By Tony Attwood
I’ve commented in the review of Drifting too far from shore that in 1984 Bob Dylan was by his own admission struggling for inspiration, and so was turning to lines from films and song titles already used by others – not always with success.
Indeed this seems to have been an issue through the year – and may well be the origins of the wonderful I once knew a man – no one can work that one out and Dylan isn’t saying. But if Dylan felt a) it was a great song (as I do) and b) he didn’t write it (although no one can agree exactly who did) then that would explain why he spent the rest of the year searching for his muse.
So in such circumstances we shouldn’t be surprised that this song has a title from Woodie Gutherie, and has Dylan reminiscing about the movies. Also, Dylan here moves half way between declamation and singing a melody. He does keep some melodic verses for us, but was clearly exploring the road way which led to the much less satisfying “Drifting”.
So let’s start with the song title and Woodie Gutherie – I’ve included a link to the song below in case you are interested.
The original start in familiar territory
I went down to the railroad yard, Watch the train come by
Knew that train would roll that day but I did not know what time.
The singer just needs to travel, but has no plans – he’s not the sort of guy who keeps a railway timetable in his pocket.
Eventually he finds the train and rides the “old freight train that carries an empty car” to Danville town where he gets “stuck on a Danville girl, Bet your life she was a pearl, she wore that Danville curl.”
But of course this is the world of always getting up and moving on – the world that Dylan has sung about since Restless Farewell (and there is also a link to the earlier songs like Ballad for a friend – the earliest song of Dylan’s reviewed on this site, and an absolute masterpiece – do listen to it if you have missed out on this treasure. Dylan starts that by sitting at the railroad track).
So Woodie Gutherie moves on
She wore her hat on the back of her head like high tone people all do,
Very next train come down that track, I bid that gal adieu.
I bid that gal adieu, poor boys, I bid that gal adieu,
The very next train come down that track, I bid that gal adieu.
And that’s that.
So there’s the title that Dylan started with. He wrote the full Dansville song and then re-wrote it as Brownsville Girl.
As Robert Christgau said in an oft quoted comment, the final version as released on the LP was “one of the greatest and most ridiculous of Dylan’s great ridiculous epics. Doesn’t matter who came up with such lines as ‘She said even the swap meets around here are getting pretty corrupt’ and ‘I didn’t know whether to duck or to run, so I ran’ — they’re classic Dylan.”
The first version “New Danville Girl”, was recorded for Empire Burlesque but dropped – perhaps because there just wasn’t room, perhaps because Dylan just wasn’t sure about it.
It was co-written with the highly regarded American playwright Sam Shepard who among other things gained the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1979 for his play Buried Child and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in The Right Stuff. New York described him as “the greatest American playwright of his generation.” I’m no expert, but perhaps that was going a little far, but the guy was certainly innovative and important in the history of American theatre.
So what did Shepard bring to this venture? His plays are bleak, surreal, dark, with meandering characters on the edge of society. Immediately I think it is possible to see a connection with the vagueness expressed via the half remembered film. Shepard’s work is also experimental, and certainly this song is nothing if not experimental.
Shepherd started working with Dylan on the 1975 Rolling Thunder review and was screenwriter for Renaldo and Clara. His diary of the tour (Rolling Thunder Logbook) was published ten years before the two got back together for this song.
This is how he describes Dylan in the diary…
“One thing that gets me about Dylan’s songs is how they conjure up images, whole scenes that are being played out in full colour as you listen. He’s an instant film maker. Probably not the same scenes occur in the same way to everyone listening to the same song, but I’d like to know if anyone sees the same small, rainy, green park and the same bench and the same yellow light and the same pair of people as I do all coming from “A Simple Twist of Fate”. Or the same beach in “Sara” or the same bar in “Hurricane” or the same cabin in “Hollis Brown” or same window in “It Ain’t Me” or the same table and the same ashtray in “Hattie Carroll” or same valley in “One More Cup of Coffee”. How do pictures become words? Or how do words become pictures? And how do they cause you to feel something? That’s a miracle.”
So we get to New Danville Girl
There is a disconnect between the singer and his lover from the past, just as there is with the movie which he watched twice.
The movie itself has been identified as The Gunfighter although the confusion is constant as Dylan says of a movie… “you know, it’s not the one that I had in mind.” Disconnection is everywhere. Dylan most certainly here is trying to find a new voice, a new format, a new approach to his music. A sense of being lost – a sense which is touched upon in the original Woody Guthrie song. And a sense of always moving that was the inspiration found in the Parting Glass and which travelled through “One too many mornings” and all the other songs of restlessly searching for things that are not there via images that shift and dance away before we can get hold of them.
The ultimate expression of what is going on comes in the original version with
I’ve always been an emotional person but this time it was asking too much.
If there’s an original thought out there, Oh, I could use it right now!
