting a link to this interesting topic on The Bob Dylan Project at:
    http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/3323/Ill-Not-Be-a-Stranger

    If you are interested, we are a portal to all the great information related to this topic.

    Join us inside Bob Dylan Music Box.

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