Red River Shore (1997) part 2: The importance of capturing spontaneity

by Jochen Markhorst

II          The importance of capturing spontaneity

“The great thing about the really great songwriters, is that the great songs, the really magic ones, they play themselves. There’s very little question about what you’re supposed to do. I love that when it happens. And Bob has done that over the years to a great extent, with a great variety of musicians.”

That’s what Jim Keltner says when, in Uncut’s Tell Tale Signs Special (2008), he reminisces for the umpteenth time about one of his earliest recording sessions with Dylan, about “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” in 1973 (“I actually cried while we were recording it”). He tells it as an introduction to his story about recording “Red River Shore”: “And that particular song, it was one of those really beautiful Bob moments: a great song, and he sang it really beautifully.”

He is not the only session musician who is a fan, and who is disappointed that the song is not selected for Time Out Of Mind. Veteran keyboardist Jim Dickinson thinks it’s “the best thing we recorded”, and guitarist Duke Robillard is equally unequivocal: “I was mesmerised by it, completely blown away.”

Dickinson is the only one who seeks some kind of explanation as for why Dylan passes over the song for the album. He is familiar with the bard’s reputation (“Dylan is notorious for leaving off what appears to be the best one”) and through a casual remark from Dylan he understands that “Red River Shore” has been tried many times before (engineer Chris Shaw reveals that there are four versions):

“One of the things you really don’t want to hear on a record is boredom. And, while, certainly, no one was bored by playing with Bob Dylan, once they did fall into playing repetitious parts, I think that had that same effect on him.”

He does recognise it. Dickinson has worked with Alex Chilton, as a producer both for his solo album Like Flies on Sherbert (1979) and for the last record of the legendary Big Star, Third (1974): “After you did a song with Alex three or four times, he was past it.”  And Keith Richards (Dickinson plays piano on “Wild Horses”) has the same short span, has the real fire only in the moment of creation; “Keith Richards said, that’s where the song comes alive, the first performance.” More detailed, and infectiously, he recounts his three-day recording experience with Sticky Fingers in an interview for ArtistHouseMusic, shortly before his death in 2009;

“But the thing that I learned… what we did was the same thing every day. Insert the artist. Hamburger production. Assembly line. Lines, patterns, forms… insert the artist. Play it till it’s right. I been on cut 132 with Aretha Franklin, I mean: play it till it’s right. That was the way I thought you made a record. And here’s The Rolling Stones. As they take literally the first cut they get through without a major mistake. Nobody says the words “should we do that again, can we do that better, why don’t you do this, why you don’t that…” those words were not spoken in three days. When they got to do a cut without a major mistake, Charlie Watts got up from the drums and, by God, it was over. And I’m sitting there and I’m thinking, well, this is certainly not the way we make records – who do you suppose is right here? I think maybe it’s them. So I learned spontaneity, the importance of capturing spontaneity.”

Dickinson asks Richards about it and Keef confirms that they really do it like this all the time. “We take the first performance, as we write the song. You know, you capture the moment of spontaneity and creation. The only problem is, when we go on the road I gotta learn all this stuff over.”

It might be an explanation. And Jim Dickinson is no nitwit, of course. He is the man Dylan describes in his Theme Time Radio Hour as that magical musical maestro from Memphis, “the kind of guy you could call to play piano, fix a tractor, or make red coleslaw from scratch.” And this magical musical maestro thinks “Red River Shore” is the best thing we recorded, calling the recording amazing and the song remarkable. Still, Jim’s guess as to why Dylan rejects “Red River Shore”, bored by playing repetitious parts, doesn’t seem entirely conclusive. Apart from those four versions of “Red River Shore”, Dylan also records a very long version of “Highlands”, three versions of “Can’t Wait” and three versions of “Mississippi”… Dylan’s patience and stamina don’t seem to be too bad these days.

Surely the music cannot be a problem either. The musical accompaniment of both versions we know (of Tell Tale Signs) is, as Dickinson also implies, beyond criticism. Well, obviously; Augie Meyers, Duke Robillard, Jim Keltner, Bob Dylan, Jim Dickinson, Bucky Baxter… in the studio there’s an A-team of musicians with a grand total of about 200 years of experience at Premier League level – these guys could have made a good song out of “Driftin’ Too Far From Shore” even on a bad day. The sound then, perhaps? Yes, the #2 on Disc 3 of Tell Tale Signs, the version with the even stronger Tex-Mex colour and Dylan’s voice “drier” and mixed a bit further back, does have a different sound, but the first version, on Disc 1, is not at all that far away from the sound of Time Out Of Mind.

The lyrics then. Maybe the master is still dissatisfied with the lyrics – kind of how he explained the rejection of “Blind Willie McTell” at the time; because the song was “not finished”. Possible. True, the lyrics do seem somewhat aimless. But on the other hand, it has more than enough gems to overcome something as debatable as “lack of direction”. The opening, for starters, has a classic, cast-iron poetic power;

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
Pretty maids all in a row lined up
Outside my cabin door
I’ve never wanted any of ’em wanting me
’Cept the girl from the Red River shore

Already looks like one of the great songs, the really magic ones, the ones that play themselves.


To be continued. Next up Red River Shore part 3: Pretty angels all flying in a row

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:



  1. Diction that brings to mind, at least for some, the classic:

    From the lightning in the sky
    As it passed me flying by …
    Of a demon in my view
    (Edgar Allen Poe)

  2. You know what, the fact that he starts nearly every verse with ”Well I” is a big, big turn-off! It’s the main reason I rarely play it.
    After listening back to it he must have come to the same conclusion and left it of the album. A wise decision!

  3. To a certain extent recognisable, Frank. But then again: the exact same reproach can be made regarding Absolutely Sweet Marie and Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat (to name but two of many examples). I’m guessing here, but I bet that all those “opening-wells” bother you a lot less with those songs.
    Still, I can sympathize – at first, I didn’t really understand the mythical status of “Red River Shore” either. But I am converted. Probably because I played the song dozens of times while writing this series of articles. “Steter Tropfen höhlt den Stein“, as our German friends say – constant dripping wears away the stone.

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