Boots of Spanish Leather. The meaning of the music and the lyrics.

By Tony Attwood

I think I must have been about 15 when I first heard the “Times” album.  The next day I went out and bought my first guitar (cost £10.00 I think – maybe $13.00), plus a copy of Bert Weedon’s “Play in a Day” and I started to learn.

This wasn’t quite as big a shot in the dark as it might sound.  My grandfather was a piano maker in one of the many tiny piano making companies that existed through the big cities of the UK before the second world war, while my father was both a classical pianist and a saxophonist in a touring dance band.  I was being touted as a potential professional musician at the time, but ultimately my sight reading let me down.

So going out and buying a guitar in the belief I could teach myself to play was not quite as odd as it might seem, and by the time I was 16 I was making my first tentative steps into the folk local clubs playing, among many other things, “Spanish Leather”

Even at that tender age the combination of power and simplicity in the message and the music struck me.  Of course I had no idea about love and the devastation of lost love, but this song gave me insights.

Thus the plaintiveness of the lyrics combined with the simple chord sequence, poignantly plucked guitar and the searching voice was not only where I sought to take my music, but also a learning curve in terms of possible human emotions.  Suddenly I could understand that eternal sadness of the one left behind and the excitement of the person leaving.   Which is what I felt when my girlfriend, a year above me at school, left for university while I was still wearing the uniform and writing essays on the French Revolution and TS Eliot, while attempting to master Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.

But such worthy matters meant little to me compared with Spanish Leather.  I only heard the beautiful understated guitar playing.  I was there, in the Spanish mountains (which by purest chance I had visited with my parents the previous year).

Strangely it was around this time that I first heard Robert Johnson – another life transforming moment, and from the “King of the Delta Blues” album learned about the crossroads.   Which is what Spanish Leather is about – the crossroads: do the lovers stay together or take separate turns?   There is a moment of choice – there are moments of choice throughout our lives, and here Dylan taps into one such poignant moment.

I was really, really full of all this in my teens, and must have been an impossible teenager trying to make sense of it on my own, for most of the kids at school thought Dylan was just weird.  (This was Dorset, I should point out).

And just as I learned about blues falling down like hail from Robert Johnson, so I learned about songs that could be dialogues between a man and a woman – and of course this being folk it is the woman who leaves the man.  I desperately wanted to feel and take on board the sadness of “I don’t know when I’ll be coming back again.”  Goodness knows why – I got enough of it in the rest of my life – why did I want to start early?

The origins of the song are clearly (in part at least) in the traditional Black Jack Davey mould, which appears on Good as I Been to You – which I’ll come back to anon.  There is also a sensational version by the White Stripes: Backjack Davey

But there is a review of Dylan’s performance of Spanish Leather which says it made the review “weak in the knees”.  It certainly did that for me.

And when I came on to the many Dylan songs in which he identifies himself as the man leaving, the man moving on, how I wished I could be that too – if only I could find the courage to get up and go, confident that I’d be able to make a new life in the next town I tipped up in.   But I had to wait some years to do that – whereupon I ended up in Algiers for year.  Oh Bob – do you have any idea what you did to the lives of impressionable kids like me?

I so wanted those stars of the darkest night, and while Dylan was able to move away from such emotions – instead developing the Songs of Disdain with 4th Street, Crawl out your Window, and of course Like a Rolling Stone – I was left there, endlessly searching for the diamonds in the deepest ocean.

Even the very opening of the song brings us the poignancy of the occasion

Oh, I’m sailin’ away my own true love
I’m sailin’ away in the morning
Is there something I can send you from across the sea
From the place that I’ll be landing?

Why must she go?  What is so important that she has to leave behind her loved one?  Why does life have to be like this?

It is strange now, as a man looking back on my life, how much power some of these lines still have for me.  They are so simple, just as the melody is simple, and the accompaniment (once you’ve learned how to pick a guitar) is easy to do and the chords are the standard folk chords. But the power never diminishes.

The same thing I want from you today
I would want again tomorrow

One could build a whole song out of those two lines, and it would be worth hearing.

And so she goes.  And forever we are left with that poignant ending

And yes, there’s something you can send back to me
Spanish boots of Spanish leather

If you want to go exploring you can do worse than try this YouTube page which goes through several songs.  And for a version that is very different there’s the Forest Rangers version.  It doesn’t work for me, but I know some people feel it adds something.   Perhaps I have heard the power of simplicity in the original too often to go for all the extras.  I am happier with Dylan himself, live at Carnegie Hall.

