Songwriting Basics Section II – Analysis 27: Girl From the North Country

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Bob Leslie is an Independent Scottish Songwriter, Singer, and Recording Artist

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Girl from the North Country was released in April 1963 as the 2nd track on Bob Dylan’s second album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.

The girl he’s walking with on the cover, Suze Rotolo (pron. SOOZ-eh ROTT-olo) was his lp.gifcurrent girlfriend with whom he’d just reconnected after she had returned from her art studies in Perugia (per-ROOJ-ah), Italy.

She had been a powerful influence on him – introducing him to left-wing politics, the poetry of Rimbaud, and the plays of Berthold Brecht. She also encouraged his early interests in painting.

The trip to Italy had been, in part, to break away from the demands the relationship made on her, and from all the hype that was beginning to dominate his life. 

It would be true to say that Dylan was extremely upset when she left for Italy – she had registered for the course under the name of “Justine” Rotolo to make it hard for him to trace her. 

His frustration brought forth some of his best-known songs, among them Boots of Spanish Leather, One Too Many Mornings, and Girl from the North Country.

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“I ran into some people in England who really knew those [traditional English] songs,” Dylan recalled in 1984. “Martin Carthy’s incredible. I learned a lot of stuff from Martin.”

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Carthy showed Dylan many traditional English ballads, including Carthy’s own arrangement of  Scarborough Fair, from which Dylan borrowed parts of the melody and lyrics for Girl from the North Country, including the line from the refrain “Remember me to one who lives there, she once was a true love of mine”. 

The song has found great popularity with other singers, having been covered by Johnny Cash, Joe Cocker, Roy Harper, Rod Stewart, Altan, Sting, CSN, Neil Young, Counting Crows, and even Pete Townshend!

I’ve heard many versions of it at sessions, and I think part of its popularity lies in the fact that it’s great to jam over. The marvellously-named Walter Trout does an amazing electric solo over it that I just love!

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Lend an ear and an eye …

eye.gif Girl From the North Country

© 1963 Bob Dylan

GirlftNC.jpg

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Stress detection …

tec

 

stress pattern is in there, but it’s not strictly adhered to. 

 

  • VV1-3 follow the model L1 – 3 stressesLL2-4 – 4 stresses.
  • V4 has Ll1-4 with 4 stresses.

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Mixing up the metre …mix.gif

The metre wanders all over the place – largely due to Dylan putting in extraneous “well”s, “if”s, “for”s, and “please”s. 

The first Bob Dylan songbook I ever bought actually had a statement implying that scansion inhibited the “folk-poet’s creativity” – see what I mean about hype?!?

I’ve heard loads of singers just edit some of these out to avoid gabbling the song. 

There is an underlying pattern of sorts, but it’s only a rough guideline:

  • L1 – 2anapest (dah-dah-DUM), 1iamb 
  • L2 – 1 x anapest3iamb (dah-DUM)
  • L34 x iamb (but lots of variation on this one)
  • L4 – 3trochee, plus eitheriamb or a single syllable

As you can see below, V2 is the one that follows the model most closely – and even it has a spare “To” breaking the rhythm a little in L4.

  • “|If you’re trave-|-lin in the north|country fair |
    Where the winds |hit heav-|-y on the bor-|-der line|
    Re-mem-|-ber me| to one|who lives there|
    She once|was a| true love| of mine|”

  • “|If you go|when the snow-|-flakes storm|
    When the riv-|-ers freeze|and sum– |-mer ends|
    Please see|she has|a coat|so warm|
    [To] keep her| from the| how-lin’|winds|”

  • “|Please see|if her hair|hangs long|
    If it rolls|and flows|all down|her breast|
    Please see|for me|that her hair’s|hangin’ long|
    [For] that’s the|way I re-|-mem-ber| her best|”

  • “|I’m a-won-|derin’ if |she re-mem-|-bers me at all|
    Man-y| times I’ve| of-ten| prayed|
    In the|dark-ness| of my| night|
    In the| bright-ness| of my| day|”

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Is there reason in the rhyme? …

Thankfully, the end-rhyme pattern is an almost completely regular A  B  A  B  

  • “fair”
    “line”
    “there”
    “mine”

Except for V4L3 “night” which doesn’t rhyme with anything. Fortunately, there are still two rhymes in the verse, so it’s not too noticeable.

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One key to rule them? …key.gif

The song appears to be entirely in the key of G major (if we ignore the capo on 3 taking it up to Bb).

The Bm chord, however, is pushed a bit more than one would expect in a folk song.

This gives the song a certain tension as the stress on Bm  suggests a moving back and forth between G major and the  closely related B phrygian mode. 

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A hung jury …

jury.gif

As a poem, it’s fine: it expresses the care and love Dylan wants to communicate, employing strong imagery with the cold of winter used as a metaphor for the end of a love affair.

 

It obviously works in performance, as so many people have recorded it, and the sentiments certainly resonate with an audience.

 

I like the song a lot, and often sing it, but it does show signs of hasty writing and, as the blurb said, “the folk-poet” was obviously not too concerned about adhering to any kind of metric consistency.

I wouldn’t dispute that it’s a great song, but I’ve heard people, often without thinking, improve the lyric in performance by leaving out some of the extraneous syllables that clutter some of the lines.

The title is a good strong one and the “semi-lydian” feel gives an attractive edge to the tune and its accompaniment.

But all in all … this one’s the exception that proves (in the old sense of “tries” or “tests”) the rule – not that there are hard and fast “rules” in songwriting, only guidelines based on experience.

I was going to say that perhaps the album was recorded in a hurry – which might explain the looseness of the structure. However, upon checking, I discovered that it took a year to record over 8 sessions, so, we have to conclude that that’s the way Bobby D wanted it! 

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Next time, we’ll look at another one that I produced, 
burning the midnight oil in my garret. 

winker

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Bob Leslie – Scottish – Traditional – Songwriter

 

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