revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
Shakespeare, The Tempest, 4. 1

The enemy is at the gates….

Tell Ol’ Bill is another one of Dylan’s ‘soundtrack songs’, written – like Things Have Changed, Waiting For You  and Cross The Green Mountain –  in order to illustrate the themes of a particular film. But, as with all these songs, Dylan uses these themes as a starting point for exploring wider concerns.  While Things Have Changed twists its midlife-crisis cynicism into a comic masquerade and Cross The Green Mountain transforms the story of a dying soldier in the American Civil War into a series of intense reflections on human conflict, Tell Ol’ Bill turns an individual’s struggle for freedom and justice into a profound meditation on human will power .The song was written for the North Country (dir. Nick Caro, 2005) a drama set in the 1970s in Dylan’s own home territory of the Minnesota Iron Range (as immortalized in his own North Country Blues and Girl Of The North Country) and is a fictionalized account of how a female mine worker and single parent Josey Aimes (played by Charlize Theron) was involved in fighting the first successful action against sexual harassment in the US after being abused and attacked by male co-workers and ignored by a callous management. The film is very much in the tradition of American liberal social realism established by films like Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, To Kill A Mockingbird and Silkwood. The song attempts to get inside the mind of the main character, describing her frustrations at the position she finds herself in and eventually resolving to tackle the problem head-on.

The version of the song which appears on Tell Tale Signs is different to the one which appeared on the movie soundtrack. Though Dylan’s singing remains gently subdued throughout, the drums in particular are more pronounced, making the song more rhythmic and the whole performance somewhat more passionate. The song seems to have been tried out in a number of different ways, as revealed in a bootleg tape of the sessions (one of the few to have escaped from Dylan’s studio work in the last two decades) during which it seems at different times to be evolving into a slow blues, a country lament and a pained ballad. Despite the musical differences, the lyrics remain virtually the same throughout the twelve different versions on the tape, suggesting that Dylan composed the piece as a poem and then proceeded to set it to music. Both released versions tend to tread something of a middle ground between the more extreme musical forms being played with in the studio. The version on Tell Tale Signs is an impeccable example of Dylan’s modern singing style, full of subtle, querulous phrasing. Dylan inhabits the voice of a modest but brave narrator and conveys a sense of quiet courage without ever falling into over-emotionalism.

Dylan is careful to pronounce each word clearly here. The song features a carefully structured balance between lyrical imagery and determined emotion. The correlation between the images of the natural world and the narrator’s thoughts are carefully and skillfully built up. While the scene being depicted is undoubtedly cold and harsh: … the rocks are bleak/ the trees are bare/ Iron clouds go floating’ by…. there is a certain magical quality to this harsh North Country landscape, with its …tranquil lakes and streams… and …snowflakes falling in my hair…. which seems to indicate Dylan’s love for and empathy with his home territory. What is most impressive about the use of language here is the expansiveness of its imagery within its disciplined, compressed format. One of the best examples is the opening verse: ….The river whispers in my ear/ I’ve hardly a penny to my name/ The heavens have never seemed so near/ All my body glows with flame… The narrator seems to be in a kind of trance, with the spirits of nature talking to her. Out here in the cold North Country she feels lifted up, enraptured. The contrast between material poverty and spiritual enrichment is achieved with admirable economy and precision. In the next verse the beautiful and mysterious line …the tempest struggles in the air…  with its immediately contrasting …and to myself alone I sing.. is perhaps the most impressive example of symbolist writing in the song. There are times when Dylan demonstrates an innate feeling for the placement of a particular word and here the use of ‘struggle’ following ‘tempest’ creates a memorable metaphorical resonance. The lone singer, searching into the depths of her soul, is engaged in a kind of tempestuous struggle with herself, trying to face up to the darkness within. The very sound of the words expresses this just as effectively as whatever symbolic meaning they may have.

The next verses take us further into this darkness. The narrator searches for …one smilin’ face/ to drive the shadow from my head… She cries …why must you torture me within?…. and rages against the spirits of nature: ….Why must you come down off your high hill?/Throw my fate to the clouds and wind…. Again the language is direct, precise  – a kind of Blakean ‘plain speak’ which is colloquial but simultaneously symbolic. It is as if she has been twisted up herself by the struggling tempest, the wild spirit of the bleak land, which exists both outside and inside her. This spirit which tortures her causes her to have …secret thoughts… which are …hard to bear…  But she is left alone, with … emotions we can never share … One of the key moments in the film occurs when it is revealed that Josey’s child was conceived when she was raped by her teacher and the lines in the next verse You trampled on me as you passed/ Left the coldest kiss upon my brow…  express the emotional aloneness of one who has experienced such an ordeal for withering clarity. Yet from this point onwards, the narrator begins to gather the inner strength she will need for the oncoming struggle. …All my doubts and fears have gone at last… she confesses …I’ve nothing more to tell you now…  After howling at the wind and the spirits of the air in despair she begins to come to a cold realisation. She now understands that … the enemy is at the gates… From here on, the scenery is transformed. In another remarkable transposition of colloquial and figurative language she contrasts the raging incoherence of the oppressive spirit:  …Beneath the thunder-blasted trees/ The words are ringin’ off your tongue… with symbolic descriptions of nature which reflect on her new, hard-won determination. …The ground is hard in times like these… she declares. Now she is standing on solid, firm earth. And, even more remarkably …stars are cold, the night is young… contrasting in a single short line an image of her own fortitude with a sly reworking of a common cliché. The stars are cold and so now is her heart and her ‘iron will’ (reflected in the ‘iron clouds’ that pass above her).

