Champaign, Illinois (1969) part 3 (final): So that’s where the song is going

by Jochen Markhorst

 

III         So that’s where the song is going

I got a woman in Morocco
I got a woman in Spain
But the girl I love that stole my heart
She lives up in Champaign

Still, according to that (auto-)biography with the great and inevitable title Go, Cat, Go! this was all Dylan had written before Carl Perkins took over. It’s not much, indeed. The clumsy, tautological third verse is just filler anyway, and it seems clear that the trigger, or the “catalyst”, as Dylan calls it, is just the beauty of the city name “Champaign”. “So that’s where the song was going all along,” the artist says in the 2020 New York Times interview with Douglas Brinkley, about the inspirational power of the three words “I contain multitudes”.

The mere word “Champaign” does indeed have a special power. Also, or especially, in the combination, as it is usually used, with sister city Urbana. “Champaign-Urbana” has an ingrained antithesis that is irresistible to any language artist. After all, “Champaign”, campania, means plain, field, while the Latin origin of “Urbana” is urbanus: from the city, urban, civilised. Plus, as a free bonus, the association with the homophone Champagne, with the festive bubbly drink.

“So that’s where the song is going,” Dylan the songwriter presumably decides, and will have little trouble finding a rhyme word to get there. “Spain” may not be the strongest rhyme word, but it does almost automatically force a filling of the corresponding verse – the formula I got a woman in… surfaces by itself, like the bubbles in a glass of champagne. Dylan, who actually has quite a reputation for disliking repetition, has used the formula himself, not so long ago, in “Outlaw Blues” (I got a woman in Jackson), which was already not too original back then either.

In 1927 Furry Lewis already sang Got a girl in Texas (“Rock Line Blues”), and a year and a half before Dylan struggled with this “Champaign, Illinois” Ray Pennington scored in the country charts with the song that would become a standard, with “I’m a Ramblin’ Man”: Got a girl in Cincinnati. But under Dylan’s skin, there are probably Otis Spann’s “Little Boy Blue” (I’ve got a girl in Chicago) and most certainly Hank Snow’s “I’m Moving On”, the biggest country hit of the 50s;

Mister Fireman please woncha listen to me 
I got a woman in Tennessee 
Keep on moving 
Keep a rolling on 
You're flying too high 
It's all over now 
I move on

An indestructible classic, recorded by The Stones, by Ray Charles, Emmylou Harris and whoever else. Arguably the most beautiful version is done by Johnny Cash, who recorded it again with producer Rick Rubin just before his death, but performed it in the 1980s together with Waylon Jennings, making it sound like a real Waylon Jennings song:

… with Johnny and Waylon taking the liberty of turning “I got a woman in Tennessee” into “got a pretty mama in Tennessee”. Dylan played the song with some regularity between 1986 and 1996 (23 times). Mostly as a song on the setlist, and sometimes just at the soundcheck or during rehearsals. Like in February ’96, in Phoenix, when he has “I’m Moving On” played after Hank Williams’ “(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle” and before… Carl Perkins’ “Matchbox”. He seems to detect a connection.

Anyway, the I got a woman formula. Dylan seems to want to use it for a list song. A continuous enumeration of places where the narrator has women, who will then be crossed off at the end of each verse against that one woman in the chorus, against that incomparable thief of hearts from Champaign, Illinois. Not very inspired either, of course. Jimmy Martin’s “Freeborn Man”, for example, with the beautiful, all-encompassing verse

I got a gal in Cincinnati
Got a woman in San Antone
I always loved the girl next door
But anyplace is home

… and thirty years later, on the threshold of the twenty-first century, the formula has lost none of its force, as the phenomenon Lou Bega demonstrates in yet another list-song, but still irresistible mambo, in “I Got A Girl”:

I got a girl in Paris, I got a girl in Rome
I even got a girl in the Vatican Dome
I got a girl right here, I got a girl right there
And I got a girlfriend everywhere
I got a girl on the Moon, I got a girl on Mars
I even got a girl that likes to dance on the stars
I got a girl right here and one right there
And I got a girlfriend everywhere

There are hardly any fresh, original interpretations of the formula. Just one, in fact: Josh Ritter’s outer category song “Girl In The War” (The Animal Years, 2006);

Peter said to Paul
"All those words that we wrote
Are just the rules of the game and the rules are the first to go"
But now talkin' to God is Laurel beggin' Hardy for a gun
I gotta girl in the war, man I wonder what it is we done

… with the coincidental link to Dylan’s little ditty in Ritter’s final couplet:

But I gotta girl in the war, Paul her eyes are like champagne
They sparkle, bubble over, in the morning all you got is rain

But presumably Dylan is planning a more traditional use of the formula I gotta woman in. With as a gimmick something like Jimmy Martin’s “Freeborn Man”: exotic women all over the world versus the girl next door, here in Illinois. At least, that is what the first choice “Morocco” suggests. A geographical indication that seems to have an exotic sound for Americans more than for Europeans. Morocco is very close to Europe, but choosing Morocco as location in a film like Casablanca, in songs like the first song Graham Nash offers to Crosby and Stills in America (“Marrakesh Express”, 1969), as a retreat for poets like Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac, and by Dylan himself in “If You See Her, Say Hello” (she might be in Tangier), to name but a few examples, illustrates that “Morocco” is associated by American artists with the excitement of faraway, strange and exotic. Especially unfortunate then is the following I got a woman in Spain; Spain is only forty kilometres from Morocco, which somewhat dilutes the idea of “I got women all over the world”. Plus: unintended of course, but many Europeans will think of the Spanish enclaves in Morocco (Ceuta and Melilla) – with just a little ill will, one might even see these two women as one and the same woman – I got a woman in Spain, Morocco.

Not what the poet means, obviously. Though perhaps he did notice the unintentional digression. Anyway, he gets stuck, still manages to squeeze out a weak filler (But the girl I love that stole my heart), and finishes it off with the catalyst, with She lives up in Champaign. Is that all there is? Yes, Peggy, that’s all there is.

Ah, there’s Carl Perkins. “Your song,” Dylan says. “Take it. Finish it.”

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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6 Responses to Champaign, Illinois (1969) part 3 (final): So that’s where the song is going

  1. Larry Fyffe says:

    And Laurel’s playing for money
    On your ribbon wide
    She’s on his side
    It’s a doorway
    The door is locked
    But the key’s inside
    (Bob Dylan: Patty’s Gone To Loredo)

  2. Larry Fyffe says:

    Coincidence? ….Ritter certainly shows the influence of Dylan’s writing style

  3. Larry Fyffe says:

    *Patty Gone To Laredo

  4. Larry Fyffe says:

    There’s a woman on my lap, and she’s drinking champagne
    I’m well dressed, waiting on the last train

  5. Larry Fyffe says:

    Any minute now I’m expecting all Hell to break loose
    (Bob Dylan: Things Have Changed)

  6. Larry Fyffe says:

    Who would not, finding way, break loose from Hell?
    (John Milton: Paradise Lost, book iv)

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