The Fire of Time
I’ve been wandering alone in this beautiful town of dreams recently during the times of day when my children are happily occupied at school. There’s a song that’s been on my mind for weeks now. It tells a tale full of the bitter power of memory and the bone shaking timeless grief that the loss of a loved one can bring. It sits in the first half of Tell Tale Signs, an album I’ve talked about before. Somehow the mood of this collection winds it way through my mind and thoughts these days and it feels exactly right, most of the time. I’d really recommend that anyone sit down and spend some serious time getting to know all of these songs but make sure to listen to Girl from the Red River Shore. Or better yet, learn how to play it -the chord structure is relatively simple- if you really want to get under its skin. Or for the song to really get under yours.
Each time that I listen to this elusive song I hear different stories unfolding. Like many of the tracks on this bootleg collection, Girl from the Red River Shore feels too vast in scope and also somehow too unfinished to have found a place alongside others on the uniform design of an album. I recently read a haunting interpretation by someone who had themselves suffered a heartbreaking loss. As an old school literature student and teacher I’m a huge fan of close reading and I’m never happier than when I’m armed with a pen and scribbling notes in the margin or underlining sections of the particular text under consideration. I’ve played and sung this song many times and also sat with my pencil staring at the written words in front of me. In both ways one can begin to hear and see the subtle nuances of this beautiful work of art.
The themes of love, loss and time weave their way throughout as the central figure of the stranger, a familiar character in Dylan’s universe, walks through the verses of his song. Whether the love was unrequited,
‘She gave me her best advice and she said /Go home and lead a quiet life’
Or whether, while she lived, it was true and powerful
‘True to life, true to me/Was the girl from the Red River Shore’
we cannot know for sure. Nor can we ever be certain that it ever existed at all. However the terrible devastation of loss rings through keenly,
‘Some of us scare ourselves to death in the dark/To be where the angels fly’
As the narrator wanders through the landscape of his memory wearing the ‘cloak of misery’ with a ‘frozen smile’ he feels his isolation and his detachment from the present and yet can recall the past in the very spot where he travels,
‘Though nothing looks familiar to me/I know I’ve stayed here before/Once a thousand nights ago/With the girl from the Red River Shore’
And so the listener reflects upon the nature of time and how external places can change while our memories of them and the people we shared them with remain forever fixed. We live, as the narrator sings, ‘in the shadows of a fading past and are ‘trapped in the fires of time’. Furthermore our memory itself can be subjective; the people who he talks to in the place have no recollection of the girl from the Red River Shore,
‘Everybody that I talked to had seen us there/Said they didn’t know who I was talking about’
The profound sadness of the singer, for whom ‘the sun went down’ long ago brings me close to tears each time that I listen. Dylan, as so often, is simply writing of a facet of human experience; in this instance that wherever there is strong love or affection, separation, pain and loneliness will inevitably follow. However his words are never maudlin or self indulgent. The narrator draws comfort from his surroundings, in spite of his own personal desolation,
‘I’ll ramble and gamble for the one I love/And the hills will give me a song’
And has done his best to live an honest life,
‘I’ve tried not to hurt anybody/And to stay out of a life of crime’
As the song draws to a close and the narrator reflects on the possibility of bringing the dead back to life,
‘Whenever someone around him died and was dead/He knew how to bring ‘em on back to life’
we are left thinking about the sudden finality of death and how the passing of a loved one from this dream of a life can at times seem almost impossible to comprehend.