In the final verses her determination to enact revenge grows. Now darkness begins to fall on the landscape, a darkness that is reflected in the corruption she has to face up to:  …The woods are dark, the town is too/ They’ll drag you down, they run the show/ Ain’t no tellin’ what they’ll do.… But she is ready now to face up to these ‘enemies at the gates’. When, in the penultimate verse ‘Old Bill’ arrives, she shows herself to be fully prepared: …Tell him that I’m not alone/ That the hour has come to do or die… She declares that …All the world I would defy… She is ready to take on the elements now, to still the raging torrent that surrounds her. And she stares her enemy directly in the face with a final expression of compassion: ….I look at you now and I sigh/ How could it be any other way… Her enemy may have tried to ‘throw her fate to the clouds and wind’ but she has taken control of her own destiny. Such is Dylan’s skill with language here that he makes his Girl Of The North Country’s ‘struggle with the tempest’ inside and outside her into a profound expression of the triumph of an individual spirit against great adversity. On one level the song is, like so many of Dylan’s most heartfelt works, another exploration of the process of poetic creation itself. The singer here is almost consumed by imagery before he finds the willpower to channel it into focus, as if the poet is attempting to ‘struggle’ with a ‘tempest’ of language that hovers above him in the air, just out of reach. The words express both the savage glory and the terror of the seeker for inspiration. For Dylan this search is, as always, a spiritual one.

But who is ‘Ol’ Bill’, the apparent subject of the song? ‘Bill’ makes only a fleeting appearance, personifying the narrator’s helper. In fact the lawyer who wins Josey’s case in North Country is called Bill. ‘Ol’ Bill’ is also a stock character who appears in a number of very old Negro folk songs. One from the Georgia islands runs:  …Old Bill the rollin’ pin, he had a hog eye and a double chin…  Here ‘Old Bill’  is a policeman.  In England ‘Old Bill’ is also a popular slang term for the police. Actually Dylan seems to have lifted the title line from a traditional song called Tell Old Bill which appeared in Carl Sandburg’s compendium of American folksongs American Songbag, first published in 21927. The song goes …Tell Old Bill when he gets home/Leave them downtown gals alone… At the end of the song Old Bill meets a sorry fate  …They brought …poor dead Bill – – his toes were a-draggin’… It is typical of the latter-day Dylan to insert such phrases from old songs, although this is the only instance of this practice here. This is a small, playful touch in a lyric which mostly avoids the sometimes complex patterns of reference Dylan frequently uses in his songs of this period (especially on the Modern Times album). The song is relatively free from direct allusions, although its language – using natural imagery as metaphorical representations of inner turmoil – is often reminiscent of Shakespeare’s poetic methodology. The reference to ‘thunder blasted trees’ recalls the ‘blasted heath’ in King Lear and the ‘North Country’ scenario resembles such a devastated wilderness. The centrality of the image of the ‘tempest’ in the song also recalls Shakespeare’s play of the same name, wherein the ‘tempest’ has a similar symbolic significance. If Tell Ol’ Bill can be taken as a song about the struggle poets face with inspiration than who better a ‘helper’ than Ol’ Bill Shakespeare himself?

As with Cross The Green Mountain, it is fortunate that Tell Ol’ Bill  was rescued from the obscurity of being on the soundtrack album of a relatively little-known film and was placed on Tell Tale Signs. In its own way, it is just as much a major latter-day Dylan work, showcasing many of his most effective and evocative poetic techniques. And like the greatest blues songs, it delves into the darkest recesses of the human heart and comes out fighting defiantly, celebrating nothing less than humanity itself.


As usual, I’d welcome any comments in the box below or you can write to me directly at


More to come soon!








The frozen smile upon my face fits me like a glove…

And she bore him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have
been a stranger in a strange land. 

