Never Ending Tour: the absolute highlights 8: Girl from the North Country

By Tony Attwood

Dylan’s performances, like his songs, move from the fast, loud and aggressive down to the delicate, fragile and soft.

But this perfectly reasonable variation brings with it a problem, because some members of the audience can find it hard (at least on the occasion of the concert) to accommodate the changes during the gig, and insist on adding their own accompaniment.   (Indeed the lack of this audience accompaniment when I saw Bob perform in Nottingham, England, just recently, added enormously to my enjoyment of the event.  A more civilised restrained bunch of people, who knew that Bob was the performer, not them, one could not hope to meet).

So the recording I’ve selected as the next item in the “Absolute highlights” series reflects Bob’s performance, but not the overall quality of what you will hear.  Not because the recordist got something wrong, but because some of the audience were unable to shut up.  Yet Bob’s performance is so good, it is worth hearing again, and again, and not just to hear him singing, but to appreciate the work of those playing with him.

Of course, in many ways the song is hard to appreciate today (as is the case with so many others) because we know the lyrics so well.  But just focus, if you can, not only on Bob’s voice but also on the melody – it is subtly different from the album.

Well, if you go when the snowflakes storm
When the rivers freeze and summer ends
Please see if she’s wearing a coat so warm
To keep her from the howlin’ winds

The key point of course is that is Bob just wants to know how she his – he is saying   It means “be my eyes”, not “change her”.

The instrumental breaks (ignore the idiots screaming) are delicate and fine, exactly as is the memory that the singer possesses and which he seeks to have refreshed.  Thus the guitars entwine with each other to express the delicacy of all that she is.

He is tormented by the memory of her, and that comes over so beautifully in this rendition – aided very much by the instrumental breaks.  Just listen to the pedal steel guitar (I imagine this is Bucky Baxter) which is so utterly beautifully delicate and perfectly entwined with rest of the band.  Of course I know we would expect nothing else, but it is still such a pleasure to hear it and remember such a brilliant musician.

And when the opening verse returns, one is left wondering, why is it so hard to go back?

So if you’re travelin’ in the north country fair
Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was a true love of mine

Of course we know, and those contradictory thoughts are expressed perfectly in the final instrumental verse – indeed that is why the instrumental verses are there, for in this version the engaging instruments constantly weave a connection with each other that ends up expressing in its own way as much as the lyrics can express.

This is, in short, a perfect example of music and lyrics working in total harmony expressing the feeling of loss, with the knowledge that no matter what, there is no going back.  The singer is trapped in his present, she is free and easy in her present.  Oh how he misses her.  Oh how he envies her.  But does he want to change anything?  Seemingly no.

Thus for me,  the music perfectly represents this entwining of emotions to an even greater depth than the gorgeous lyrics are able to do on their own.  And so this version of the song gives us more than the original, for now the music provides not just an accompaniment but also an additional strand which the lyrics cannot offer.

It is so beautiful it still makes me cry.


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