Why does it matter than Bob Dylan is 70 today?
I rode her down to Danville town, got stuck on a Danville girl,
Bet your life she was a pearl, she wore that Danville curl.
She wore her hat on the back of her head like high tone people all do,
Very next train come down that track, I bid that gal adieu.
Danville Girl, Woody Guthrie
Well, I keep seeing this stuff and it just comes a-rolling in
And you know it blows right through me like a ball and chain
You know I can’t believe we’ve lived so long and are still so far apart
The memory of you keeps callin’ after me like a rollin’ train
Bob Dylan, Brownsville Girl
‘Brownsville Girl’, easily Dylan’s best song of the 1980s (with the possible exception of some of the tracks on Oh Mercy ), was originally entitled ‘New Danville Girl’, and was inexplicably removeD from Empire Burlesque (1985), only finally to see the light of day – with its new title and marginally tweaked lyrics – on the next year’s Knocked Out Loaded. Neither album offers much in the way of diversion, but ‘Brownsville Girl’ lights up its album, a song which Bono has said ‘transformed songwriting’. I’m not sure about that, but it is undoubtedly a magnificent piece of writing. A collaboration with Sam Shephard, presumably hailing in part from the days when he was a member of Dylan’s ragtaggle Rolling Thunder Revue (Sean Wilentz is good on Shephard’s involvement in this enterprise in Bob Dylan in America, but sadly doesn’t mention this later collaboration).
‘Brownsville Girl’ is a more complex song than a mere answer to an old folk ditty – as should be said even of Dylan’s earliest and most obvious homages. But the appearance of that girl – that capturing, enrapturing girl arriving and departing on a rolling train – is deliberate, all about memory and distance and sense of place, wrapped up in nostalgia and unreachability. ‘Brownsville Girl’ isn’t even about the Brownsville girl – that destructive locomotive has already barrelled on through, leaving a hole the unattainable (or high tone) girl who does feature in the song struggles to fill (“Now I know she ain’t you but she’s here and she’s got that dark rhythm in her soul”); the stars have been tore down in Dylan’s riposte, and yet somehow – with all that detail and wordplay and humour – the fractured world he has inherited is indubitably more complex, more intelligent, even more humane, than Guthrie’s. The world of the Western, through which Gregory Peck passes in the movie Dylan returns to repeatedly in ‘Brownsville Girl’, never really existed, like the romantic dustbowl of Guthrie’s oeuvre; but they are the kind of powerful folk symbols Dylan has always used to animate deeper truths.
So happy birthday, Zimmy. And if there’s an original thought out there, I could use it right now