Red River Shore (1997) part 13 postscript – ’Twas in the merry month of June

 

by Jochen Markhorst

’Twas in the merry month of June

Girl From The Red River Shore I personally felt was the best thing we recorded. But as we walked in to hear the playback, Dylan was in front of me, and he said, ‘Well, we’ve done everything on that one except call the symphony orchestra.’ Which indicated to me they’d tried to cut it before. If it had been my session, I would have got on the phone at that point and called the fucking symphony orchestra. But the cut was amazing. You couldn’t even identify what instruments were playing what parts.”
– Jim Dickinson (keyboards on Red River Shore) in Uncut

So, there should be four versions, according to engineer Chris Shaw, who together with manager Jeff Rosen is ploughing his way through the tapes to come to a selection for Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8 (2008). “Dreamin’ Of You”, the unreleased song they want to put on the website as a teaser, is easily found, Shaw says, but

“… there were others that took forever to find, like “Red River Shore”, there were four versions of that, that we had to go looking for. It’s an archival process, and it’s fun digging through that stuff, especially all the banter you hear between tracks and stuff.”
– Chris Shaw (engineer Red River Shore) in Uncut

Those closely involved, like Dickinson and Shaw, have no idea why the song was rejected. Neither do drummer Jim Keltner or producer Daniel Lanois. Guitarist Duke Robillard seems to have at least indirectly a clue, and is either remarkably well informed, or he can read the tell-tale signs remarkably well:

There was one song that I’m not sure will make the cut, that when I first heard Bob do it, right away I thought it was a Jimmie Rodgers thing circa 1929, it was that genuine. I was mesmerized by it, completely blown away . . . Lanois and Dylan talked about [how the album] was all designed to create a mood. The record is set in another time . . . it’s steamboat, civil war, very Mark Twain.
– Duke Robillard (electric guitar on Red River Shore) in Isis #73

Number 73 of the fanzine Isis is published in June 1997, so the interview with Robillard has taken place months before the release of Time Out Of Mind (30 September 1997). And at that time Robillard apparently already realises that “Red River Shore” will be dropped. Notable are the last words from the Isis quote, about the mood: “The record is set in another time . . . it’s steamboat, civil war, very Mark Twain.” Words that, apart from “Red River Shore”, fit just as seamlessly on that other legendary dropout, on “Mississippi”. Fitting with what Dylan himself says about “Mississippi”, and his disagreement about it with producer Lanois: “I tried to explain that the song had more to do with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights than witch doctors.” And especially fitting for the next record, the one on which “Mississippi” will eventually make its glorious debut, four years later, on Love And Theft (2001).

Now, that is an album where you can justifiably say: steamboat, civil war, very Mark Twain. “Mississippi”, “Summer Days”, “Bye And Bye”, “Floater”… songs that all share the same nineteenth century mood as “Red River Shore” – a mood that, strangely enough, wouldn’t characterise Time Out Of Mind that much. Despite the fact that Lanois and Dylan, if we are to believe Robillard, seem to seek it out so explicitly. But then: “Love Sick”, a highway of regret, the Scottish Highlands, a jukebox playing low, from London to gay Paree… no, on large parts of Time Out Of Mind the poet definitely has discarded the steamboats and the Civil War. To pass it on to his next project.

“Mississippi” is then, thankfully, rescued from oblivion. Thanks to an outside intervention as well, as drummer David Kemper reveals:

“I know of two versions of Mississippi. We thought we were done with “Love And Theft”, and then a friend of Bob’s passed him a note, and he said, oh, yeah, I forgot about this: Mississippi.”

… manager Jeff Rosen would be an educated guess if we had to guess the identity of “a friend of Bob’s”. But no such luck for “Red River Shore”; the song really only surfaces more than ten years after its conception, on Tell Tale Signs from 2008. Again, on Jeff Rosen’s instruction, praised be his name.

And further on, we find “The Girl from the Greenbriar Shore”, one of several candidates that can be considered as a template for the song. Although both chord progression and melody are actually too generic to attribute to one “mother song”, of course. And we know the combination girl + shore, as well as the vague topographic location “Red River”, from dozens of songs too. No, “Greenbriar Shore” seems to be an isolated burp that we owe to the rather prosaic fact that Dylan has the obvious association with “green shore” and the song that begins with the words “’Twas in the year of ’92, in the merry month of June” when he is on the Côte d’Opale near Dunkerque in June 1992.

Two performances are given to Greenbriar Shore (both in the merry month of June ’92). Two more than “Red River Shore”, which otherwise does not make waves either. In fan circles, it is celebrated as a lost masterpiece of a similar category as “She’s Your Lover Now” and “Blind Willie McTell”, but neither the master himself nor his colleagues seem to agree.

In fact, only a few usual suspects, artists who have already made a name for themselves with Dylan interpretations, put the song on the repertoire. In the Netherlands, one of the most successful musicians of the 80s, Ernst Jansz of the million-selling band Doe Maar, has distinguished himself with translated Dylan songs, a successful Dylan tribute album (Dromen Van Johanna – “Dreaming Of Johanna”, 2010) and a theatre tour. The album and the set list include “Het Meisje Van De Rode Rivier”. And when he performs with his old pals from the folk group CCC Inc., he occasionally manages to coax them into an English “Red River Shore”. Acoustic, with a lot of guitars, harmonica and accordion bag, as it should be. Just like the Austrian phenomenon Ernst Molden does, a shorter version in a smaller line-up, sung in unintelligible Viennese dialect, but with the same magic as Dylan. And we understand, at least, that with Molden she is a Madl aus der Lobau – a girl from the Lobau, the Vienna floodplain on the northern side of the Danube, loved by nudists.

More international allure is given by the only celebrity to record the song in its original English: the late, great Jimmy LaFave, the Texan with the high pitched voice and unique phrasing. On the wonderful 2012 album Depending On The Distance, which features the equally successful Dylan interpretations “I’ll Remember You” and “Tomorrow Is A Long Time”.

Over nine and a half minutes, and every second is wonderful. It’s steamboat, civil war, and very Mark Twain.

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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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