You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go. Dylan does enamoured cheerfulness

by Jochen Markhorst

There’s a code in the lyrics,” Dylan says in 1978 about Blood On The Tracks in the interview with Jonathan Cott. The odd duck out among those encrypted, coded texts that supposedly dominate the album is “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”. Thematically (Love & Loss) the song remains in the tracks, but despite the title the song is not about loss, farewell or pain. It does express bittersweet melancholy, but an enamoured cheerfulness prevails. That focus is primarily due to the musical accompaniment, of course – especially thanks to the tempo and the harmonica Dylan elevates the song to jittery joy. And secondly to the reason: the poet is in love.

Equally different is the relative unequivocalness. Dylan usually denies the more coherent interpretations, especially the biographical ones. Therein he goes quite far.

“Sara” is not necessarily about Sara, he states with a straight face in the same interview. For this song such a denial would be at least as absurd: Ellen Bernstein, no doubt.

In 1974, the married Dylan has a rather open, short love affair with the 24-year-old Ellen Bernstein, an employee at Columbia Records. When she hears this list of place names, she is probably the first listener in the world to realize that “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” is about her. I’ll look for you in old Honolulu, San Francisco, Ashtabula … Ellen was born in Ashtabula and then lived in Honolulu and San Francisco. And she also knows where the Queen Anne’s lace reference comes from. Ellen stays with Dylan at his farm in Minnesota and during a walk through the purple clover (trifolium pratense) she reveals that all too majestic name for wild carrot (daucus carota).

Not only the name, but also the myths surrounding and etymology of Queen Anne’s Lace, probably charm the bard. The safest assumption is that the predilection for lace of the English Queen Anne (1665-1714) led to the naming; the network of the many, delicate little flowers does indeed look a bit like lace. By the way, Anne was the wife of King James I, the king to whom we owe the famous Bible translation KJV, King James Version, which is open on a stand in the middle of Dylan’s study.

More romantic is the theory that the name refers to Anne Boleyn, who was beheaded by order of King Henry VIII in 1536, wearing a lace collar. The purple-pink floral heart in the middle, surrounded by that ‘lace’, represents Boleyn’s decapitated neck, is the idea.

And the botanical works never omit the warning that we must watch out for the poisonous twin sister of this wild carrot, for conium maculatum: poison hemlock, the poison that Socrates took after he was sentenced to death for wickedness – again one of those fun facts that will appeal to an obfuscater and masquerade fan like Dylan.

Apart from the music, the pastoral landscape descriptions, the melancholy and the absence of bitter cynicism and/or dylanesque scorn ensure a sunny couleur locale. The relationship is already over, but the narrator still feels a fond afterglow. Very different, apparently, this affair. Previous love relationships were all like “Verlaine and Rimbaud”, so relationships with extreme highs and lows, with devastating love and bloody hatred – but this amourette is by no means comparable, “there’s no way I can compare all those scenes to this affair”.

That is a sweet little lie; to the moonlight and roses of those earlier loves, this summer with Bernstein is pefectly comparable. The decor for example. In Dylan’s rare (past) love lyric without viciousness, bitter words and cynicism, we are invariably in an idyllic countryside. That earlier Girl from the North Country (Bernstein is also a North Country Girl, Ashtabula is located on Lake Erie, on the opposite bank is Canada) was idealized in a radiant, crisp snowy landscape, with “Tough Mama” Dylan is tumbling in a flower meadow, the adored in “New Morning” is sung between frisking bunnies and woodchucks, babbling brooks in the summer sun. Long hair every immaculate loved one also has, and flowers usually adorn the idyll.

The same goes for Dylan’s continual preoccupation with time. It is a constant in his work anyway, and also in his love lyric the narrator always refers to the distorting effect love has on his sense of time. In “Boots Of Spanish Leather” he wants his time to be more easy passin’, Ramona captures the minutes with her magnetic movements, “time” is the ultimate sacrifice he promises his beloved in “Pledging My Time“, without her, life is a eternal winter (“If Not For You”), time passes slowly when you’re searching for love (“Time Passes Slowly”) and passes so quickly when she is with you (“New Morning”), and also here, In “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” her absence at first has a delaying effect (so slow) and later, when she is there, she makes him forget the time (never realize the time). Very similar, in short, with all those earlier love stories of the narrator.

On one level, however, it is indeed different from all those other occassions: on an orthographic level. This is the only song in which Dylan, also in the official Lyrics, spells the word combination you’re as yer. Not in the title, remarkably enough, otherwise consistent. Only in the poem Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie (1963) Dylan also writes yer, but as a spelling of your (and also inconsistently) – you’re is spelled correctly. Of course, Dylan usually sings “yer”, in order to rhyme with her (like in “I Wanna Be Your Lover”: I don’t wanna be hers, I wanna be yours) and in manuscripts and typoscripts we sometimes see “y’r” or other variants, but in the official publications, in the song collections and on the website, it is always proper and civilized you’re and your. It is a thing, for a moment, when a good-natured, ironic Lennon sings his “Yer Blues” on White Album (1968), with that famous Dylan reference (I feel so suicidal, just like Dylan’s Mr. Jones), but that does not move Dylan to spelling phonologically either.

This one time it is probably an insider’s wink to Miss Bernstein. After all, she also is from that corner of the United States and yer is typical of the dialect over there. Just like furget it, furever, git and gitting (from “to get”) and hunnert (“hundred”).

Alright then, in this one single sub-area, on an orthographic level, this affair is unique, incomparable with all those earlier Verlaine-and-Rimbaud-like relations.

The version recorded in New York in September ’74 belongs to the five songs that have endured the critical ears of Dylan himself and his brother David, so it does not have to be re-recorded in Minneapolis, in December. Maybe that’s a pity. Presumably, a re-recording would have been more melancholy, slower and frugal. That alternative is to be found in many covers. “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome” is picked up by a lot of colleagues and roughly we see a dichotomy: one half follows the music and delivers a danceable up-tempo country version, the other half is guided by the lyrics and produces a slightly sad pop ballade.

The country faction includes a surprising Miley Cyrus, who in 2012, shortly before her downfall, radiates on Amnesty’s Chimes Of Freedom. That version inspires half a generation of female country artists (Danielle Lowe, Emily Morgan), who no longer surprise. However, they are all indebted to the superior Shawn Colvin (1994, Cover Girl).

Hints of such a fictional, missed Minneapolis recording can be found with a touching Mary Lou Lord (2000)

And there are the devout Dylan tributers Andy Hill & Renee Safier (on It Takes A Lot To Laugh, 2001), but the most beautiful tear jerker is from the incidental duo Tom Corwin & Tim Hockenberry (on Mostly Dylan, 2005), including a guitar that gently weeps.

A fascinating hybrid of these two varieties comes from Romania. Translated, unfortunately (“Ma Lasi Prea Singur Daca Vei Pleca”, 1999), Alexandru Andries beautifully blends an upbeat country-like shuffle with Slavic melancholy.

Hors concours, finally, the enchanting Madeleine Peyroux, jazzy, cool and sexy, shines on Careless Love, 2004. There is no way to compare all those covers to this affair.

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  1. Thanks Jochem for this illuminating essay, and your research. You’ve really caught the rueful tone of this song. And thanks for the covers.

    I have always loved the line ‘when something’s not right it’s wrong’ which shows Dylan at his epigrammatic best. In love affairs, human and divine, there just ain’t no neutral ground. Sometimes we know something is not right but haven’t acknowledged that it’s wrong.

    Notice the way this same sentiment is picked up many years later in Floater: ‘thing’s come alive or else they fall flat.’

    Kia Ora

  2. Mihi koe, Kiwipoet.

    I did write an essay on “Floater” some time ago, but I must admit I completely disregarded this brooding line. Instead, I focussed on You can smell the pinewood burnin’ and I thought I noticed that the protagonist of this mini-novella, like the narrator in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdue, triggered by a smell, makes a trip down Memory Lane.

    But you put me on a track. Yin yang. The line from “Precious Angel” to which you refer, Ya either got faith or ya got unbelief and there is not no neutral ground, I actually labelled a rather ugly, intolerant, fundamentalist slip of our hero, but now seems to fit in a long line.
    I will dive into it!

    Thanks and groeten uit Utrecht,

  3. Tony … when are you going to give us a view on the Bob Dylan rewrites published in the Halcyn Gallery book …Tangled Up in Blue, Simple Twist of Fate and If You See Here Say Hello … powerful rewrites with scribbles, too, so his mind was changing even as I wrote down the words. Couldn’t find an email address for you to send this note….cheers John.

  4. Maybe somebody already mentioned this, but the photo you used at the top is a photo of Ellen Willis, legendary rock critic (not a record exec). Thanks!

  5. Thanks KM,
    no that wasn’t mentioned before, so we’re grateful for your correction. Apparently, we’re not the first (and probably not the last) to be fooled. I found a four-years-old thread on Reddit, in which eventually even Miss Bernstein herself comments:
    I am the Ellen BERNSTEIN you are referring to. This is not a picture of me. I have no idea who it is but it is NOT me.
    A bit embarrassing, all in all, so your correction is a good thing.

  6. “Bernstein is also a North Country Girl, Ashtabula is located on Lake Erie, on the opposite bank is Canada”

    Er — Northern Ohio is the “North Country?” Yuh-well if you like, but not really.

  7. I am still the Ellen Bernstein who is memorialized in the song and thank you all for agreeing that the photo is not me. It’s not. Also I never lived in Honolulu but I had planned a trip there. San Francisco and Ashtabula are correct! It’s fun to see that people are still interested in all this almost 50 years later. Bob was amazing and I was so fortunate to have such an incredible experience in my 20s!

  8. Thank you, Mrs. Ziffren, for your kind and elegant comment on a somewhat embarrassing mistake on my part. In addition, it gives us a chance to thank you for the inspiration that led to one of Dylan’s Very Big Songs. Merci beaucoup!
    I hope you are well,
    Kind regards from Utrecht,

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