Bob Dylan’s “Highlands”; its origins in Burns poetry, and a beautiful rare reworking in concert

By Tony Attwood

This review updated 26 June 2018, with addition of this live version – I really would recommend a listen to these, particularly this one below

Also now included are references back to the origins of the song in Scottish poetry and folk music with a link to a version of the original “My Hearts in the Highlands”

Dylan only played the song nine times in concert in all, so these recordings are to be cherished.  The version remained pretty much unchanged through these nine performances – this one has the best quality in my view…

For me, to understand of Highlands, there needs to be a view of “Time out of mind”.  While many Dylan songs can stand apart from the albums on which they make the first appearance, most of Time out of Mind is fixed within the original album.

And indeed not just fixed within the album – but within a position within the album.   “Love Sick”, the opening track, sounds as if it is the end of everything – as if the singer can go no lower than where he is now.  And yet Dylan takes us down and down until the ultimate depths of “Not Dark Yet” – the song about dying.

After which there is no way but on and on, until we enter a misty no-mans-land, a vision of what is after death.  This is not heaven or hell, nor the currently popular vision of all-encompassing darkness out of which comes something appallingly awful.  This is white mist, memories, flashbacks, strange characters, and confusion of what actually happened in the past, and what you might think happened, but which might well simply be an invention.

The title comes from a Burns poem, “My Heart’s in the Highlands” which in turn comes from an earlier piece known as “Bonny Portmore” sometimes called “The Strong Walls of Derry”.  It’s a 12 bar blues – much extended but still a 12 bar blues with meandering guitars which help us meander to the various places.  And as Bob said in an interview with Rolling Stone, he had been writing down couplets and verses and keeping them for when he needed them in a song – which he did here.

Here is Burns song.

And here are the lyrics….

Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North,
The birth-place of Valour, the country of Worth;
Wherever I wander, wherever I rove,
The hills of the Highlands for ever I love.

Chorus.-My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart’s in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;
Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go.

Farewell to the mountains, high-cover’d with snow,
Farewell to the straths and green vallies below;
Farewell to the forests and wild-hanging woods,
Farewell to the torrents and loud-pouring floods.
My heart’s in the Highlands…

With Dylan, from the very start we are transported from place to place, verse by verse.  The opening verse is not one of those classics that begins “I dreamed that…” and carries on with dreaming I was back in the good times, that you were still alive, or whatever.

In the first verse the emotions of the singer are in the beautiful land and in the second he’s back in the daily grind.  So which one is true – as the third verse shows, he has no idea, and he’s really not trying to sort it out.

Verse four is back to the vision, the emotional home, and the singer knows he can make it there, but only slowly, gradually, and the methodology of transport is not yet clear.  What a transformation this is from track seven on the album where the only way forward is to enter the darkness.   He has moved on, to a world that is beyond the death of Not Dark Yet.

Verse five, and he uses the methodology that everyone who is seriously into music will use – music as a method of transportation to another world.  In this case he tries Neil Young – it doesn’t take him to the Highlands but it takes him a little along the road – although not to anywhere he recognises.

By verse six it is all getting too much, everything is breaking up, nothing is connecting, nothing is wanted, no possessions, just a search for a mental liberty, until in verse seven there is that flash of revelation just at the moment of waking – that moment where there is a beautiful insight, but as consciousness comes pouring in, it is lost, and in verse eight he’s moved on again, this time to Boston – just another image, another past moment – real or imagined.

By now the images are becoming almost dream-like – as in those dreams where nothing is quite as it should be, and you have know it is a dream, but you don’t know it enough to get out.   The conversation in the restaurant becomes surreal, all touch is being lost with the Highlands, we are getting bogged down in dream-like detail.

The next transformation back is a sudden jump – one second in the street, next back in the Highlands, but with each of these jumps there is a further disconnection from the current world and an ever stronger link with the new imagined Highland world – and he is lost.  He can’t join in the fun and games of those around him any more, because there have been too many jumps.

He recognizes the problem in the penultimate verse:

“I got new eyes, Everything looks far away”

While the end gives us the solution

There’s a way to get there, and I’ll figure it out somehow
But I’m already there in my mind, And that’s good enough for now

 

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5 Responses to Bob Dylan’s “Highlands”; its origins in Burns poetry, and a beautiful rare reworking in concert

  1. Hello there Tony, Thank you for posting this analysis of a song from Bob Dylan’s Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/250/Highlands Come and join us inside and listen to every song composed, recorded or performed by Bob Dylan, plus all the great covers streaming on YouTube, Spotify, Deezer and SoundCloud.

  2. Larry Fyffe says:

    The movie about poet Francois Villon (see:Villon On Dylan) – -‘ If I Were A King’ — is the source for the humourous egg scene at the end of ‘Highlands.’

  3. Skelters says:

    In Aberdeen 16th September 2000 he did have a slight link to another well known Scottish song Donald Where’s yer Troosers by Andy Stewart who played the scotsman of a Scotsman.

    Under the Red Sky was played.
    Let the wind blow low, let the wind blow high.; One day the little boy and the little girl were both baked in a pie.

    After not playing it the night before in Aberdeen he did play Highlands at Glasgow 17th September 2000. Changing the line in Highlands from Neil Young to Annie Lennox. Annie Lennox being one half of the 80’s synth pop duo Eurythmics who was born in Aberdeen, Scotland.

  4. Larry fyffe says:

    More likely the egg scene is inspired by the Marx Brothers’ film ‘A Night At The Opera’:

    ‘And two fried eggs, two poached eggs, two scrambled eggs, and two medium-boiled eggs’

    ‘And two hard-boiled eggs”

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