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).

There is a copy of the song on line here.

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.



  1. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. “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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. “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. 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. “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. 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

  22. That can be asked about Up to Me, Foot of Pride, BWM.

    This is song is my favourite of Dylan’s song. It is an utterly heartbreaking summation of failure (“the sun set down on me a long time ago”). The girl is Wisdom. It is what gives the singer meaning. The song is Dylan at his most pessimistic and weary – even Jesus is some guy whose revitalising power Dylan (the master of words) is unable to call on because he doesn’t even know what language Jesus spoke. That is quite an admission for Dylan fiven his deeply religious and Christ-centric worldview.

    Mississippi and Red River Shore are the equal of anyhing he’s ever written.

  23. hey everyone, this song fits hand in glove with the american or
    Canadian folksong “Red River Valley” , filling in or completing the story the story narrated y he cowboy persona there and recycling certain lines “come sit by my side if you love me”…. Ithink thatthe speaking persona in Gfrom theRRSthis song may in fact be the man in ‘Red River valley” who gets jilted or abandoned or deserted by the girl in “Red River valley.” unusual song in that the woman is the one who ups and leaves to return to her home by the ocean shore Jimmy Rogers and Woody both recorded it.

  24. I broadly agree with the article, and I recognise, in many of the comments, the common but lamentable tendency to scorn any criticism or even any nuanced variance of praise when it comes to Dylan. I do love the song (I prefer take 1), but in my opinion it has been significantly over-rated, in the way it was talked up by musicians and critics, and hyped in advance and then received upon the release of Tell Tale Signs. The “died and was dead” line is clunky – and I don’t care if it’s a bible quotation or whatever, its a jarring, inelegant line; as was well said in this article, that verse in general jars and doesn’t sit well with the rest of the song. The vocal, too, can verge on the self-parodic, the nasal element comes close to being a bit too much, in the choruses.

    I also agree that the song would not have been a good fit with TOOM. Yes, I would rather have it than some of TOOM’s more minor tracks, but it is in no way a rival for the ‘big 4’ songs on TOOM.

  25. I only just heard this song on a radio program and decided to look it up, which led me to lyrics, an actual recording of the song, and this article. About memory… We remember things that we filter through our existing experiences and ideas; thus, each new experience is filtered through our existing ideas about what is important, etc. You can read my take on this phenomenon in my book, Developing A Teaching Style (2nd edition, Waveland Press, 2001) in the sections on “Constructivism.”
    About Dylan’s song… Yes, he wrote many bad songs, but we don’t remember them, sing them, or listen to those songs. He wrote many songs with great verses and not so great verses. I would put “One too many mornings” in that category, although I used to sing it. I would also put “Tomorrow is a long time” in that category although I still sing it but quit after the first two verses. And he wrote SO many great songs! They are far too many to list but some of my favorites include “North Country Fair,” “If Not for You,” and “Mississippi.” I still perform the first two of these and I’m still working on Mississippi. I recorded “Trying to Get to Heaven Before They Close the Door” on my album “From Across the Years, Bob Louisell”. I think Girl from the Red River Shore is a great song! I plan to learn it and, if I can polish it in time, to sing it at my next gig on October 29 in Duluth (Northern Waters). Bridges and Choruses are overrated! Strophic songs fit a long tradition of folk music. Many Child Ballads are strophic.

  26. Oh, and there’s no doubt that, even if Dylan was familiar with both songs about Red River of the South (He probably was), he is applying the title to Red River of the North, which creates the border between North Dakota and Minnesota and then flows on, northward, through Manitoba. Dylan grew up in Hibbing, Minnesota, which is only 200 miles by car to Moorhead, Minnesota, which is situated on the east side of the river from Fargo, North Dakota.

  27. The best way to fully appreciate this song is to utube Henry Lim and the Camarade Quartet performing it. It’s Lim vocals and guitar plus bass, viola and violins. He makes sense of ‘died and was dead’, which I find very poetic.
    I agree with Mohammed Hanif; died is a process, dead is a final state.
    I recently attended a concert by the Adelaide Baroque (Australia). During an aria from the St Matthew Passion, sung by Robert Macfarlane, I found myself thinking of Lim’s RRS and how the Adelaide Baroque could do it justice.
    I guess what I’m saying is that the sing is so great that it lends itself to all sorts of musical interpretations.
    Anyway, you should check out Henry Lim and his Red River Shore.

