Red River Shore (1997) part 9: A floating nothing

by Jochen Markhorst

IX         A floating nothing

Well I’m a stranger here in a strange land
But I know this is where I belong
I’ll ramble and gamble for the one I love
And the hills will give me a song
Though nothing looks familiar to me
I know I’ve stayed here before
Once a thousand nights ago
With the girl from the red river shore

It’s a diesel, Dylan’s lyrical engine. Today, anyway. It starts slowly and sputters, but is now almost at its optimum. After that wonderful opening full of alienation and melancholy, the engine sputters again, just for a second, and reluctantly produces one last filler. The unreal, dreamy atmosphere that the song poet evokes with the Kafkaesque I’m a stranger here in a strange land but I know this is where I belong evaporates at once with the introduction of a clichéd, earthy Rambling, Gambling Willie, the knave who indeed rambled and gambled for the ones he loved (“He supported all his children and all their mothers too”). A colourful protagonist, and a wonderful song – but a total miscast here.

Equally out of place is the meaningless, unrelated And the hills will give me a song. It’s possible that the faltering engine seeks a shortcut via Bing Crosby (“The Singing Hills”, 1940), or sputters past Rex Allen’s “Song Of The Hills” from 1949. And if Dylan has a hidden drawer somewhere in which he keeps the ignored phenomenon of Kevin Coyne, we may owe the musical hills to one of his hidden treasures, to “Shangri-La” from 1976 (when the later Police star Andy Summers is still in Coyne’s band, demonstrating his crushing talent);

Shangri-La is a million miles away
You might see it on a clear blue day
Over the hills and far away
They're singing out: 
Duh-de-doo-doo, duh-de-doo-doo

… who knows. After all, “Million Miles” also features in these same recording sessions for Time Out Of Mind, and our protagonist is also on a hopeless quest for unattainable happiness. Unlikely, though. Singing hills probably impose themselves on the poet Dylan the way the image will impose itself on almost every listener: via one of the corniest highs (or lows, depending on personal taste) of the twentieth century:

The hills are alive with the sound of music
With songs they have sung for a thousand years
The hills fill my heart with the sound of music
My heart wants to sing every song it hears

… the song with which Julie Andrews introduces the Unbearable Lightness of her Being in The Sound Of Music, an association that at the most a minority of Dylan’s generation, and of the generation before that, and of the generation after that, will escape. And an association that, like Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie, quite seriously clashes with the mood and the setting that the songwriter in “Red River Shore” seems to want to evoke; the rather uncomfortable, Kafkaesque uncanniness. In Kafka’s words:

“To describe reality in a realistic way, but at the same time as a “floating nothing”, as a clear, lucid dream, so as a realistically perceived irreality.”
(the so-called “Petřín Hill Experience”, in his Reflections From The Year 1920)

… the mood that Dylan, fortunately, rediscovers after this little dip.

Though nothing looks familiar to me I know I’ve stayed here before is an oppressive outpouring from the protagonist. More sinister and less innocent, and even more unreal than a déjà vu – a déjà venu, as it were. It is a plot that is effectively used in mindfuck films such as Total Recall and Before I Go to Sleep, to evoke in the audience the same frightening feeling as in the protagonist, who usually has undergone something like a memory reset or implanted memories. Or, in the more criminal variety, the stories that suck us into the maddening frustration of victims of gaslighting; offices are dismantled, photos are swapped, walls are painted over, and when the protagonist returns with the police, the evidence is gone and everything is different. Though nothing looks familiar to me I know I’ve stayed here before – it’s the paranoid version of the musical highlight from The Muppets Movie (1979), from Gonzo’s heartbreaking “I’m Going To Go Back There Someday”;

This looks familiar
Vaguely familiar
Almost unreal yet
It's too soon to feel yet

Close to my soul
And yet so far away
I'm going to go back there

It really does seem that the song poet Dylan has found the tone again now. The following once a thousand nights ago is not such a hollow cliché as, say, “ramblin’ and gamblin’” or “when it’s all been said and done”, but has the same magical, poetic sheen as cloak of misery and fires of time; the paradoxical quality of being simultaneously fresh and old-fashioned. Its magical sheen can surely be traced back to Sheherazade, the Persian storyteller of the tales from One Thousand and One Nights, and is perhaps unintentionally reinforced by choosing not something like “once a long, long time ago” but rather “once a thousand nights ago”.

