Heartland: the meaning and the music of the Bob Dylan / Willie Nelson song

By Tony Attwood

Bob co-wrote “Heartland” starting with the melody and maybe the first line (see below) in 1990, and recorded it with Willie Nelson in 1993, but didn’t use it in concerts until 2004 when it played it seven times, before finally putting it away.

The original (very incomplete) version was recorded the same day as “Under the Red Sky”, but without any (or any save the first line) the lyrics – the rest of the guys came in and played the piece with the tape running, and eventually it went to Willie Nelson.

There is an obvious link here since it is often said that Dylan inspired Willie Nelson’s annual Farm Aid benefit concerts with an off-the-cuff comment at Live Aid in 1985 that maybe some of the money raised at Live Aid should be given to help the impoverished farmers in the United States.

But despite two independent sources giving the story that Dylan simply had the melody and accompaniment Heylin objects to this on three grounds.  First is the notion that rhyme scheme is very un-Nelson.  Second there is the thought that a number of other Dylan songs of the era that reflected his concern for rural communities and for ecology.  And the third is the fact that booklet that accompanies the “Across the Borderline” album specifies for this song “Music & Lyrics by Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson”.

So maybe Dylan was singing the first line rather than just humming it, when it was recorded, or maybe Dylan even added some more.  Certainly this sort of commentary about the rural poor was there in all those blues songs he knew in the 1960s, and it was equally certainly there in Hollis Brown – and how!

Heylin might well be right, but not for the first time, I think Heylin’s desire to track where every paper clip fell on the floor during a night in the studio (as it were), is his worst enemy, because in spite or, or maybe due to, all this extraordinary detail he fails to listen to the music.

This is a remarkably simple but very effective, plaintive country melody in the first verse, and for me it is a total shame when the accompaniment comes in because at that point the message is (for me) lost.  Worse the instrumental verse just does it no favours most particularly with its unexpected modulation.  What was a powerful message thus becomes somewhat lost; but that is probably just because I don’t listen to much country music.

And its a shame because the first verse really does hit home…

There’s a home place under fire tonight in the heartland
And the bankers are taking my home and my land from me
There’s a big achin’ hole in my chest now where my heart was
And a hole in the sky where God used to be

That may not read as great poetry, and you might find it rather sickly, but do listen to it (on the Across the Borderline album).   Indeed when listening do also take in track 10: “What was it you wanted?” the only other Dylan song on the album.

Back with “Heartland” the lyrics continue throughout the song in the same manner, but with the band playing, and so for me the rest of the piece doesn’t work.  But I am certainly not an aficionado of country and western, so really I am not the right person to comment.

Here’s the second verse

There’s a home place under fire tonight in the heartland
There’s a well where the water’s so bitter nobody can drink
Ain’t no way to get high and my mouth is so dry that I can’t speak
Don’t they know that I’m dyin’ why’s nobody cryin’ for me

The final verse continues in the same manner

There’s a home place under fire tonight in a heartland
And bankers are taking the homes and the land away
There’s a young boy closin’ his eyes tonight in a heartland
Who will wake up a man with some land and a loan he can’t pay.

Very true Bob; very worth saying.  But then, that’s capitalism for you.

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  1. I remember when Across The Borderline came out some of the press mentioned Dylan and Nelson co-wrote “Heartland” via fax. Nelson may have even said it in an interview.

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