Who’s That Girl (from the Red River Shore)?

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A few days ago I wrote a little about the newly released song “Red River Shore” from Bob Dylan’s Tell Tale Signs collection.

Perhaps I was going a tad nuts implying that it might be the greatest thing Bob Dylan has ever done. After all, you could certainly argue that there’s nothing radical about the record. It’s not going to set the world upside down, or spark revolution in the streets, or spawn hundreds of imitators in the music biz trying to copy the “Red River Shore” sound. You could hardly imagine a simpler melody, and some might say that Bob Dylan can write a song like this in between rolling out of bed and brushing his teeth. And maybe he can, if the mood is right. Yet, the song and the performance moved me and shook me up in a way that is very rare; all the rarer, in fact, as I get older and bend a little from the weight of believing that I’ve heard it all already. And isn’t it nice to be able to get that excited about something again?

The song is stirring and poignant in direct proportion to the way in which it expresses feelings which are unspeakable. This also makes it difficult to write about, and likewise makes me personally not want to write about it too much.

There is one thing that the mind of the listener probably meditates upon, and goes back and forth about, when listening to the song, and that is the question of just who this girl is—the girl from the Red River shore. Of-course any given listener can believe that she is just a girl—some variation of an unrequited human love for whom the singer is pining. And there ain’t nothing wrong with that.

However, without wanting to speak too much to what perhaps can’t or shouldn’t be said outside of the song itself, I will say that it has crossed my mind, while listening to this song, that the girl from the Red River shore is perhaps the same “she” for this singer as the “she” of “Shelter from the Storm” is for the singer of that song. And I offer this not by way of trying to define an end to the meaning of the song, but rather to open up its possibilities (as if that’s even necessary).

In that song from Blood on the Tracks, the singer is by turns nurtured and comforted by this female figure; he is then alienated from her through his own failing ( “I took too much for granted, got my signals crossed”), and is finally left meditating at once optimistically and hopelessly on the ultimate possibility of truly knowing her or uniting with her.

Well, I’m livin’ in a foreign country but I’m bound to cross the line
Beauty walks a razor’s edge, someday I’ll make it mine.
If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born.
“Come in,” she said,
“I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”

“[W]hen God and her were born.” It’s one of those great lines: an imponderable line that you cannot help but ponder and ponder. It’s a poetic jump that takes the feeling of the song beyond normal expression. It sounds a little bit like some kind of secret key—like a Rosetta Stone line. But it defies being completely nailed down, and so its magic survives.

Taken in any kind of literal sense, it’s a big thing to say that someone or something has been around as long as God himself. You might be really hung up on an ex-girlfriend or boyfriend, but when you get into that kind of thinking then you’re going somewhere else entirely.

Now, the parallel with the girl from the Red River shore can perhaps be seen most clearly, likewise, in the final verse of that song. After singing about the “man full of sorrow and strife” (Is 53), whom — the singer has heard — used to be able to literally raise the dead, he sings:

Well I don’t know what kind of language he used
Or if they do that kind of thing anymore
Sometimes I think nobody ever saw me here at all
‘Cept the girl from the Red River shore

Well, when he sings about this man who used to raise the dead, we know—any listener knows, regardless of his or her own faith or lack thereof—that this singer is (just like that earlier singer) invoking none other than God himself. If this man he heard about actually did used to do that, then he was, at least in some inscrutable sense, God. Yet the singer then puts the girl from the Red River shore on a level beyond anyone else he’s ever known, and potentially beyond even that Man, when he indicates that she may have been the only one who ever actually saw him on this earth—the only one whose acknowledgment of his existence proved that he actually did exist. That is a heavy honor indeed, and quite a heavy burden for any girl from the Red River shore to bear.

Perhaps it’s worth summarizing some of the qualities of this figure—if it is one figure—this “she” who promised shelter from the storm, and this girl from the Red River shore.

Back when he was just a “creature void of form,” she was there for him. And then when he needed a “place where it’s always safe and warm,” she was there. Later, she walked up to him “so gracefully and took [his] crown of thorns.” She was there again when the entire world seemed to just pose a question that was “hopeless and forlorn.” This mysterious girl was the only one he ever wanted to want him—the one with whom he wishes he “could have spent every hour of [his] life.” He is a stranger in the land in which he is duty-bound to live, but she—and the hills—give him a song with which to get by. Although many saw them together at one time, when he goes back to inquire with them no one even knows what he’s talking about. Each day he lives is “just another day away” from that girl from the Red River shore.

So, she is the very source of song itself. From her comes comfort, protection and wisdom, at those times when he needs it most desperately. Yet she is somehow invisible to the world, and, although she has touched him, she remains just out of his reach: unattainable.

While she is an eternal presence for him, she is in some sense distinct from that other presumed eternal presence; i.e., God.

I don’t know necessarily what you might call such a being (if you’re not calling her the girl from the Red River shore). However, it cannot but strike me that, for Christians, there is actually a specific name that can be applied to a figure who meets all of these criteria. Indeed, it was that aforementioned man full of sorrow and strife who gave the figure a name, as in Luke 11:13:

If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?

The Holy Spirit is believed, by Christians, to be at once God and a distinct person—in a sense that I’m distinctly unqualified to plumb. This is part of that theological mystery called the Holy Trinity, where God is believed by Christians to be at once Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But, relevant here, it does mean that the Holy Spirit is as old as—or, if you like, was born at the same time as—God, because the Holy Spirit is God, while still being in a real way the Holy Spirit. Interesting, no?

Now, am I saying that “Red River Shore” is “Bob Dylan’s song about the Holy Spirit”? By no means would I blandly state that. The heartbreak, the longing, the love and the mystery that inhabits “Red River Shore” can’t and shouldn’t be labeled, solved and neatly filed away like a doctrine. And we know that the writer of “Shelter from the Storm” is unlikely to have been self-consciously writing about a specifically Christian concept like the Holy Spirit. I’d also tend to believe that in his greatest songs, Bob Dylan is not deliberately writing about anything at all. When things are happening at that level, the song is always in some way expressing itself. I believe that he’s made much this point himself in interviews over the years.

Yet, it is one measure of the greatness of this song that amongst all of the various ways in which it works and holds true is also this quasi-theological sense. Pretty astounding.

Is it the greatest song that Bob Dylan has ever done, as I breathlessly intimated it might be a few days ago? Who the hell knows? But I can say without hesitation that it’s the greatest song by anybody that this listener has heard in a long, long time.