 Untold Dylan – all the songs reviewed thus far



  1. Hi Tony
    Your review is focusing on the romantic and painful experiences and memories this ingenious song invokes.
    But there is another side very cynical and sarcastic which is very often missed.
    The girl, intending to dump her lover from the start, insists on bringing a gift in order to compensate for her guilt.
    The deserted lover feeling something is wrong is insulted by the proposition of a gift replacing his “pure” love and bluntly refuses it.
    But, when he realizes that he is being dumped, he quickly forgets his romantic eternal love declarations, thinking- “at least I will get Spanish boots from this affair” .

  2. Thank you so much Shabtai for making that point – it’s what I always loved about the song, and thank you Tony for your insights on the song and the two lines

    The same thing I want from you today
    I would want again tomorrow

    What a great song….whether you are the dumped or the dumpee.

  3. Although the torturing instrument called Spanish boot was not made of leather, I always associated the boots from bob’s song with it.

  4. I think you guys are missing the idea of the boots. He’s not trying to get some last material wish fulfillment . . . he’s going to need those boots. He’s going to be doing a lot of walking and he will need good boots. It’s not going to be easy for him. He going to need good boots. And indeed he’s still walkin.

  5. She still has tender feelings for him but something inside her needs more.
    Initially the gift is her subconscious hope of avoiding a final and painful goodbye.
    His steadfast rejection of anything other than her safe return (to his arms) forces her to confront and reveal her deepest feelings.
    At this point the gift becomes her way of saying, “thank you for ev’rything but I have to go, please try to understand.”
    Knowing now she will never return, he wishes her well and with breaking heart (his final act of love) accepts her gift.
    The choice of gift itself is his poignant acknowlegment of the breakup.

  6. Black Jack Davey: “So she pulled off her milk-white gloves/
    All made of Spanish leather”

  7. Spanish Boots were a torture device during the Spanish Inquisition. He’s basically being tortered at this point from being repeatedly asked why material item he would like in place of his love for her, he still declines but until after accepting the fate he’ll be forever in pain, which is where the symbology of the Spanish boots come.

  8. Please excuse this lengthy response, it’s my first attempt at social media & I’m a luddite, I’m old, but this song matters to me. My stunning and magical wife and soulmate passed away this last year, we both grew up with Dylan and this song accidently became our go to favorite. I now interpret each line as an interaction across a larger lonely ocean. Our daughter wrote her Mom’s obituary beginning with;’ Teresa sailed away on March 30th…’. Last year Teresa and I were returning from a Tennessee wedding, next to her on the plane was a beautiful young lady & they eventually chatted. It turned out that this girl had the same name, Carrie, and was the same age, 28 as our daughter. Teresa and Carrie also shared the identical cancer diagnosis, a rare ocular melenoma eye disease. They of course became fast friends helping each other be bigger then their illness. Teresa & I hand built a home at 10,500 feet in the Rockies, a tough & caring child protection worker but she could not overcome this challenge. The connection with our new Carrie continued in more kind and weird connections. I wrote her that she should take a listen to Teresa’s song, ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’, Carrie responding that when she was 5 years old she had memorized the words to it & her Father took her to a Nancy Griffith concert to hear her sing it. Then returning from a horse business matter in Spain brought her boots of Spanish leather. My wife and I had a memorable trip a couple years ago walking in Spain and hanging out on the coast of Barcelona. We wanted to return to walk the Camino de Santiago, but never happened. So in her honor I just walked this pilgimage the 600 miles from France to Santiago and on to the coast at Finnesterra. I placed some of her ashes in the Compostela de Santiago Catherdral. It was also my mission to find boots of Spanish leather for our daughter as a rememberance of her extraordinary Mother. I miss her so very much. When you reach the end of the Camino at the Romans ‘end of the earth’ pilgrims arriving that day watch the sunset over the endless Atlantic. I made it , I did this thing for her. Sitting below me was a young lady, writing. trying to chill out, I was smoking and girl wandered up to me and asked she could join me, sitting close on my left side. Probably late 20’s, cute, from Berlin & we watched the sunset together. We talked about being alone, both walking the Camino on our own. She noted being always in a big city, always around people and that this walk scared and intruiged her to the point she was continuing on. I explained that I had just lost my life partner and the aloneness for me to was everpresent. This causing a continued comfort level between this nice young Berliner and I. I had brought along a large handfull of small ceramic medallions that I made with the Camino shell logo, on the back saying my name Popeye, Colorado and Camino. I gave them to folks I connected with and all appreciated them. I had one left, on my pack and was untying it to give her. I said, I want you to have this, handing to her saying ‘my name is Popeye’. She paused, looked right at me and said, in all seriousness; ‘My name is Teresa’. It hit me like a brick of course, and told her my wifes name. I showed her the Funeral Service card I carried with me and had made with a watercolor sketch I did of Teresa in Mexico, titled ‘A life well Lived’, with her photo and Nora Jones ‘Peace’ Lyrics on the back. My Berlin Teresa grasped the peculiar curious importance of the moment & we talked about that. We parted, big hug & kiss and I wish her well. Magical moment, scary too. I worked my way back, found a beautiful pair of Spanish boots for my Carrie. I gave them to her a Christmas. She loved them so much that she is afraid to wear them. The words to the song always bring us to tears. We buried Teresa’s ashes in the Forest high in the Rockies. She had suggested putting up an old iron bed as you see in the four corners area on ranches & such where the couple lies in peace together under their bed as she and I will do. I’d forsake all things for her sweet kiss, but I do have an outstanding family and Grandkids who are all better people having expereienced the love in influence of Teresa. I heartily recommend the Mandarin Orange cover, but Dylan’s will always be the best. I know she won’t be comin’ back again. I value all things authentic, Boots of Spanish leather providing a fine metaphor for bringing quality into our lives and a reminder that love existing in many ways and many flavors.

