Beautiful Obscurity: 8 covers of “Girl from the north country”

There are details of more articles from this series here

In this series Aaron selects a Dylan song and then a collection of cover versions which he sends over to Tony on the other side of the Atlantic, for his comments.  The game we play is that Tony has to write his comments during his hearing of each recording (almost always hearing this version for the first time).

Aaron: I thought I was going to do When The Ship Comes In next, but then I heard a new (to me) version of this song and I just had to share it straight away. So here it is.


Tony: Changing the melody and accompaniment is clever – or at least clever when it works, but what also needs is reference point back to the original, and here we do get occasional lines with the original melody, which really works in my view.

In fact I really like the whole performance except … except for the instrumental break.  It comes early on and adds nothing to the who performance.  In fact, since everyone listening is going to know the song, it just leaves all of us waiting there for what we know will be the next verse.

Given the other changes so successfully made to the piece it wouldn’t have been beyond the excellent ability of the arranger to do something else in the break – and take it back so that it resides between the penultimate and final verses.

But that’s probably just me getting all fancy.

Aaron: And now onto the rest of the selections

Keith Richards

Tony: And showing my prejudices that surprised me.  Keith Richards choosing this delicate song?

I found the video utterly distracting with its jerky frame by frame format but once I closed my eyes I was able to focus much more on the music.  And fortunately I am a touch typist so I could keep typing.

But then had to open again around 1.38 to see the time and wonder what on earth was going on.  So I am presuming this is taken from a tape that was left running in the studio.  I went to see what else I could find about this and found this quote from Mr Richards

“While the British Invasion was going on, Bob Dylan was the man who really pulled the American point of view back into focus. At the same time, he had been drawing on Anglo-Celtic folk songs, and that’s certainly true of “Girl From the North Country”. It’s got all the elements of beautiful folk writing without being pretentious. In the lyrics and the melody, there is an absence of Bob’s later cutting edge. There’s none of that resentment. He recorded it again later with Johnny Cash, but I don’t think it’s a duo song. Bob got it right the first time.”

And just in case you don’t like the the video there is another copy of the recording with a different video; also distracting but in a more acceptable way.  Actually I saw a murmuration of starlings last December over Melton Mowbray, a small town in the English East Midlands – the region in which I live.  I do think next time a see a murmuration I’ll think of this rather gorgeous recording.  I do wish he’d made a version without the pauses.

Secret Machines

Now here is a real obscurity (I think it’s beautiful – Tony’s mileage may vary). This was on the b side of a cd single from 2005 by the Secret Machines – I loved it then (especially on headphones) and listening again now, I still do – although it is looooonnng.

Tony: There is a tiny hint of also “Also sprach Zarathustra” in those opening notes which is rather strange – so that’s probably a musical allusion that wasn’t meant (or is only heard by my curious musical memory).

But after that gentle held introduction, I found the arrival of the vocalist and piano was unexpected strong, and something of an unwelcome interruption.

It is one of those songs where I have the notion that the guys said, “hey let’s do it like this” and another says, “ok yeah and you can come in here with some piano chords…” and I’m left asking “Why?”

Not that I mean that every crotchet and held chord can be explained logically – no, most of the time things just work and sound right, although thankfully we can generally eventually understand why (and so learn more about music and musical arrangements).

But here, “I’m wondering if she remembers me at all” comes belting out on storm of a growing storm, and that’s never how I’ve felt this song.  Yes of course “I wonder if she remembers me at all” is painful and desperately sad, and I guess like many people now of a certain age I’ve thought that – although not with the same painful feeling of loss (for me that seems to go after a while).

And then the big crescendo with the repeated chords, and no no no no no I do not see any connection between the meaning of the lyrics and what is happening musically.  The music  around 6 minutes 40 sounds like someone said, “And lets have a big build up here,” and I am just thinking, “What is the point of all this?”

No, really, I think this is a bunch of guys trying to be clever by doing something new, and forgetting that there are issues in music that are infinitely more profound than “clever.”

Tony Rice

Aaron: Now a bluegrass cover by the always excellent Tony Rice. Ricky Skaggs said he was “the single most influential acoustic guitar player in the last 50 years.”


Tony: It is quite a shock to move from one track to another like this.  You’d never hear this on a radio show because no radio programme would play the previous version followed by this.

There is a warmth in this song – the singer is wanting to be remembered to the lady, and wants to make sure she is all right in her coat so warm, and yes I can just about get that out of bluegrass, but only just.   I love the vocals, both solo and duets – the harmonies are gorgeous.  It is just when we move over the guitar picking solos that I feel it doesn’t quite fit.  It is a case of forget the meaning of the words and go with the fun.

Pete Townshend

Aaron: Not many people attempt to rewrite a Dylan song, but Pete Townshend gave it a go.

“Roy Harper did a version of North Country Girl based on a version done by Bob Dylan … and I do a version, based on the version done by Roy Harper.”

Tony: Oh what is that accompaniment from at the start?  How very annoying, I know it so well but can’t place it.

This is odd.  The melody is a really good rewrite and the arrangement is interesting, the harmonies work well… and the chord sequence works well; it is fine, except for that “North Country Girl oh oh oh oh oh oh”.   Really – after all the reworking before that do we need that bit.  And indeed that so reminiscent introduction.  It DOES come from somewhere else and this is really bugging me. I can hear it in my head but just can’t get what comes after it, to tell me where it comes from.

How very annoying.  But this is really good reworking only spoiled by the opening and the ending.  The rest of it is really good in my view.

But as always, that’s just my view.   Townshend made his multi-millions and I didn’t, so I guess he knows best.

Neil Young

Aaron: I could go on and on here, there are many fine versions of this – I tried to stick to some more obscure, and interesting takes, but for now I’ll finish up with a version by Neil Young from his A Letter Home album – the entire album was recorded on a refurbished 1947 Voice-o-graph vinyl recording booth at Jack White’s studio.

Tony: Only Neil Young could do this!  Yes its fun.  And actually I wish I had heard this first.  I think I’ll come back tomorrow and play this again before I’ve not heard any other music.  There is something so right about this in terms of the lonesome guy singing to the girl he left behind.

The point here is that I really do believe in the words, I believe in the “darkness of my night”.  That’s the genius of Neil Young.  He gets inside the song and becomes the song.


But I (Tony) want to add one of my own suggestions to give back to Aaron.  It somehow seems to fit after having listened to all the previous versions.  I need this to allow me to continue with my day (and it’s not yet 9am).

Manu Lafer

Yes, that’s better.  I’m ready to take on the world once more.



  1. Time for some good old-fashioned abuse (lol)!

    The Secret Machine’s music is not interpreted by the lyrics at all – if you’re 2000 light years from home, you’re going miss your girl friend back home more than ever, I’d think.

    Works for me, as they say.

  2. The Postmodernist technique leaves listeners to make their own informed or unconscious ‘associative’ connections to a song…. a technique that may ‘work’ for some listeners, maybe not so much for others.

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