Exodus 2:22

There in the tomb stand the dead upright,
But winds come up from the shore:
They shake when the winds roar,
Old bones upon the mountain shake

W.B. Yeats, The Black Tower

Red River Shore was perhaps the major revelation among all the tracks released on Tell Tale Signs. Its ambition and scope rates with the very best of Dylan’s later work. We are presented two versions of the song, which are almost identical lyrically. This is not, like a number of the other Time Out Of Mind outtakes, a ‘work in progress’. The version on Disc One is the most impressive, beginning with sparse guitar accompaniment and building gradually with the addition of more drums, bass and atmospheric maracas and (in particular) the accordion which comes to dominate the sound. Dylan’s singing here is breathily tender and restrained, reminiscent of the intimacy of the original ‘New York Sessions’ for Blood On The Tracks. The effect is beautifully matched to the tone of humility that underscores the unfolding narrative, tinged with a sweetly savoured sense of regret. Though Red River Shore is a kind of ‘love song’, its concerns are ultimately far wider and more transcendent. In many ways it is a classic piece of romanticism, which echoes the ‘nature poems’ of Burns, Keats, Shelley and Wordsworth. The girl herself seems more elemental than real, a kind of spirit of nature who may be taken to symbolise the poetic imagination itself. Here Dylan uses an authentically mature voice to create a kind of mystical reflection on the power that memory has on our lives as we grow older.


There are in fact two major ‘Red Rivers’ in the US, one in the south between Texas and Oklahoma and one in the north between Minnesota and North Dakota. The ‘Red River’ referred to in the famous 1949 Howard Hawks/John Wayne movie is the southern one, whereas one might speculate that the ‘Red River Shore’ Dylan refers to here is the one next to his home state of Minnesota. But unlike Mississippi’, he does not seem to be using US geography in any metaphorical way here. The ‘Red River’ seems to be an entirely symbolic location, with the notion of a ‘red river’ also suggesting blood flowing. ‘Red rivers’ also occur in several folk songs. Most well known is the folk/country standard Red River Valley, a song in which a young girl laments that the cowboy she loves will soon have to leave the Valley. This dates from around 1870 and was first popularized in recorded form in Jules Verne Allen’s 1929 version (known as Cowboy Love Song). It has since been recorded by Jimmie Rodgers, Roy Acuff, Gene Autry, Bill Haley, Woody Guthrie, The Sons OfThe Pioneers and many others. Perhaps more relevant is another traditional song which shares the same title as Dylan’s, which was popularized by The Kingston Trio (who, despite their rather ‘sanitised’ approach to folk music, Dylan cites in Chronicles Part One as an early influence). This song contains the lines … She wrote me a letter/ She wrote it so kind… which Dylan uses in Not Dark Yet, another song from Time Out Of Mind. The song is a cowboy ballad in which the sharpshooting hero’s love for the girl who lives on the shore is thwarted by her highly disapproving relatives. Although he kills a total of thirteen of them, their manpower eventually overwhelms him and he has to retreat. Dylan’s narrator does not face such problems, though he comes no closer to ‘getting the girl’. It could be said that both of these songs hover somewhere in the background here, as both deal with unrequited love. Dylan uses the familiar phrase to help evoke the intense sexual and spiritual yearning that characterizes the song.


 Red River Shore begins with a collocation of extraordinary imagery: …Some of us turn off the lights and we live/In the moonlight shooting by/Some of us scare ourselves to death in the dark/To be where the angels fly… Dylan sets out his stall here, presenting life as a choice between accepting the chaotic nature of existence and letting it overwhelm us. The implication seems to be that if we want to live blissfully (‘where the angels fly’ ) and fulfill our inner longings, we need to accept the ‘darkness’ which surrounds us and learn to live ‘in the moonlight shooting by’, a highly evocative phrase suggesting that a life lived to its full personal and spiritual potential must embrace a certain kind of ‘darkness’. This is a song about choices, but it is not one in which the narrator necessarily makes the right choice. It is a treatise on infatuation, on entrapment, focused on the narrator’s intense love for an unreachable object. The narrator describes a life spent reaching out for someone who is less a real person than a poetic ideal, perhaps a muse, but one who he never has any real chance of getting close to. As the stately tune progresses, Dylan’s subdued and poignant performance conveys his sense of ineffable regret in every breath.