  9. Sorry but I always believed it was a song for/about Suze Rotolo who was in….Italy.
    The Spanish boots may have an allegorical meaning?

  10. His greatest love song bar none! Utterly timeless! Some cracking insights here. It strikes me the she – I also took it to be Suze and when she died I kept playing this in the car – is a female mirror image of Dylan himself, for once, telling him that it ain^t me, babe.

    Heart breaking! We^’ve all been there. How can one individual have so much talent?

  11. Popeye, thank you so much for sharing your amazing experiences. I shed a few tears!
    Life is so mysterious and wonderful if you are open to it.
    Beautiful story around a beautiful song.
    Thank you.

  12. Popeye –

    Bob’s symbolic imagery has him (and you and your daughter) tortured by loss. Spanish boots were a medieval torture device designed to cripple.

    We all wear our own version of Spanish boots from time to time. Sometimes they are put on us and other times we put them on ourselves.

    Hoping that putting your burden down here for us eases your pain.

    We are never gone until someone stops remembering us. Wishing you peace.

  13. My take on this song is that there is a woman who wishes to see more of the world. She plans a potentially open ended trip but doesn’t have the courage or lucidity to admit as much, and offers a souvenir as a proxy for her feelings.

    As the song progresses, the woman is able to state her honest truth, either having grown from her experiences abroad, or simply because of the distance, and says that she may not return from Spain.

    When the man receives this news, he understands that their relationship is over, and the symbolism of the Spanish boots represents both an acknowledgement of their shared past and its ultimate ending, and his need to move on. The symbolism of boots represents walking your own path. The fact that they are made of Spanish leather is an acknowledgement and acceptance of her reality and her path. In this way, he is stating that he is not rejecting her, but rather embracing her memory as me moves on.

  14. Anybody ever hear the Seldom Scene cover of this song? It’s the first version I ever heard, but I think it adds a lot of nostalgia. It’s beautifully done, can’t recommend it enough.

  15. Thanks!
    Im was in love with a girl from Barcelona.
    Then I needed to left Spain and back home, Ushuaia (patagonia).
    Your text are awesome.. Thank you again.

    I have a great word for this in Portuguese:

  16. Can’t stop thinking of this song. It’s been haunting at my mind all night and day and in my dreams. First heard it 50+ years ago.

  17. I feel like I may be the only one that hears it and interprets it this way, but I read it as in every other paragraph being the man and the woman, starting with the man who is leaving and asking if she wants something to remember him bye, he has clearly left for Spain and doesn’t know when he will be coming back again, but she only wants him, not things. So one day she gets tired of missing him and it’s too painful for her to remain with him, so decides to travel basically saying that she is no longer back home waiting for his return and said she doesn’t know when she will be back again, so he tells her that he wants her to bring him something from her travels, he wants Spanish boots of Spanish leather so that she will have to come to Spain. (To see him) Does this make sense to anyone else?

