by Jochen Markhorst
II La Gazza Ladra
Ornithomancy it is called, divination based on bird behaviour. The ancient Romans, for example, released pigeons and the augurs would then interpret messages from the gods from their flight patterns. But all cultures have variations of it. The English owe the old nursery rhyme “One For Sorrow” to it, the counting rhyme that attributes predictive value to the number of magpies you see flying;
One for sorrow, Two for mirth Three for a funeral, Four for birth Five for heaven Six for hell Seven for the devil, his own self
… of which, of course, there are again dozens of variants. Illustrating the many superstitious myths surrounding the magpie. In Western culture, he usually does not come off well. The magpie is considered cunning and thieving, bad luck, associated with witchcraft and said to predict death. And, to add injury to the insult: “A single magpie in spring, foul weather will bring”.
The myth that the magpie steals shiny things is actually quite new. Rossini wrote one of his most beloved operas, La Gazza Ladra (“The Thieving Magpie”, 1817, the opera with Rossini’s perhaps most brilliant overture) in 1817, in which a magpie steals a silver spoon. An innocent maid is falsely accused of the theft and sentenced to death. The popularity of opera also popularises this plot, which is then further milked in stories (Lilian Gask’s A Basket Of Flowers, 1910), in children’s books, cartoons and in comics. Culminating in Hergé’s graphically stunning, atypical, suspensefully uninspired but humorously irresistible Tintin and The Castafiore Emerald (1963) – all comedy-of-errors-like stories that build on the misunderstandings that arise when a magpie steals something of value.
It’s not true, by the way. Magpies are exceptionally intelligent birds (the only birds to pass the mirror test, for example), and are mostly curious. They have no particular inclination to steal shiny things. But the myth is persistent, and so we all understand what Martin Carthy means when he characterises Dylan with the words “He was a real magpie”.
To the indefatigable, enthusiastic German folklorist Jürgen Kloss and the brilliant work of love on his website Just Another Tune, we owe academic confirmation of Carthy’s apt observation. Kloss writes the fascinating article “…She Once Was A True Love Of Mine” and in it takes us along on a treasure hunt for the sources for “Girl From The North Country”, a scavenger hunt for the origins of all the shiny thingies found by the magpie Dylan.
Kloss acknowledges – of course – and discusses at length the influence of Carthy and “Scarborough Fair”, but also analyses that Dylan’s song is at best a vague copy of it, or less so, actually: “In fact the differences are so great that it can easily be called an original melody.” He then searches and finds a host of sources for the shiny things the magpie gathers. The motif anyway, of the messenger to remind the girl of her former lover, which Dylan already knows from songs like Johnny Cash’s “Give My Love To Rose”, and the Everly Brothers’ hit “Take A Message To Mary”. More notable still is Betty Carter’s “Tell Him I Said Hello”, from which theme and word choice descend both in “Girl From The North Country” and later in “If You See Her, Say Hello”;
When you see him Tell him things are slow There's a reason and he's sure to know But on second thought, forget it Just tell him I said hello If he asks you when I come and go Say I stay home 'cause I miss him so But on second thought, forget it Just tell him I said hello
Equally widespread is the use of “North Country” as an idealised place of carefree idyll, which Kloss finds in abundance in traditional folk songs, and Dylan’s recurring use of it in “North Country Blues”, “Ballad For A Friend” and in this song. Or the tender sigh Please see if she’s wearing a coat so warm, which the German scholar traces to yet other songs in Dylan’s baggage, songs like “Baby It’s Cold Outside” and Irving Berlin’s “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm”.
Just a few examples of the multitude of shiny things Dylan collects here and there for his song. And just as many arguments to classify the song as an exceptionally successful work in a long, long tradition – rather than as an individual expression of a personal, fundamental formative experience.
Indeed, Kloss also has a commendable aversion to the many biographical interpretations you inevitably come across, to the stubborn, childish attempts of exegetes who try to stick a name from Dylan’s environment on the Girl from the North Country.
One consensus among all those code-crackers is: Echo Hellstrom, a childhood friend of Dylan’s who has the misfortune of being blonde, leading to her having to walk around with the “Muse of Dylan” stamp for the rest of her life. Longer even; the mere fact that so many fans and Dylanologists want to understand the song as biographical historiography, and that the northern girl then “therefore” is Echo, gives her death news value. Hundreds of newspapers reported on 23 January 2018 that Echo Star Casey, nee Helstrom, “the woman rumoured to be the subject of Bob Dylan’s song Girl from the North Country” had died. The song has quite literally become the story of her life; her Wikipedia page describes her life in 761 words, and 697 of them are about Dylan and his song.
It might be a bit sad, such fame by association, and all the more so if that association seems to be fictitious and mainly due to sensationalist wishful thinking, but it is what it is. And in the end, for what it’s worth, Echo is for millions of people indeed a “shard of glass, an agate bead, a monocle”, well alright, maybe even “the emerald”, but in any case: at the very least one of the many shiny things with which the magpie Dylan embellishes one of his all-time greatest songs. No small feat, however you look at it.
To be continued. Next up Girl From The North Country part 3: Whatever “country” is
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:
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Masterpiece in Blue
- Blonde On Blonde: Bob Dylan’s mercurial masterpiece
- Where Are You Tonight? Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic from 1978
- Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965
- Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan’s Summer of 1967
- Mississippi: Bob Dylan’s midlife masterpiece
- Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits
- John Wesley Harding: Bob Dylan meets Kafka in Nashville
- Tombstone Blues b/w Jet Pilot: Dylan’s lookin’ for the fuse
- Street-Legal: Bob Dylan’s unpolished gem from 1978
- Bringing It All Back Home: Bob Dylan’s 2nd Big Bang
- Time Out Of Mind: The Rising of an Old Master
- Crossing The Rubicon: Dylan’s latter-day classic