  28. Isn’t he really just talking about his muse. Hyperbole aside, why else would anybody want to spend every hour of their life with somebody? I’m glad she ain’t no “ Mr” tambourine man. Has anyone seen the “Trouble No More”doc? It’s being shown in Toronto Jan 11

  29. The Red River flows north from Minnesota, Bob Dylan’s home state, into Canada. Tho old Canadian folk song Red River Valley contains the line “Come sit down beside me if you love me”

    Dylan sings “Well I sat by her side for a while”

    The Kingston Trio sing a folk song called The Red River Shore, referring to the Texas river that flows south.

    Dylan takes a line from that song for Not Dark Yet….”She wrote me a letter, she wrote it so kind.”

    Exodus 2:22 – ‘I have been a stranger in a strange land’

    Looks like he’s been mixing up rivers down in his basement with Johnny.

  30. Robert — Bob Dylan does not ’emulate’- that’s for amateurs!
    Bob is a professional. – he steals.

  31. Bob did live (and played piano for Bobby Vee’s group) in Fargo for a short time—where the Red River flows north and forms the Minnesota-North Dakota border. Just sayin’

  32. You can’t ….Tony, who says you can’t –

    Get thee back into the tempest and the night’s Plutonian shore …..
    Take thy beak from out of my heart, and thy form from off my door (Poe: The Raven)

    I had to go back from the door/I wish I could have spent every hour of my life/With the girl from the Red River shore
    (Red River Shore)

    You used to be so amused/At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used (Like A Rolling Stone)

  33. “Won’t you ever come back to the Valley
    To a half-breed that’s lonely and blue?”
    (Wilf Carter: The Red River Blues)

    The original song is Canadian and references the Metis French/Indian ‘half-breeds’ living in the Red River Colony of Manitoba.

  34. She wrote me a letter, she wrote it so kind
    And in that letter these words you’ll find
    ‘Come back to me darling, you the one I adore
    You’re the one I will marry on the Red River shore
    (Kingston Trio: Red River Shore – traditional)

  35. “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”

    As someone else mentioned in this section, the guy is obviously Jesus, who allegedly brought people back to life. However, Dylan, in this song, doesn’t want anyone to be physically brought back to life–he, the narrator, feels dead inside (emotionally) because of his loss (the girl), and he wants somebody to bring his inside back to life. so the Jesus lines work brilliantly. That’s how I interpret it.

  36. Thanks you all for the diverse insights on this song. The girl is paradoxical and I think the end of the song is the key to deciphering it. I suspect that the girl is a metaphor for religious faith. I suspect that this song is about Dylan’s struggle with faith. The sorrowful melody mourns for his loss of faith.

    I came here from Jimmy Lefave’s cover of the song. I discovered Jimmy while diving deep into covers of the classic song Deportee – plane crash at Los Gatos Canyon. Music like this is weaved together from a long tradition of tunes, themes and lyrics.

  37. 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

    Sometimes I think nobody ever saw me here at all
    ‘Cept the girl from the red river shore

    in the final end he is the one who vanished for everyone BUT for the one girl he is looking for
    THAT is what love is about

    BUT still
    the hills gave me a song

    now isn´t that brillliant
    or WHAT

    and listen to LOBAU by ernst molden

  38. The range and depths of comments on this great song are a wonder,yet not a surprise. Dylan is simply transcendent. I am a little surprised no-one has mentioned a reference I would consider central to the song : it may be Dylan is thinking of himself as dead without the girl; or it may be he fears she is now dead. He allows himself to ask whether such death can be reversed. And he recalls the story in St John’s gospel of the raising from the dead of Lazarus,a man from Bethany and a friend of Jesus. “The language he used” is a shorthand for much more : the power, the ritual,the words that enliven. “or if they do that kind of thing anymore” is darkly funny, being Dylan at his most ironic. The song closes with its strongest verse ,just as it opened in an equally spellbinding way. I find the opening four lines breathtaking,no matter how often I play them.Dylan may have been familiar with the literary technique known as Semitic Inclusion used commonly in the scriptures. The main narrative of events and feelings is thus set between two pillars that help define the seriousness of the song.
    I am a a 76 year old Scot who has listened to or thought about Dylan nearly every day of my life since 1964. I have always liked going through sites like this, but on this occasion I decided I should try to make a small contribution myself. Long live all!