Yeah, I feel pretty good, but you know I could feel a whole lot better, oh yes I could,
If you were just here by my side to show me how.
and in the final version with
Now I’ve always been the kind of person that doesn’t like to trespass but sometimes you just find yourself over the line.
Oh if there’s an original thought out there, I could use it right now.
You know, I feel pretty good, but that ain’t sayin’ much. I could feel a whole lot better,
If you were just here by my side to show me how.
This is Dylan reflecting on the hardest thing for a creative artist to reflect upon – the loss of ideas. And this gives us the insight, I believe, into the whole essence of the song.
Thousands of images and ideas spin round in his head. The old movie, the old song, everything he himself has done before. But new coherent inspiration can’t break through. He has become a character in his co-writers plays. What does he do now?
And the answer is that at this moment he invents a new type of song – a song that expresses that vision of the creative block. So definitively all the writing about the certainty of the Second Coming has gone. Now there is no certainty, and, he finds, no creativity. He is left with half remembered scenes.
It is in the expression of this idea of confusion, mystery and lost inspiration that we see the prime change, and I think the prime improvement in the lyrics between the two editions of the song. First time around we get
Oh, you got to talk to me now baby, tell me about the man that you used to love,
And tell me about your dreams, just before the time you passed out. Oh, yeah!
Tell me about the time that our engine broke down and it was the worst of times,
Tell me about all the things that I couldn’t do nothin’ about.
In the updated version it becomes
Strange how people who suffer together have stronger connections than people who are most content.
I don’t have any regrets, they can talk about me plenty when I’m gone.
You always said people don’t do what they believe in, they just do what’s most convenient, then they repent.
And I always said, “Hang on to me, baby, and let’s hope that the roof stays on”
and this gives us the key to the song. That line “Hang on to me, baby, and let’s hope that the roof stays on” which comes out of the confusion of all that has gone before, and expresses the simple “Stick with me baby stick with me anyhow, things should start to get interesting right about now” idea.
And they will, if only he can find his muse. He knows he can one day, but it’s not quite there yet and the road is very unclear.
So the disconnect, the disjointedness is always there. From the first version
We drove that car all night into San Antone
And we slept near the Alamo, fell out under the stars.
Way down in Mexico you went out to see a doctor and you never came back.
I stayed there a while, till the whole place it started feelin’ like mars.
And the second…
Well, we drove that car all night into San Anton’
And we slept near the Alamo, your skin was so tender and soft.
Way down in Mexico you went out to find a doctor and you never came back.
I would have gone on after you but I didn’t feel like letting my head get blown off.
Dylan did this mixture of events connected but disconneected perfectly in 1974 with Tangled up in Blue – even using the car motif (“drove that car as far as we could, abandoned it out west”) and I think he feels this is the sort of mishmash of time, space and events that he wants to represent again. But he has already written that masterpiece – that’s the problem.
In the song humans are stripped of their purposefulness, for no matter what we intend, “Nothing happens on purpose, it’s an accident if it happens at all.” With that simple line all of civilisation, all human progress, the whole Christian message, everything that makes us human rather than just animals, is blown away, as we are blown by the winds.
But this is not the casual use of words; the authors know exactly what they are writing about here – for they are taken back to Dylan’s favourite source (other than Guthrie), in TS Eliot’s “Waste Land”
Which now becomes “But we’re busy talking back and forth to our shadows on an old stone wall.”
Before the final version finally ends “Seems like a long time ago, long before the stars were torn down.” The handful of dust is all around us.
Disconnect with the world around us is incredibly difficult for even the most experienced writers to write about; it is so much easier for the painter whose journey into abstraction mixed with realism is so much simpler. Dylan, I believe, felt this disconnect deeply at this time, and these two versions of this song show a serious attempt to write about something that is almost impossible to write about.
Almost but not totally, for in “Tangled up” Dylan did get it right. Here the whole story is so complicated and reality dissolves so quickly, the technique, for me, doesn’t quite work. With Tangled I feel the mixtures of time and the phasing in and out of the relationship between the couple, here I end up feeling that the stars have been torn down and I too am desolate and lost.
And I can take that sometimes, but not all the time. I can always be Tangled up and feel good about it, but the journey from New Danville Girl to Brownsville Girl leaves me straining against the bonds that tangle me, and in the end I crave for the disconnect to go, and for me to be allowed to escape back to the days when the stars were still in their heavens.
- Index of over Dylan 300 songs reviewed on the site
- Dylan’s best opening lines: an index
- How Dylan writes songs, and other articles.
- Dylan’s songs in the order they were written.
- Bob Dylan wins the Nobel prize for literature
- Drifting too far from shore: a Dylan song with a rather bad press
- Solid Rock – Dylan as a full on preacher; God meets rock n roll
- “I once knew a man” complete with link to the only known performance.
- Updated and expanded the review of Blind Willie McTell and a link to the electric version added.
- Also 8 lesser known Dylan songs that are works of utter genius
- Things have changed – review revised and updated with link to a 2016 live performance.