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What Bob Dylan taught me about nostalgia

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Simon Murphy-CC

Tod Worner - published on 10/17/16

What defines "Girl From the North Country" is not pain, but a love that transcends it.

When I first heard it, I simply sat still and listened.

Warmly, gently, three successive chords were played on one guitar while three harmonizing chords were strummed on the other.

And then a soft, lilting but unpretty voice began to sing,

Well, if you’re travelin’ in the north country fair

Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline

Remember me to one who lives there

She once was a true love of mine

Then followed a rich baritone singing with just a touch of wistfulness,

Please see for me if her hair hangs long,

If it rolls and flows all down her breast.

Please see for me if her hair hangs long,

That’s the way I remember her best.

The first voice, then, returned,

Well, if you go when the snowflakes storm

When the rivers freeze and summer ends

Please see if she’s wearing a coat so warm

To keep her from the howlin’ winds

And it just crushed me.

Bob Dylan originally wrote Girl From the North Country in 1962 and released it on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in 1963. The solo original is extraordinary work. But the duet recorded with Johnny Cash in 1969 is a thing of beauty.

Slowly, lovingly the song unfolds a story of the softest melancholy. It speaks of love from a time gone by and a place stilled in memory. See if you would, Dylan writes, this love and “remember me” to her. See if she looks as beautiful now as she forever remains in my mind’s eye. And, please, please, see that she is okay – that she is “wearing a coat so warm to keep her from the howlin’ winds.”

As I sat and listened to this tale, I couldn’t help but get a touch choked up. It brought me back to my youngest childhood days on a Saturday afternoon when my dad would play a Johnny Mathis or Mills Brothers record on the stereo. Contrary to the modern muddle of loud, self-indulgent and mindless music, when these wonders sang, it was an unaffected story. It was rich, soft and sweet. Most significantly, it was true.

Girl From the North Country is not just about a particular lost love. No. It is about the wistfulness of the passage of time. It is about people loved, memories cherished, places treasured that are no longer with us, that are no longer here.  It is reckoning with love and pain in the windswept landscapes of our memory. This wistfulness is not without a tinge of pain. The pain of lost youth, of altered circumstances, of the irreversible march of time comes through Dylan’s light tenor and Cash’s rich baritone.

But pain does not define Girl From the North Country.

No.

In the midst of the poignant nostalgia that suffuses this song, there is an overriding sweetness. He hasn’t stopped caring about the past. To the contrary, he is looking out for it. Notwithstanding pain, there is a sense that though time has passed and things have changed, those departed things now held in memory are, indeed, sacred.

What defines Girl From the North Country is not pain, but a love that transcends it.

So if you’re travelin’ in the north country fair

Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline

Remember me to one who lives there

She once was a true love of mine

When I first heard it, I simply sat still and listened.

You should too.

To watch Bob Dylan & Johnny Cash sing Girl From the North Country, please link here.

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