Thursday, August 21, 2008

She Once Was A True Love Of Mine

Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash--"Girl From The North Country" (mp3)
Pete Townshend--"North Country Girl" (mp3)
Pete Townshend--"North Country Girl (live)" (mp3)
Sam Bush--"Girl Of The North Country (live)" (mp3)
Roy Harper--"North Country" (mp3)

There are those songs that get into your soul. This is one of them.

I first heard the song, as most of us probably did, as a duet between Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash on Nashville Skyline:

If you're travelin' to the North country fair,
Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline,
Remember me to one who lives there,
For she once was a true love of mine.

The next time I heard it, I was playing it, at a "faculty jam" in the '80's, with my friend Steve, playing Cash to my Dylan. The duet versions are interesting, because by the end of the song, the men seem to be competing for the favors of this much-remembered woman.

The narrative presents an interesting set-up, which many traditionals songs use. The speaker, a man asks, presumably, another male traveler to look in on this girl that he used to love. Though the speaker making the request is wistful and still clearly has feelings for the girl, there is no attempt in his request to try to reestablish contact with the girl.

Instead, he seems worried about the preservation of her beauty, as well as her health and safety. It's as if he both wants to know and doesn't want to know if she is still the girl of his memory.

Which, of course, she is not. How could she? Time has passed. And, given the transient nature of the narrative, it seems equally unlikely that the speaker and the traveler will ever reconnect again either.

When I heard the song again, Pete Townshend was weighing in, both on a solo album and on a live album, with an update to the story:

Please let me know if she remembers me at all,
A hundred times I've hoped and prayed
That way up there near the Roman wall
She didn't suffer when the fall-out sprayed.

This post-apocalyptic rewrite doesn't really work too well for me, but the power of the song, I think, almost overcomes both the illogic of the verse (she can't remember too much if she died in a nuclear aftermath) and the 80's keyboards.

Then, a few years ago, Sam Bush, the great bluegrass mandolinist, took me back to the more traditional setting with his live version from Telluride. His is a powerful version, driven by Jerry Douglas' superb dobro-playing and the insertion of rising and falling passing chords that add musical drama both before and duirng the verses.

Finally, last year, by accident, I got probably as close as I'm likely to get to the original source when I came across a version by British folksinger Bert Jansch. His version, by far the most understated of all, nevertheless, captures the sense of loss that pervades the song as well as any version.

Though "she was once a true love of" the narrator, there is a resignation that he can't go back to her. And that's why the song gets into your soul.
The Dylan/Cash, Townshend, and Bush versions of the song are all available at Itunes. If interested, you can also get versions by the likes of Joe Cocker, Bruce Hornsby, Rod Stewart, John Gorka, the Eels, and John Waite, among others.


Anonymous said...

French version:
La fille du nord - francis Cabrel & Jean-Jacques Goldman - SOL EN SI Benefit album

Norwegian version:
Hvis du reiser nordover i år - Finn Kalvik - Album: Nøkkelen ligger under matta

Leo Kottke does a version on the North Country soundtrack, called Girl of the North Country

jbradburn said...

Never heard this song, but it sounds like a more mature version of "Boys of Summer" - a song about a lost love that I have always found haunting and sad - because here's a man who either a) probably never got over or b)is just recently rebounding from another failed relationship - when it's clear that the other has moved on or at the very least won't be the same girl he parted ways with when he was a teenager.

Interesting contrast.

Anonymous said...

The Secret Machines did an awesome cover of this song.

Anonymous said...

Simon and Garfunkel take over almost the same line's in Scarbourough Fair. Or Dylan took it from there.

jack said...

I hope you have listened to Dylan's 1st version on "The Freewheelin Bob Dylan. The thread of this song is very long indeed. The famous song catcher F.J. Child (Child Ballads) noted this verse in 1827.
Did ye ever travel twixt Berwick and Lynn?
Sober and grave grows merry in time
There ye'll meet a handsome young dame
and she once was a true love of mine.
The great folk process goes on and Dylan connected many a dot.

Bob said...

Thanks to all for the info and ideas; I've located several other terrific versions of a song I love.

Anonymous said...

I have 35 different version of this song and still trying to collect them. I'd love to hear the Bert Jansch version. It is one of my all time favorite songs.

Thanks for the posting.

April said...

one of my all-time favorite songs!