Song of the Day #180: ‘Red River Shore’ – Bob Dylan

bobbydyalnTen Best Songs of 2008 – #2

It might not be exactly fair to list a Bob Dylan song that was written at least a dozen years ago among my best 2008 songs, but last year was ‘Red River Shore’s first release on an album ( Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8) so I think it qualifies.

Dylan’s latest bootleg collection has enough wonderful “new” material to fill a proper album, and the fact that his discards are this good is a pretty telling fact about America’s greatest songwriter. Love him or hate him (and I know plenty of people on both sides), you can’t deny that he’s a unique and prolific talent.

How ‘Red River Shore’ wound up on the cutting room floor during the recording of Time Out of Mind is a mystery to me. It’s a nice thematic fit for that album, which is primarily focused on loss and mortality. It’s certainly a more appropriate song than ‘Make You Feel My Love,’ which I’ve always felt was out of place. Chalk it up to Dylan’s ornery nature, I suppose.

I love wistful Dylan, and this song is wistful to the max. It’s also splendidly produced, with new instruments joining the mix at each verse culminating in a gorgeous shuffling mini-suite that carries the song to its finish. Lyrically, I find this some of his most evocative writing since Blood on the Tracks, starting with these intriguing opening lines: “Some of us turn off the lights and we live in the moonlight shining by / Some of us scare ourselves to death in the dark to be where the angels fly.”

The final verse takes things in a whole new direction, making overt the Biblical allusions only hinted at earlier in the song. Does the talk of resurrection mean the woman is dead? Or is he referring to himself as the one who needs reviving, as the last line seems to suggest? Either way, it’s a powerful finish to one of the best songs I heard all year.

Some of us turn off the lights and we live
In the moonlight shooting by
Some of us scare ourselves to death in the dark
To be where the angels fly
Pretty maids all in a row lined up
Outside my cabin door
I’ve never wanted any of them wanting me
‘Cept the girl from the Red River shore

Well, I sat by her side and for a while I tried
To make that girl my wife
She gave me her best advice and she said
“Go home and lead a quiet life.”
Well, I’ve been to the east and I’ve been to the west
And I’ve been out where the black winds roar
Somehow, though, I never did get that far
With the girl from the Red River shore

Well, I knew when I first laid eyes on her
I could never be free
One look at her and I knew right away
She should always be with me
Well, the dream dried up a long time ago
Don’t know where it is anymore
True to life, true to me
Was the girl from the Red River shore

Now I’m wearing the cloak of misery
And I’ve tasted jilted love
And the frozen smile upon my face
Fits me like a glove
But I can’t escape from the memory
Of the one that I’ll always adore
All those nights when I lay in the arms
Of the girl from the Red River shore

Well, we’re living in the shadows of a fading past
Trapped in the fires of time
I’ve tried not to ever hurt anybody
And to stay out of a life of crime
And when it’s all been said and done
I never did know the score
One more day is another day away
From the girl from the Red River shore

Well, I’m a stranger here in a strange land
But I know this is where I belong
I’ll ramble and gamble for the one I love
And the hills will give me a song
Though nothing looks familiar to me
I know I’ve stayed here before
Once, a thousand nights ago
With the girl from the Red River shore

Well, I went back to see about it once
Went back to straighten it out
Everybody that I talked to had seen us there
Said they didn’t know who I was talking about
Well, the sun went down on me a long time ago
I’ve had to fall back from the door
I wish I could have spent every hour of my life
With the girl from the Red River shore

Now, I’ve heard of a guy who lived a long time ago
A man full of sorrow and strife
Whenever someone around him died and was dead
He knew how to bring ’em on back to life
Well, I don’t know what kind of language he used
Or if they do that kind of thing anymore
Sometimes I think nobody ever saw me here at all
‘Cept the girl from the Red River shore

2 thoughts on “Song of the Day #180: ‘Red River Shore’ – Bob Dylan

  1. Amy says:

    I think he’s referring to himself, suggesting he existed most clearly in her presence. Maybe? I have to admit that I read the “poem” without listening at first, as I feared Dylan’s delivery might make me less able to concentrate on his lyrics. I’m very surprised by how much I am liking it, not because I don’t like Dylan. I do. I just tend not to like the more recent Dylan as much as his earlier stuff.

    Of course, just as I’m enjoying a Dylan reverie, Daniel walks by and snarls, “What are you listening to?” Apparently, he’s going to fall into the other Dylan camp. Regardless, I give my thumbs up to this wistful number.

  2. Clay says:

    Kids today. Well, his voice (new and old) is certainly an acquired taste.

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