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December 01, 2008


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Very interesting interpretation. But given Dylan's love of cinema it could just as easily refer to Joanna Dru who was the female lead in 'Red River' the John Wayne Western film. Dylan often uses lines from classic films in his songs with just a subtle word change here and there.

...a beautiful interpretation of one of the most beautiful songs that Dylan has ever put together.

I would love to hear you keep going with a part 2 and part 3!

His voice, alone, convinces me of his longing!

I had thought that Dylan may also be saying that that which we sometimes spend a lifetime searching for, cannot be found in that search...

great article; thanks!

Peter Hyatt, Maine

Thanks for this piece, I very much agree overall with what you say about the song, which immediately became one of my all time favorite songs as soon as I heard it. I do wonder about your idea that Dylan using "guy" and "man" to refer to Jesus "indicates his separation from his born-again experience." You could be right, but to me it just blends in with the studied casual and colloquial tone of the song and prevents it from becoming an overt piece of religious music. It also places it at some unknown time (even the future?) where the story of Jesus is not taught the way it is now.

Also, consider why we really know that he's talking about Jesus: surely it is because he refers to him as a "man full of sorrow and strife." This defines this man "who lived a long time ago" as being Jesus because it is a reference to Isaiah, chapter 53, "a man of sorrows," "with his stripes we are healed," etc. Yet, to believe that Isaiah is prophesizing about Jesus of Nazareth in that writing is a key element of Christian faith, as opposed to other faiths. And if that's how Dylan is defining Jesus, well ... you see where I'm going.

However, it is certainly fine for there to be ambiguities; it is part of what gives the song its magic.

I thank those who have written for their kind comments. To me a hallmark of a great work of art is that any interpretation opens up the art rather than closes it. That, at least, is what I was trying to do. I don't find a reference to the movie in the song, but Theo is right to mention it; who knows what wandered through Dylan's mind as he wrote? Peter's poignant suggestion fits well with what I heard in the song. And Sean adds a crucial point. As I mentioned, I'm simply not theologically equipped to discuss a Christian interpretation with the accuracy and seriousness it deserves, but there's no question that it is a dimension of the song, and so I'm glad he provided a way in to the subject.

I would view the girl from the Red River shore more as an allegory of poetical creation than a religious image (even if the two can be connected).

You must keep in mind it's an answer song to Girl From The Red River Shore, an old folk song that had popular recordings during the 50s. In the original song, the narrator and a girl were in love but her father rejected the narrator and kept her under locks with twenty armed men to protect her. The narrator tries to get her but ultimately fails. It's an eventful journey straight out of a sad western.

In Dylan's song, the narrator was in love with a woman who rejected him kindly but was an inspiration to him (through her words and the behavior he adopted to win her heart) in the many trials of life. When he comes back, nobody but him remembers her. The woman who, "in real life" wasn't in love with him, is dead exists now only through his memory.

The song is now the only place where she lives. Through sadness and loss, he achieved creation. The allusion to Christ in the final verse shouldn't be taken as litterally in my opinion as in the Born Again era. Bringing back the dead, the past, is just what the narrator did through his art. You can find the very same contradiction in the essence of Blind Willie McTell. Nobody sings the blues like Willie McTell, except that Dylan precisely did that...

Interesting take on what seems upon first listen a very simple love lorne ballad of a youthful fling gone awry. But I interpreted it as song about an adult who suffered some form abuse in their childhood and still lives with the pain or loss; coasting through life. The "girl" is merely a friend, a stranger or a muse who without asking what problems plagued them had sense of wronged past and helped them from ending their own life; giving the narrator a sense of hope to continue living, especially the last verse of the man bringing the dead back to life. I mention this because I had listened to the song after watching a documentry on the Catholic church sexual abuse scandal where the victims and family we're interviewed ad explained the reprecussions of the abuse in thier daily life. It was a strong film, and probably why these lyrics below caused me to write this interpretation.

some of us, turn of the lights and we live
some of scare self to death of the dark, to be where the angels fly

wearin a cloak of misery/ ive tasted jilted love
and the frozen smile upon my face fits me like a glove

we'll we're livin the shadows of a fadin past/ trapped in the fires of time I tried not to hurt anybody/ and to stay out of a life of crime And when its all been said and done/ I never did know the score

Im a stranger here in a strangeland

Though nothing looks famiar to me Ive stayed here before

Well the sun went down on me, a long time ago/ I have had to pull back from the dark/ I wish I couldve spent every day of my life with the girl from the red river shore

I enjoyed Lawrence Epstein's linking of Visions of Johanna to Red River Shore: the analogy between the two imagined women grew stronger to me with each listen of Red River Shore. The Dylan journal, Isis, has kindly published my thoughts on this topic in the most recent issue (#140). Anyone can read--and, please, comment on--these thoughts in their original rough state in my blog, gardenerisgone, at The site is devoted to Dylan's work. I also like very much here El Bacho's interpretation of the Jesus-Lazarus verse as allegorical--an allegory within an allegory.

Excellent analysis- just a few things to add
1. Although it does seem at first glance that the final line refers to Jesus, it could also be read to refer to Elijah the Prophet, who was also into the whole resurrection thing.
2. Perhaps this is my Judaic view point, but I would interpret
"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"
To say that although Bob has explored Eastern religion and Western religion (and perhaps also a little occultism- the Black Winds) he never "got that far" with the girl from the Red River Shore. He is clearly infatuated (to say the least) with the girl, but he never got very far? Is there a connection between Red River and Red Sea? Finally, he calls himself a "stranger in a strange land", a Jewish biblical phrase if ever there was one.This song is saturated with meaning, like all of Bob's art...

Excellent analyses all around.

Question: In the final verse, the singer seems pretty clearly to be contemplating whether or not someone can be brought back to life. Is he talking about himself, his spirit so depressed and beaten down that it might as well be dead? Is he talking about the girl from the red river shore? Or, is it more allegorical, as Epstein suggests, such that he is referring to his own sense of spirituality and hoping that, even though the "girl from the red river shore" is no longer in his life, whatever it was that she represented can come back into it, whether it's love, or spirituality. Or is he just remarking that at one time in the past things were brought back to life by God, and now they aren't anymore, and all that's left is the song (that he brings to life)?

As an addition to my comment directly above, isn't it interesting that the singer refers to the "language that he used?" In bringing his own girl from the red river shore back to life, the singer himself uses language (as well as music). I think this goes along with the theory that, at least on some level, the song speaks to the process and power of poetical creation (though I also think it;s about what Epstein writes and others have noted in the comments).

I think one has to keep in mind the role of the muse here. Dylan reads Robert graves and was influenced by his book the white goddess. This has deep mythological motifs throughout history of divine inspiration. Dante, that poet from the 13th century related this in his vita nuova. Beatrice physically died and was spiritually reformed and guided the art henceforth. I like the comment about Dylan losing this and the search to find it again, which makes sense in this point in his career.

Napoleon in rags and the language that he used

I think the link with "Visions of Johanna" is tangible. What struck me is that VOJ is sung by a young man who still seems somewhat confident of attaining the girl who is his muse, whilst "Red River Shore" is from the point of view of an older man who has become aware that she can never be attained. What makes Dylan great is that he sings songs that reflect his age rather than trying to recapture hs youth.

After listening to “Red River Shore” a few times—I marvel at works like this that are able to address more than one subject at once —not an easy task, if not altogether uncommon.

I really have enjoyed your post and the discussions afterword. My most recent post is "The Red River Shore Shaman". You can read it here.

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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