The narrator tells us that despite the … pretty maids all in a row lined up/Outside my cabin door… he has not been distracted from pursuing his love object. The use of the ‘pretty maids’ line from the nursery rhyme Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary next to the reference to ‘my cabin door’ creates an oddly archaic resonance. ‘My cabin door’ is a direct allusion to the great American mid-nineteenth century songwriter Stephen Foster’s Hard Times (covered by Dylan in 1993 on Good As I Been To You). Dylan’s sparing and suggestive use of archaic terms seems to locate the song somewhere in the Foster’s time, when the log cabin itself became a key symbol of the pioneer spirit – Abraham Lincoln was only one of a number of Presidents who made much of their log cabin origins. Red River Shore is also somewhat reminiscent of the wistfully romantic but mournful tone of a number of Foster’s songs, such as Jeannie With The Light Brown Hair. Like the girl from the Red River Shore, Foster’s Jeannie is a kind of lost dream-lover, who is …borne like a vapor on the sweet summer air…  We also hear that … Now the nodding wild flowers may wither on the shore/ While her gentle fingers will cull them no more… clearly suggesting that Jeannie is dead.  Dylan’s language in this song hints at such an elegiac tone, though ultimately he buries even this assumption in mystery. Foster’s longing for the dead girl is, like that of Edgar Allen Poe in poems like Lenore and Annabel Lee, a stylized and idealized approach which is very characteristic of nineteenth century romanticism and its preoccupation with transcendent death. But despite his apparent immersion in this ‘far away’ world, Dylan constantly jolts us back into everyday reality. He is locked into the romantic illusion of ‘love at first sight’, experiencing a love so powerful that no other love can ever match it. … I knew when I first laid eyes on her… he laments …I could never be free… However, in fact he tells us very little about the girl. Unlike Foster’s Jeannie she seems to have no defining physical characteristics. Yet she has, it seems, something of an acid tongue. After all the narrator’s wooing she advises him, rather bluntly, to …go home and lead a quiet life… Then we hear that his dream of her …dried up a long time ago… He piles on the romantic disillusionment, telling us he’s living under a ‘cloak of misery’, that he can’t ‘escape from her memory’ and that …the frozen smile upon my face fits me like a glove… The awkwardness of the metaphor is another one of the song’s odd lyrical twists. Here he seems to suggest that he willingly submits to the state of paralysis that his memory has locked him into.
As the song progresses we still learn nothing significant about the girl herself. The singer seems more concerned with meditating upon his own separation from his muse. Alternating between florid poesy and grim realism he tells us he’s …trapped in the fires of time… and …living in the shadows of a fading past… but admits he …never did know the score… and has tried to …stay out of a life of crime… He seems to simultaneously far away from the Red River Shore and standing at its edge. …I’m a stranger here in a strange land… he declares …But I know I’ve stayed here before…. and he dreams of spending the night here ‘a thousand nights ago’ with the girl. He seems to be willingly trapped in a romantic fantasy, in love with a past image of himself and unwilling to free himself from it. But then the narrative takes some very unexpected turns. He tells us he went back to see the girl once to ‘straighten it out’ but that all the people he talked to had no memory of her. Increasingly it seems as if she may have been a mere projection. In the final lines he concludes that … Sometimes I think nobody ever saw me here at all/ ‘Cept the girl from the red river shore… So any solidity his past had had has dissolved. The main theme of the song seems to be not romantic love but the way we can hold onto romantic illusions of the past which may stifle our creativity in the present. This tension lies behind the mostly tortured love songs that make up Time Out Of Mind, depicting the process of an artist trying to free himself from his past.
But there is one more shadow from the past that the singer apparently has to exorcise. In the song’s oddest twist of all we are presented, in weirdly detached language, with what appears to be a reference to Jesus: …I’ve heard about a guy who lived a long time ago/ A man full of sorrow and strife/ That if someone around him died and was dead/He knew how to bring him on back to life… This may in fact be a biblical allusion not to Jesus but to the prophecy of the coming messiah in Isiah 53:3:

He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Yet this is in no way any kind of conventional ‘religious revelation’. The description is strangely offhand and the expression very strange, especially the line ‘died and was dead’. It’s as if the singer has adopted some colloquial ‘uneducated’ tone to refer to ‘this guy’. And the lines remain ominously mysterious. Does the singer want ‘the guy’ to bring ‘the girl’ back to life? Or is he merely grasping at straws? The way ‘the guy’ is introduced and then dismissed in no way indicates any leap of faith. All we are left with in the end is enigma. Did he really know the girl at all? Was any of it real? Can we really trust our memories and should we let romantic illusions overcome us? Can we bring them back to life? The singer has obviously been inspired by ‘the girl’. She seems to have always been his muse. But whenever he tries to conjure her up she slips through his fingers, like a ghost. A ghost of a memory….  In Time Out Of Mind  and successive albums Dylan confronts his past, cramming his songs with snippets of what seem like half remembered songs, echoes of what he will later refer to as .. long dead souls from their crumblin’ tombs… evoking past scenes through the prism of the present.  The implication seems to be that only be accepting the truth of the past can we be free from it. So we can avoid …scaring ourselves to death in the dark… and live in the fullness of the present moment, within …the moonlight shooting by…