“The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” is my favourite Dylan album. And that is saying something.
I’m always staggered to think it was only his second album, coming out in 1963. It has tunes like “Blowing in the Wind”, ‘A Hard Rain’s A’ Gonna Fall” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”. But what makes it great is that every other song is brilliant too. And none more so than “Girl in the North Country”.
(Click below to hear the song. I can now upload from my iTunes library. This is the first go.)
It’s a simple folk tune. A lament for a lost love. But so beautifully enmeshed in memories of the North country – Minnesota, I think, Bob Dylan’s homeland – the cold winds, the ice, the summer’s end. There’s a wonderfully poignant feel to to the lyrics. I particularly love these lines:
See for me she wears a coat so warm, To keep her from the howling winds…
A simple detail, an everyday concern that speaks of a burning, lingering love.
The melody for the song is influenced by an old English folk song called “Scarborough Fair”, and of course, that song was revived by Simon and Garfunkel. An absolutely beautiful rendition of the song, which I’m happy to include here.
Bob revived “Girl From The North Country” too, in 1969, when he made “Nashville Skyline”. This was one of his country albums, made in the aftermath of his motorcycle crash and his withdrawal from the limelight. He sang “Girl From The North Country” with Johnny Cash. It’s sung at a higher pitch than the original, and both singers are struggling to hit the notes. That gives it, for me, a real vulnerability, that works so well for this wistful, poignant song.
I love both versions. I play it on my guitar, and struggle to hit the notes, too, if I start in G, as instructed. It’s that kind of song. Simple, but fragile. Like the love that Dylan lost once upon a time….