The poetic power, then, is due to a kind of generally accepted metaphorical quality of “thousand”; although thousand nights covers a relatively manageable span of time (not much more than two and a half years, in fact), we all experience it as “endlessly long”, “half a lifetime”. Like Emmylou Harris uses it in her moving ode to Gram Parsons from 1985, “Sweetheart Of The Rodeo”, in the beautiful opening line A thousand nights a thousand towns I took the bows, eventually leading to the equally beautiful closing couplet

I stepped into the light you left behind
I stood there where all the world could see me shine
Oh I was on my way to you to make you mine
But I took the longest road that I could find

Or as it is used in “I’ve Made Love To You A Thousand Times” by Smokey Robinson, the man whose poetic value was once equated by Dylan with Rimbaud and Allen Ginsberg (jokingly, we may assume, in an interview with the Chicago Daily News in 1965). And like this, there are a few more songs in which thousand nights, usually in a romantic context, is used as a metaphor for “unbearably long time” – but except for Sinatra’s “How Old Am I?” no songs from the canon – it’s not too common. “Thousand nights” is a realistically perceived irreality, so to speak.

To be continued. Next up: Red River Shore part 10: Send it to Lulu


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. I don’t find the song ‘sputters’ much at all –
    nature (the hills) can inspire the creative juices of an aritist when all else fails … it’s an important line…
    the last verse may be a bit esoteric, but still it makes the listener think a bit

  2. One has to be a little cautious that one isn’t stumbling into the same aesthetic trap being examined here: “filler” used to prolong a piece that might profitably be condensed. In speculative digressions one shouldn’t lead the reader into inflated, nay pernicious, readings. It is a song and the critic’s, like the artist’s first responsibility, is to the music, after all. I will not be able to un-hear “the hills are alive” and thus a beautiful song is capsized. Some things should indeed be passed over in silence.

  3. Equating sweet Julie Andrews to Bob Dylan is a bridge way too far for me ….

    The hills are not alive with sound of music but the beauty of nature might give the narrator some inspiration in an otherwise sorrowful situation…

    It’s an ironic poke at the over-optimism of some of the Transcendental poets of yore ….

    Not a ‘filler, but an essential ingredient..,,

  4. The narrator is a stranger in a strange land ,,,akin to Moses or Elijah….

    And the hills do give him a song ..,.it’s called “Red River Shore” ….

  5. I wouldn’t say “I’ll ramble and gamble” is a cliche. It evokes that beautiful old song “The Rambling Gambler” (“I’m a rambler, I’m a gambler, I’m a long ways from home”), which Dylan performed way back in 1960, a sister song to “The Wagoner’s Lad,” which he performed in 1988. It has nothing much to do with “Rambling Gambling Willie,” beyond the title of that song being inspired by the same song.

  6. What is ‘miscast’ and not is highly a subjective judgement ….
    The music holds the song together…,
    Variations that tone down what might be called the livier ‘zideco effect’ fits my ears like a glove.

  7. Thanks Morten.
    It is to some extent subjective, I suppose, what can be qualified as “cliché”. And as a non-native speaker I have to be very careful, I am aware of that. Still, off the top of my head I can think of four or five more songs that combine “gamble” and “ramble”. Doc Watson’s “Travelin’ Man”, The Stones’ “Midnight Rambler”, Bob Seger’s “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” of course, The Monkees’ “Midnight Train”… I bet there are many more. A google search “rambling + gambling” plus variants gives about half a million hits – if the qualifier “cliché” is going too far, then maybe we can agree on “very often used”.
    Anyway, it’s a bit beside the point. There is – of course – nothing wrong the use of a cliché, nor is a nod to an old song like “The Rambling Gambler” or “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie” objectionable, on the contrary. But here, in these lyrics, between the beautiful, disturbing, oppressive lines stranger here in a strange land, but I know this is where I belong on the one hand and though nothing looks familiar to me I know I’ve stayed here before on the other, I find it disturbingly trivial. Well, a huge miss, to be perfectly honest.
    Which, of course, is only an opinion as well.
    Anyway: thank you for your thoughts and criticisms!

    @ Marsh: You are right, of course. It is certainly undesirable and culpable to spoil the pleasure of art. My apologies. I assumed – wrongly, it turns out – that the whole world thinks of Julie Andrews when hearing “singing hills”.

  8. One man’s cliche is another man’s archetype, of course. The phrase certainly has been used a lot. But with Dylan I think you have to look back for the source, the song it originally comes from. All those other songs don’t matter. They’re just accretions, like barnacles. For me, that line brings in that old song for a minute, and the feeling in it–of the man turned away from his lover’s door (“She was the flower of Belton, the rose of Saline”) and riding off alone–and makes that feeling part of his song.

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