Song of the Day #811: ‘Tell Ol’ Bill’ – Bob Dylan

It’s hard to pick a favorite among the volumes of the Bootleg Series, but I might cast a vote for Volume 8, Telltale Signs, a collection of rare and unreleased material recorded between 1989 and 2006.

During that span, Dylan released Oh Mercy and Under the Red Sky, followed by his folk music cover albums and then the celebrated trilogy of Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft and Modern Times.

He was at a creative peak, especially from the late 90s on, and Telltale Signs makes it clear that, as usual, many special songs never made it onto those albums. Among those is ‘Red River Shore’ (covered on the blog in early 2009) that maybe ties ‘Blind Willie McTell‘ as the best song ever left off of a Dylan album.

‘Tell Ol’ Bill’ isn’t one of those unreleased tracks. It was written for the soundtrack to North Country, the Charlize Theron film about coal mining and sexual discrimination (don’t forget your popcorn!) that used Dylan’s music throughout.

This version is actually an alternate take from the one that appeared on the film’s soundtrack, though I’ve never heard the latter and can’t say how different it is.

The river whispers in my ear
I’ve hardly a penny to my name
The heavens have never seemed so near
All my body glows with flame.

The tempest struggles in the air
And to myself alone I sing
It could sink me then and there
I can hear the echoes ring.

I tried to find one smilin’ face
To drive the shadow from my head
I’m stranded in this nameless place
Lyin’ restless in a heavy bed.

Tell me straight out if you will
Why must you torture me within?
Why must you come down off your high hill?
Throw my fate to the clouds and wind.

Far away in a silent land
Secret thoughts are hard to bear
Remember me you’ll understand
Emotions we can never share.

You trampled on me as you passed
Left the coldest kiss upon my brow
All my doubts and fears have gone at last
I’ve nothing more to tell you now.

I walk by tranquil lakes and streams
As each new season’s dawn awaits
I lay awake at night with troubled dreams
The enemy is at the gate.

Beneath the thunder-blasted trees
The words are ringin’ off your tongue
The ground is hard in times like these
Stars are cold, the night is young.

The rocks are bleak, the trees are bare
Iron clouds go floatin’ by
Snowflakes falling in my hair
Beneath the gray and stormy sky.

The evenin’ sun is sinking low
The woods are dark, the town is too
They”ll drag you down, they run the show
Ain’t no tellin’ what they’ll do.

Tell Ol’ Bill when he comes home
Anything is worth a try
Tell him that I’m not alone
That the hour has come to do or die.

All the world I would defy
Let me make it plain as day
I look at you now and I sigh
How could it be any other way?

4 thoughts on “Song of the Day #811: ‘Tell Ol’ Bill’ – Bob Dylan

  1. Dana says:

    Okay, I’m still on record as being annoyed by the use of the term “bootleg” for these albums, right?

    Getting beyond that, good song.

  2. JT says:

    I kinda like the “bootleg” title for these albums. I think its a cool name for the series. Its sort of a ‘tip of the hat’ and a ‘wink of the eye’ to all the bootleggers who over the years put all his obscure and unreleased stuff out there for all of us.

  3. Dana Kilalps says:

    The film North Country is about sexual harassment in the Mesabi Range tacionite iron ore mining operations centered in Eveleth, Minnesota in the early 1980’s. Bob grew up in nearby Range town Hibbing in the 1940’s and 1950’s when the area’s economy was devastated by closing of mines as described in North Country Blues on The Times They are a Changing.

  4. musicofbobdylan says:

    We are actively promoting a link to this interesting topic on The Bob Dylan Project at:

    If you are interested, we are a portal to all the great information related to this topic.

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