Bob Dylan’s third album, and his first to contain only original material, was 1964’s The Times They Are A-Changin’. It’s fascinating to consider that Dylan’s reputation as a protest singer and the artistic face of the civil rights era is based almost entirely on the songs he cut for this album.
Yes, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ appeared on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, but the rest of that album was a more good-humored and intimate affair. The Times They Are A-Changin’, by contrast, was folk singer medicine. Aside from the title track, which memorably warned of the coming revolution, declaring that “your sons and your daughters are beyond your command,” you have protest songs about specific injustices done to Medgar Evers, Hattie Carroll and others.
And yet, nestled right in the middle of all of these powerful political songs you find my favorite song on this album, and one of my favorite Dylan songs ever, the heartbreak ballad ‘Boots of Spanish Leather.’
The melody and guitar part of this song are actually nearly identical to ‘Girl From the North Country,’ and the themes of the two songs are similar. But I prefer ‘Boots’ even to its classic, better-known twin.
The song takes the form of a letter between the singer and his love, who is traveling abroad. She insists on sending him a souvenir of her travels but he wants nothing but to see her again. As the correspondence continues, it becomes clear that her generosity is masking guilt over the fact that she won’t be returning to him. In the song’s poignant final lines, he takes her up on her offer of a gift, requesting the titular boots of Spanish leather… which, we presume, he’ll use as he sets off on his own travels.
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?
No, there’s nothin’ you can send me, my own true love,
There’s nothin’ I wish to be ownin’.
Just carry yourself back to me unspoiled,
From across that lonesome ocean.
Oh, but I just thought you might want something fine
Made of silver or of golden,
Either from the mountains of Madrid
Or from the coast of Barcelona.
Oh, but if I had the stars from the darkest night
And the diamonds from the deepest ocean,
I’d forsake them all for your sweet kiss,
For that’s all I’m wishin’ to be ownin’.
That I might be gone a long time
And it’s only that I’m askin’,
Is there something I can send you to remember me by,
To make your time more easy passin’.
Oh, how can, how can you ask me again,
It only brings me sorrow.
The same thing I want from you today,
I would want again tomorrow.
I got a letter on a lonesome day,
It was from her ship a-sailin’,
Saying I don’t know when I’ll be comin’ back again,
It depends on how I’m a-feelin’.
Well, if you, my love, must think that-a-way,
I’m sure your mind is roamin’.
I’m sure your heart is not with me,
But with the country to where you’re goin’.
So take heed, take heed of the western wind,
Take heed of the stormy weather.
And yes, there’s something you can send back to me,
Spanish boots of Spanish leather.