I Was Young When I Left Home (1961) part II:   Different doors

Previously: I Was Young When I Left Home: I An absolutely astonishing thing for a boy of 20 to have written

by Jochen Markhorst

II          Different doors

 The evolution of the old folk song “900 Miles” to the reworking “500 Miles” to Dylan’s “I Was Young When I Left Home” illustrates the truth of Dylan’s analysis in that famous 2015 MusiCares speech;

“All these songs are connected. Don’t be fooled. I just opened up a different door in a different kind of way. It’s just different, saying the same thing. I didn’t think it was anything out of the ordinary. Well you know, I just thought I was doing something natural […] I didn’t think I was doing anything different. I thought I was just extending the line.”

… and Dylan, of course, is not the end of that line. Just as “900 Miles” is not the first, “I Was Young When I Left Home” is not the last link in that chain of songs in which a lonely protagonist, far from home, laments his nostalgic suffering in similar words. Hedy West’s “500 Miles” was further popularised by the Kingston Trio (1962), Peter, Paul & Mary (also in 1962) and became a hit for Bobby Bare in 1963 (“500 Miles From Home”, #9 in the Country Charts), and remains on the set list of countless, mostly country artists to this day.

“I Was Young When I Left Home” is of course not the only offshoot of “500 Miles”. The song branches out, which in turn lead to new branches, which in turn “open up different doors in a different kind of way”. The title of The Proclaimers’ 1988 world hit, “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)”, to name but one example, does not come out of the blue, of course.

After all, it can hardly be biographical, those 500 miles. The Proclaimers’ home base of Auchtermuchty, on Scotland’s east coast, just below Dundee, is only 400 miles from London, for example. The missus would have to have fled all the way to Plymouth to force the brothers to that 500 miles walk. Not too likely, obviously. Although, come to think of it, the sturdy sailors in the old sea shanty longingly sing their “Sweet Ladies Of Plymouth” from as far as the Bay of Biscay, from the Cape of Good Hope, and even from the other side of the world, off Australia’s beach, – apparently Plymouth’s women are worth the 500 miles after all.

“I Was Young When I Left Home” only reaches the general public in 2001, when the old 1961 recording is added as a bonus track on the CD version of “Love And Theft”. And so it is only from 2001 onwards that new ramifications and different doors emerge.

The first covers are not too different yet. And it will be another six or seven years before they really come off. The first notable one is by the Californian jazz violinist Jenny Scheinman, the versatile talent who, apart from making beautiful solo albums, is also an esteemed call employee for A-category artists such as Lou Reed, Bono, Aretha Franklin and Norah Jones. Her “I Was Young When I Left Home” from 2008 is restrained, but with slide guitar and violin it adds a successful plaintive dimension to the song.

Better known is the contribution of Antony + Bryce Dessner to the highly successful charity project Dark Was the Night for the Red Hot Organization, a compilation album produced by Bryce and his brother. The colourful Antony of Antony And The Johnsons (after coming out as transgender: Anohni) already attracted attention and applause with the contribution to the Dylan film I’m Not There (2007), with that thin, wild mercury “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”, she will record a strangely attractive “Pressing On” in 2011, and scores, mainly thanks to that surreal, ethereal voice, in between with another Dylan song, with a hypnotic “I Was Young When I Left Home”. A near-perfect performance; all the pathos, homesickness and yearning that the song holds are captured in just under five minutes, thanks also to the tasteful, sober instrumentation.  

The song then slowly but surely floats up to the surface – after Antony’s missionary work, many follow. “I Was Young When I Left Home” has not yet entered the canon, but it is being covered more and more often. Almost always pleasantly so; apparently the song has the same indestructible power as, say, “Buckets Of Rain” or “Mama You Been On My Mind” or “To Ramona” have. The British American Marcus Mumford, Big Thief from Brooklyn, the Australian duo Montgomery Church, the infectious, heart-breaking South African collective Freshly Ground, the Belgian Puerto-Rican Gabriel Rios… all beautiful covers from all over the world, all of which are still within spitting distance of Dylan’s original.

(Gabriel’s “Boots Of Spanish Leather”, which he recorded in the same Dylan birthday week at the end of May 2011, is just as beautiful, by the way).

The first – slight – deviations from the original are not heard until 2021, when Marissa Adler, encouraged by her well-received “Absolutely Sweet Marie” (on the 2016 Mojo special Blonde on Blonde Revisited), dares to tackle another Dylan song.

And apart from the covers, we also see the first branches, the first “different doors” of the song coming down in the work of the colleagues. Actually, even before that; the British Dylan disciples The Charlatans demonstrate their knowledge of even the more obscure Dylan songs throughout their catalogue, and include a fragment of “I Was Young When I Left Home” already in 1999, so before the official release of the song, on their wonderful record Us And Us Only, in one of the many highlights of that record, in “The Blind Stagger”;

Lord, it's been a long, long time
And people don't you find always leave their troubles at your door
I, I live on my own
I don't need a bitter soul beatin' on about my country anymore
Don't you think your daddy needs you home right away
Your daddy needs you home right away

… the closing line of the opening verse is not accidentally a copy of Dylan’s verse – the album is filled to the brim with Dylan references and allusions.

The (presumably) first echo of the song after its official release then, also comes from England, and is placed by the extraordinary phenomenon from Sheffield, by Richard Hawley, an artist after Dylan’s heart. Being a line-extender and a different-door-opener par excellence.

Publishers footnote: if you are having a problem getting through to the Adler link you might try this link: https://marissanadler.bandcamp.com/track/i-was-young-when-i-left-home   I not, and you do find another link in your part of the world – please do write in to help out your fellow readers.


To be continued. Next up: I Was Young When I Left Home part III (final): Old Jim McKay

Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:


Leave a Reply

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