  39. I fell in love when I was 20, she cared for me as a dear friend, nothing more. My friends thought she was nice but nothing remarkable, but my heart was lost. My unrequited love lasted 40 years. No other girl ever thrilled me so. I saw her again at 60 and discovered she was not what my youthful heart remembered. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to “straighten it out” as she became mortal to me. I am grateful for the depth of love I felt and equally grateful to finally be rescued of it. I am finally, at last, able to lead a quiet life. This song touches me deeply, in a way I think the author of this article cannot comprehend. The level of joy we reach must be matched by an equal depth of sorrow. Fortunately the sorrow is forgotten while the joy remains.

  40. On the website for the Missouri State University, I found these. I’, certain Dylan knew of these old folk songs. They pertain only tangentially to his transformation of the song. The folk antecedents of this song seem to me to also relate to Lakes of Pontchartrain which Dylan covered. a lot of all this and other Dylan songs is about opportunity missed and potential unfulfilled. Interesting how that captivates us as a theme…

    Red River Shore
    VERSE 1
    At th foot of yonders mountain
    Where th fountains doth flow
    Sweet music detained me
    Soft winds there do’th blow
    I spied a fair damsel
    Her name I don’t know
    Standing by a brave soldier
    On Red River shore

    VERSE 2
    He spoke to her kindly
    Will you marry me
    My fortunes not great
    But, nothing, said he
    Your beauty is a plenty
    Your th one I adore
    Your th girl I might marry
    On Red River shore

    VERSE 3
    Her cruel ole Father
    These words came to him
    He said, he’d deprive her
    Of th dearest of men
    So, he sent him to the army
    Where th cannons doth roar
    For t’ leave his own true love
    On Red River shore

    VERSE 4
    She wrote him a letter
    She wrote it most kind
    An’ in this ‘ere letter
    These words you will find,
    Come home, my own true love
    Your th one I adore
    Your th man I might marry
    On Red River shore

    VERSE 5
    He read this’ ere letter
    It made him feel sad
    An’ none of his comrades
    Could make his heart glad
    He turned his horses homeward
    An’ onward did go
    For t’ meet his own true love
    On Red River shore

    VERSE 6
    Her cruel ole Father
    These words came to him
    He swore, he’d deprive her
    Of th dearest of men
    So, he made up a little army
    Of twenty an’ four
    For t’ fight this brave soldier
    On Red River shore

    VERSE 7
    He drew his bright saber
    An’ waved it around
    He slew, he slew
    Th rest of th men
    There’s no need of a little army
    As I told you before
    For t’ fight this brave soldier
    On Red River shore

    VERSE 8
    Love, love is th great fortune
    For all of mankind
    Th womand controlled
    Their alway confined
    Their controlled by their parents
    Until they are wise
    Then slaves for their husbands
    Th rest of their lives

    VERSE 1
    At th foot of yon mountain
    Where th fountain does flow
    Sweet music a damsel
    Over th soft wind doth blow

    VERSE 2
    There lives a fair damsel
    Her name I adore
    She’s th girl I may marry
    On Red River shore

    VERSE 3
    I asked her ole father
    To give her to me
    No, no, kind sir
    She can wed no cowboy
    So, I got on my horse
    An’ away I did go
    Away from my true love
    On Red River shore

    VERSE 4
    She wrote me a letter
    An’ wrote it so kind
    An’ in this letter
    Those words you will find,
    Come back my dear damsel
    Your th man I a-dore
    Your th man I may marry
    On Red River shore

    VERSE 5
    I read this letter over
    Till my heart became sad
    Not one of my comrades
    Could make my heart glad
    So, I got on my horse
    An’ away I did go
    To marry my true love
    On Red River shore

    VERSE 6
    Her cruel ole Father
    Th secrets did hear
    He said, he’d deprive me
    Of my dear one, so dear
    So, he raised a little army
    Of twenty and four
    To fight th young cowboy
    On Red River shore

    VERSE 7
    I drew my Winchester
    Fired ’round and ’round
    Till five were killed
    And seven was wound
    There’s no use of a little army
    Of twenty an’ four
    I’ll fight fer my true love
    On Red River shore

  41. The Metis woman gets left behind in the Red River Valley Rebellion song.

    Note too that Dylan sings “The Girl On The Green Briar Shore”

  42. Many days you have lingered all around my cabin door
    (Stephen Foster: Hard Times)

  43. This is a great song, one of Dylan’s best. Every man has had a Girl from the Red River Shore, a lingering sadness for what might have been with a love of a lifetime. I know I have/had one. I tear up every time I listen to this song.

  44. Actually I think the fact that “Pretty Maids all in a Row” is an Eagles song, written by Joe Walsh, is indeed relevant. Dylan once mentioned it as a song he admired.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *