“I was young when I left home” Bob Dylan lets the images supplant the story.

By Tony Attwood

A song that I have missed while working through all the Dylan tracks, and (wrongly as it turns out) claiming that we have reviewed them all.  Apologies, this one should have been included long ago  It turns up on the No Direction Home soundtrack, and on a limited edition version of Love and Theft.

As many others have pointed out, the theme of the lyrics is the classic Ramblin Jack Elliott song “900 miles” – if you don’t know the piece the opening lines tell you everything you need to get the feeling…

I’m walking down this track,
I’ve got tears in my eyes,
Trying to read a letter from my home.
If this train runs me right
I’ll be home tomorrow night.
I’m nine hundred miles from my home.
And I hate to hear that lonesome whistle blow.

Dylan takes the same story but gets directly to the central theme…

I was young when I left home
 But I been out a-ramblin’ ‘round
 And I never wrote a letter to my home
 To my home, Lord, to my home
 And I never wrote a letter to my home
 
 It was just the other day
 I was bringing home my pay
 When I met an old friend I used to know
 
 Said your mother’s dead and gone
 Baby sister’s all gone wrong
 And your daddy needs you home right away

Then looking forward, although the theme is different the feel is the same as the absolutely magical Ballad for a Friend.  From the data available it looks like “I was young when I left home” was written in December 1961 and Ballad for a Friend in January 1962 – or at least those are the dates of the recordings – and I suspect Dylan was recording all the new material as it was written, not storing it up for later.

There is a very interesting and enjoyable version by Marcus Mumford available

I would not try and argue that this song can be considered to be at the same transformative level as Ballad for a Friend, but it gives us a sense of where that soon to be composed masterpiece came from.

This is then, for me, very much a scene setting song, a song that prepares the ground for what was to come next month.

But it is also interesting to consider just what Dylan was writing around this time.  Here is the list through 1961 and the early part of 1962

although not original music is a profound way to start your career as a lyricist.

In many ways Dylan was at this time, preparing his own image, re-writing his past to fit in with the histories of his heroes, saying “these tragedies have happened to me too, I am part of the blues”, and certainly it worked for the young composer.

Although the songs around this time do often contain some sort of storyline, it is not the storyline that is the key part of the song.  It is the focus on the images around the story.  Thus it is the images that are the key, and the storyline is the background, and I think that notion remained central to much of Dylan’s work for decades to come.

Indeed if we zoom forward to Lily Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, we have this taken to its highest level – all we have is the images, the story doesn’t really fit together at all.

So, a fundamental part of Dylan’s preparation, and really worth a listen as well.

What else is here?

An index to our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

There is an alphabetic index to the 550+ Dylan compositions reviewed on the site which you will find it here.  There are also 500+ other articles on different issues relating to Dylan.  The other subject areas are also shown at the top under the picture.

We also have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook which mostly relates to Bob Dylan today.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to “I was young when I left home” Bob Dylan lets the images supplant the story.

  1. Aaron G says:

    I love this song, I remember hearing it for the first time on the Love & Theft bonus disc and just being stunned by it.

    I wasn’t aware of the Mumford version so thanks for that!

    Here is an amazing version by Anthony (from Anthony & The Johnsons)

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=__1DMJfS7Hc

  2. Jochen Markhorst says:

    Beautiful song. But Dylan almost completely copies / reproduces two couplets of “500 Miles” from folk singer Hedy West (the Not a shirt on my back and If you miss the train I’m on couplets), an early adaptation of “900 Miles”.

    Hedy West spares enough from “900 Miles” that eventually dribbles into Dylan’s arrangement. A line like You will hear that whistle blow a hundred miles, for example, is already in that original version. A mutilated version of that original song, to complete the circle, Dylan plays in 1967 in the Basement Tapes. In it only the line ‘Cause I’m 900 miles from home and the melody (more or less) are still standing. A playful Dylan also fiddles with the old negro spiritual “Mary Don’t You Weep” and a lot of fresh lines are made up on the spot.

    Regardless. It is a beautiful songs, and there are many beautiful covers. Aaron is right; Anthony’s version is breathtaking. My favourite is from Freshlygroud, but I can’t seem to find that one on YouTube.
    Equally captivating, I think, are Jenny Scheinmann (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C8EQ44J_HHQ) and Big Thief (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_fOoLVWk4Zg)

    Groeten uit Utrecht,
    Jochen

  3. Morten Jonsson says:

    But you have done this song. Sort of. It’s the young Dylan’s free adaptation of “900 Miles,” which is on the Basement Tapes compilation–twice (on disk 5 and, as a hidden track, on disk 6). It doesn’t just take the theme of “900 Miles”; it takes the tune and adapts the lyrics. And “900 Miles” isn’t Jack Elliott’s song; it’s everyone’s song, with variants and adaptions by singers from Dock Boggs to Hedy West to Bobby Bare. Dylan also used a version of the tune for “John Brown.”

  4. Morten Jonsson says:

    But you have done this song. Sort of. It’s the young Dylan’s free adaptation of “900 Miles,” which is on the Basement Tapes compilation–twice (on disk 5 and, as a hidden track, on disk 6). It doesn’t just take the theme of “900 Miles”; it takes the tune and adapts the lyrics. And “900 Miles” isn’t Jack Elliott’s song; it’s everyone’s song, with variants and adaptions by singers from Dock Boggs to Hedy West to Bobby Bare. Dylan also used a version of the tune for “John Brown.”

  5. rw says:

    Lilly Rosemary and the jack of hearts story doesn’t hold together? If it does anything it holds together. The narrative is brilliantly woven throughout the song.

    Oh and I like this one (young when I left home) too.

  6. Robert Ford says:

    Yes, Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts is such a wonderful masterpiece because the story does hold together and the psychology is also so devastatingly good.
    Tony, thinking of omitted songs, you appear to have overlooked ‘Enough is Enough’ which unlike ‘Dirty Lies’ and ‘Angel of Rain’ he did perform in 1984 including at the marvellous Wembley concert ( I notice you have also made a start on the ‘ After the Empire’ bootleg songs ).

  7. Descarga De says:

    I love this song, I remember hearing it for the first time on the Love & Theft bonus disc and just being stunned by it.
    I wasn’t aware of the Mumford version so thanks for that!
    Here is an amazing version by Anthony (from Anthony & The Johnsons)
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=__1DMJfS7Hc

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *