Red River Shore Part XI: It’s complicated

by Jochen Markhorst

XI         It’s complicated

Now I heard of a guy who lived a long time ago
A man full of sorrow and strife
That if someone around him died and was dead
He knew how to bring ’em on back to life
Well I don’t know what kind of language he used
Or if they do that kind of thing anymore
Sometimes I think nobody ever saw me here at all
Except the girl from the red river shore

Dylan also comes along for a moment. In “the Zone”, the border area where the soul resides for a while when you are enraptured on earth – by music, for example. And that, “the Zone”, is where Moonwind Stardancer’s ship sails; to the sounds of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. Protagonist Joe roams around there, looking for Moonwind, because Moonwind knows how to bring him back to life. In Soul, the overpowering 2020 Pixar film, the soul of dying jazz pianist Joe Gardner can be brought back to life if he has a fully ticked off Earth Pass that grants him access to Earth, and thus back to his lifeless body. In The Great Before, the dimension where souls are prepared for Life, he must obtain one. A given used at about the same time by filmmaker Edson Oda for his thoroughly poetic film Nine Days (2020); in a lonely house on an unreal plain, the hermit selects, in nine-day interview sessions, the souls that are allowed to go to a body on Earth. The scenario is a Swiss cheese, but oh well; the images are pure poetry and the actors are sublimely cast.

Reanimation as a theme is of all times, but in most cases the plot leads to fright and horror, to sorrow and strife. The Flatliners who deliberately kill themselves and then reanimate each other do not exactly enjoy their regained, nightmarish lives (1990), and the life broker in the rip-off The Lazarus Effect (2017) also horribly regrets the monster he creates when he revives his own wrecked girl from the Red River shore, fiancée Zoë. She turns into an unstoppable killing machine with supernatural powers. And similar horror is provided by most reanimation stories and the dozens of Frankenstein films.

Only a handful of films have a positive twist like Soul. The Crow, although a gory revenge film, has a sort of happy ending for the revived Brandon Lee (whose actual death during the shooting is filmed, lugubriously, as a fake gun accidentally shoots a projectile into his stomach). And the cinematic monument RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987) is not quite a feel-good movie either, but the reanimated cop Alex Murphy is at least programmed to serve the public trust, protect the innocent, and uphold the law. And is inspired by the most famous reanimator of all time, the same one who also inspires Dylan;

“The point of RoboCop is, of course, it is a Christ story. It is about a guy that gets crucified after 50 minutes, then is resurrected in the next 50 minutes and then is like the super-cop of the world, but is also a Jesus figure as he walks over water at the end.”
(director Paul Verhoeven in MTV News, 2010)

The final couplet of “Red River Shore” is, without a doubt, the most fascinating one of the song. Every line is striking and the whole, like Dylan’s best final couplets, offers both a twist on the previous stanzas and a menu of possible scenarios.

The opening, I heard of a guy who lived a long time ago, masks through the choice of words (“a guy”) the identity of Jesus, who therefore all the more surprisingly three lines later turns out to be “the guy”. For the time being, the storyteller keeps the suspense going; the “guy” was a man full of sorrow and strife. Which pushes the associations, again through word choice, to medieval tragic heroes and ancient murder ballads. Identical word choice as in one of the many “Matty Groves” variants, for example. In the seventeenth century, troubadours sang about Matty (or rather: about Little Musgrave, as he was more often called in those days):

‘To lodge wi thee a’ night, fair lady, 
Wad breed baith sorrow and strife; 
For I see by the rings on your fingers 
You’re good Lord Barnaby’s wife.’

… and to the nineteenth-century “Arthur McBride”, the song Dylan interprets so lovingly, seven years before “Red River Shore”, on Good As I Been To You (“And he pays all his debts without sorrow and strife”).

But on the other hand, it already has an evangelical connotation; “Sorrow and strife” does indeed have a New Testament colour, is a word combination that is otherwise only to be found in gospel music. In “Wait For Me” by The Statesmen for example, Brenda Lee’s “Some People”, and in old hymns like “Jesus, I Come” and “Out Of My Darkness Into Thy Light” – all edifying songs in which a longing for liberation from earthly sorrow and strife and for union with Jesus is sung. With the single use of those two words sorrow and strife, in short, the poet builds a bridge from the old-fashioned folk atmosphere of the previous seven stanzas to the introduction of the gospel in this finale. A bridge that becomes all the more solid with the following if someone around him died and was dead; again that Biblical tone, the tautological of John (“he who is of the earth is earthly and speaks of the earth,” 3:31), Esther (“and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink,” 4:16), Proverbs 14:24 (“the foolishness of fools is folly”), to name but three examples – the Bible is rich in tautologies like Dylan’s he died and was dead.

The road is paved. So, in this chapter 8, verse 4 we get to know who the guy is: the most famous reanimator of all time, that is. But still described with the same pleasantly disrespectful, folksy tone: He knew how to bring ’em on back to life. Undertones: boy, he was quite something, this guy Jesus. The same tone Dylan uses in “Highway 61 Revisited” in the dialogue of Abraham and God; man, you must be puttin’ me on.

Apart from that: the insinuation confirms the veiled hints from the previous verses; the narrator is looking for a guy who can bring the dead back to life – and thus insinuates that his girl from the Red River shore is dead. More than that, he reaffirms the vague suspicion that he himself is the murderer. After the cryptic opening in which he suggests that he has scared her to death in the dark, after which she has left for an area where the angels fly, and after the in this scenario rather lugubrious words she should always be with me, and all subsequent ambiguous outpourings, this is then relatively unambiguous – after “death” in the opening the narrator, neatly cyclic, returns in his closing words to the words dead, died and back to life. Words of a desperate, repentant sinner who needs a deus ex machina to undo auld lang syne, to dissolve the shadows of his past.

But: this is a Dylan song in the same category as “Desolation Row” and “Mississippi”, in the category of monumental songs that meander between lyricism and epicism, that insinuate more than they tell, that don’t show anything more than what the broken glass reflects. The poet has one final twist up his sleeve…

Does this mean I’m… dead?

Not yet. Your body’s in a holding pattern. It’s complicated.

To be continued. Next up: Red River Shore part 12: I see dead people


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:


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