By John Henry
“My Love is Like a Red Red Rose” is one of, if not the most iconic of Scottish songs. Written by Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns, in 1794, it is a moving statement of the singer’s love for his beloved. It has been sung, if not recorded, by every Scottish singer worth his or her salt, and by many more besides; it has been a perennial favourite ever since it was written.
But, perhaps the most significant thing to be said about it in this context is that Bob Dylan once declared his own love for the song in no uncertain terms. In an advertising campaign launched by HMV under the title “My Inspiration”, Dylan was asked in 2008 to name the lyric that had had the most impact on his life. Dylan cited Burns’s “My Love is Like a Red Red Rose.”
Evidently, this became news and The Guardian newspaper shortly after included a piece under the headline: “Bob Dylan: Robert Burns is my biggest inspiration.” Guardian readers were told: “Dylan has revealed his greatest inspiration is Scotland’s favourite son, the Bard of Ayrshire, the 18th-century poet known to most as Rabbie Burns. Dylan selected A Red, Red Rose, written by Burns in 1794.”
The song is a declaration of undying love, and one of the most appealing, the most captivating, aspects of the lyric are those places where Burns/the singer illustrates the never-ending quality of his love by saying it will last “Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,/And the rocks melt wi’ the sun” (for those not familiar with Scots patois, “gang” here means “go”). He continues: “I will love thee still, my dear,/While the sands o’ life shall run.” In the final verse, the poet switches from vast expanses of time, to distance. Evidently, he must leave his true love for a while, but he assures her “And I will come again, my Love,/Tho’ it were ten thousand mile.”
This kind of imagery was picked up subsequently by the wonderful Scottish duo, The Proclaimers, in the second of our two Scottish songs, their wonderful 1988 release, “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles).” Much more down to earth than Burns’s romanticism, they stick to vast distances:
But I would walk 500 miles, And I would walk 500 more, Just to be the man who walks a thousand miles To fall down at your door.
Their repetition of this refrain, and the fact that they incongruously squeeze 500 miles into the title, would surely result in reminding any Scot of Burns’s “I will come again, my Love,/Tho’ it were ten thousand mile.”
But there are wonderful contrasts between the two songs. There is a melancholy about Burns’s song, an underlying sadness. It’s a song about the heartache of love, about its insecurities. The singer is trying to convince his love that he really loves her: “As fair thou art, my bonnie lass,/So deep in love am I.” But this makes us think that perhaps she doesn’t trust him, is not as sure of him as he wants her to be. There’s an air of desperation, maybe even neediness, in what the singer sings.
There is nothing sad about the Proclaimers’ song. Leonard Cohen insisted that love was not a victory march, but the Proclaimers know different. “I’m Gonna Be” is a triumphalist shout from the roof tops that the singer has won his girl and knows he’s going to be with her:
When I wake up, well I know I'm gonna be, I'm gonna be the man who wakes up next to you. When I go out, yeah I know I'm gonna be, I'm gonna be the man who goes along with you. If I get drunk, well I know I'm gonna be, I'm gonna be the man who gets drunk next to you.
While Burns is romantic, the Proclaimers write of a relationship which is much more rooted in daily life:
When I'm working, yes I know I'm gonna be, I'm gonna be the man who's working hard for you; And when the money, comes in for the work I do, I'll pass almost every penny on to you. When I come home (when I come home), well I know I'm gonna be, I'm gonna be the man who comes back home to you.
But even so, they sing of a love that will last, not until the rocks melt in the Sun, but as they grow old: “And if I grow-old (when I grow-old), well I know I’m gonna be,/I’m gonna be the man who’s growing old with you.”
“I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” is a great song in its own right, but it is also a tribute by its Scottish authors to the great Scottish song, “My Love is Like a Red Red Rose.” For all the differences in tone—from love’s insecurity and heartache on the one hand, to the overwhelming confidence that comes from finding love on the other—the songs are clearly related. In both songs, the lover demonstrates his love by his willingness to cover impossible distances to return to the beloved: ten thousand miles, or one thousand.
Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” of 1997, is his own tribute to the song that we know means so much to him. It’s partly for that reason, that I want to include it here as a third Scottish song. Clearly, I’m stretching the point, but let’s not forget that the album in which this song appears has Scottish features. There’s “Highlands,” for a start:
Well my heart’s in the Highlands wherever I roam; That’s where I’ll be when I get called home. The wind, it whispers to the buckeyed trees in rhyme, Well my heart’s in the Highlands, I can only get there one step at a time.
There’s an obvious Scotticism too in “Not Dark Yet.” The official lyrics on bobdylan.com give the fourth line as “I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal,” but what Dylan sings on the album is “…that the sun didnae heal.” “Didnae” is how Scots say “did not.” It seems clear that Dylan’s love of Scotland pre-dated his purchase of Aultmore House in Strathspey in 2006. Strathspey is where the renowned Speyside whiskies are distilled, including those miracles of the distillers’ art Cragganmore and The Glenlivet. And it was just a couple of years after this that he cited Burns’s wonderful love song as one of his favourite songs.
So, is “Make You Feel My Love” a tribute to “Red Red Rose”? It is, of course, different from Burns’s original and from the Proclaimers’ later echo of it, because the singer does not yet have the girl. “Make You Feel My Love” is a song of seduction. The singer is trying to persuade the girl that he loves her, and that she should trust him enough to allow herself to feel his love.
But the characteristic similarities with “My Love is Like a Red Red Rose” are there—the impossible times and distances. “I could hold you for a million years/To make you feel my love,” he sings in the second verse; and in the final two lines he says he would “Go to the ends of the earth for you/To make you feel my love.” Introducing a variation, he also sings of “crawling down the avenue.” There’s nothing so impressive about doing that for the woman he loves, you might think. But it’s clear that he’s proposing doing it when he’s in no fit state to do so—hungry, and black and blue, presumably after having been beaten up:
I’d go hungry, I’d go black and blue, I’d go crawling down the avenue. There’s nothing that I wouldn’t do To make you feel my love
It’s the third line here that confirms that the two preceding lines are meant to convey extreme difficulty. For good measure, Dylan repeats the phrase “Nothing that I wouldn’t do” in the final verse.
Unlike the Proclaimers’ upbeat and uplifting tribute to Burns’s song, Dylan’s reverts to the melancholy of the original. We might also say it echoes the desperation of the original, and maybe even the neediness of its singer. Where Burns was trying to reassure his lover that he really did love her, Dylan is trying to convince his would-be lover that he really does love her. Consider the difference between the two couplets:
As fair thou art, my bonnie lass, So deep in love am I.
I know you haven’t made your mind up yet, But I would never do you wrong.
Burns is trying to hold on to his bonnie lass, Dylan is trying to get hold of the lass who isn’t yet his. But just as Burns manages to suggest that perhaps his lass doesn’t believe him, so Dylan’s song conveys an implicit despair—a feeling that perhaps his attempts to win her won’t succeed. Consider, for example, the way he rapidly suggests this in a few deft lines:
The storms are raging on the rollin’ sea, And on the highway of regret; The winds of change are blowin’ wild and free; You ain’t seen nothin’ like me yet.
Nothing is certain, or secure, and there have already been many things to regret, but in a final desperate move, he tries to make out that he’s capable of rising above all his past failures.
So, for me, Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” feels like a Scottish song (certainly much more so than “Highlands” could be said to be Scottish). It feels Scottish because it so obviously echoes and pays tribute to “My Love is Like a Red Red Rose.”
And, of course, these three Scottish songs have something else in common, they are all brilliantly captivating songs, and each of them has proved to be perennial favourites. Singers will continue to sing them, and audiences will continue to listen, till a’ the seas gang dry.
John Henry Edinburgh Scotland (where else?)