    I so adore this song and recently learned to play it. My lover travels often and there are long spans in which I don’t see him, at times missing him is so hard, I’d rather just end it, than to feel like I’m waiting for the unknown.

  18. I do think the first six stanzas are in dialogue, most likely woman-man-woman-man-woman-man, while the last 3 stanzas are the man. I’ve never heard this song sung as a duet and have always thought that a duet would be the most powerful rendition. One clue that leads me to believe the first speaker is the woman is the responder’s choice of “unspoiled” – a word traditionally applied to a woman not a man.

    Most of the dialogue is presented as a series of communications from and to a ship in transit. As the ship moves further away, the responder stays solidly fixed on valuing the relationship, but the first speaker, who I take to be the woman, moves further and further from valuing the relationship. She begins by addressing him as her “own true love,” just as he also addresses her, but in each stanza from her there is less of her thoughts on him and more of them on her destination. At first it is subtle, almost undetectable, as she talks about the mountains around Madrid and the coast of Barcelona, but eventually he realizes that she is no longer thinking of him, and that’s exactly what he says to her. All of this happens during the voyage, in a short time, so it’s a big change in such a short time. The man is, naturally, rather shocked at how quickly the woman goes from pretending to love him “truly” when she’s with him to being able to completely forget about him in a few days, as she moves both physically and emotionally far away from him.

    In the final three stanzas, the man realizes that he has been faithful in keeping his thoughts focused on the relationship to someone who doesn’t deserve his faithfulness and hasn’t treated him the same. He decides to move on. The request for boots of Spanish Leather are symbolic of him moving on, making his own path, with no more thoughts of her except a reminder of the one thing that he was able to get out of the relationship that he actually wanted, the boots.

  19. I always assumed boots of Spanish leather was walking boots, and never new it was a torture device. This gives the interpretation of the song two very different meanings. Justin and Edie thank you for pointing this out. Also, interesting how others have such personal interpretations for this song.

  20. I looked at it as a fare -thee-well message at the end. The man, resigned to his fate of losing her, want’s only to see her land safely on her perilous journey.

    “So take heed, take heed of the western winds
    Take heed of the stormy weather
    And yes, there’s somethin’ you can send back to me
    Spanish boots of Spanish leather”

    That is the only gift she can give him now.

  21. Spanish leather boots with herself in them, of course.
    He hopes she will walk back to him.

  22. This song will forever remind me of my Father In Law. He was dieing of cancer, and my husband played it every night. Loving the songs tune, one night when he was with his dad, I listened to the lyrics… instantly it made think of the struggles of people you live, and how they won’t be back again, and how he would give anything to give those loved ones something to remo him by. I will forever think of my husband’s dad everytime I hear it. I sing the song as a lullaby to my 3 kids. It makes me feel better…singing it…knowing he’s still with us. I might be gone, a long long time… R.D. we miss you.

  23. I like to think that the man finally realizes she’s never coming back, so he just wants something specific from Spain so he will know that she made it there safely.

    Never really considered it as the man leaving, but if it were the case, it could be the woman saying if you are going to leave me then send me something back that I will look sexy as hell in. Almost a jealousy thing.

    Mandarin Orange’s is a beautiful rendition.

  24. There is a reference to boots of Spanish leather from 1604, which were provided to the infant Charles I, to give him more strength. It was his weakness (possibly from rickets) that allowed his parents and siblings to have returned to England from Scotland in 1603.
    “By 1604, when Charles (I) was three-and-a-half, he was able to walk the length of the great hall at Dunfermline Palace without assistance, and it was decided that he was strong enough to make the journey to England to be reunited with his family. the charge of Elizabeth, Lady Carey, the wife of courtier Sir Robert Carey, who put him in boots made of Spanish leather and brass to help strengthen his weak ankles… “ taken from

  25. Boots of Spanish Leather is a perfect folk song. Indeed, it is studied at an English university as being an exemplar of the tradition.
    Most of the comments above are valid, but I think what is generally missed in the song’s delicate understatement is the recognition by the speaker that he is being ‘given the boot’, i.e. dumped by her. The apparently superfluous repetition of Spanish leather and Spanish boots is his half-hearted attempt for her sake to show some forced enthusiasm for a gift he would rather not have to consider.

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