“Brownsville Girl” towers high above the desert zone of Dylan’s recording career that he entered with Saved (1980) and left by means of the two albums of covers of old folk songs Good As I Been to You (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993). (Time Out of Mind did not appear until 1997.) With the exception of “Maybe Someday,” “Brownsville Girl” is, in my view, the only worthwhile track on a mess of a 1986 album called Knocked Out Loaded, an unofficial Part 2 to the similarly dire Empire Burlesque recorded a year earlier, with some of the Knocked Out Loaded tracks recorded then too. As Leonard Cohen, thinking of those barren years, once said, there’s always at least one good track on a Dylan album. And as the flood of official bootlegs has made clear, the best version of a song was not always the one released. In any case, “Brownsville Girl” is mostly known to Dylan die-hards, and even them it divides, with emotion on both sides. I’m with those who consider it one of the best things Dylan has ever written and certainly ever performed. He himself has described in an interview with Bill Flanagan as a song that never got the attention it deserved. It’s high on my list for all the reasons I consider him a major artist and for all the qualities of his work I love most.

On YouTube you can hear a 1984 version of “Brownsville Girl” when it was called “New Danville Girl.” This earlier title alludes to the Woody Guthrie song “Danville Girl” (a.k.a. “The Gambler”), but the Guthrie and the Dylan aren’t much alike. The melodies are not the same. In the Guthrie song the hobo, standing “on the platform smoking a big cigar,” sings, “Good morning, Mister railroad man, what time does your train roll by?” He’s waiting for a train with an empty car he can ride. But in the next verse the tense shifts to the past, and it’s not clear whether it was this train or another that he rode to Danville, where he “got stuck on a Danville girl,/ Bet your life she was a pearl, she wore that Danville curl.” But he didn’t stay stuck long. Unless there’s an irony I’m missing, this—as that big cigar suggests—is a song about class. “She wore her hat on the back of her head like high tone people all do.” What is a hobo to do? The very “next train come down the track, I bid that girl adieu.”

“Danville Girl” is over in little more than three minutes. “New Danville Girl,” at eleven and a half, is one of Dylan’s long songs. (“Brownsville Girl,” which it became, is just over eleven.) Like “Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” “Desolation Row,” and “Like a Rolling Stone,” the arrangement has an anthemic quality, which the Guthrie does not. The singer is not waiting on a train platform smoking a big cigar but “standing in line in the rain to see a movie starring Gregory Peck.” The train appears only in a simile: “Your memory keeps callin’ after me like a rollin’ train.” Otherwise only “pearl” and “curl” from the Guthrie reappear, in the refrain: “Danville Girl with your Danville curl,/Teeth like pearls . . .” The Dylan is about the loss of love, owing not to class but to the mysteries of the human heart and mind.

As for the difference between Dylan’s “New Danville Girl” and his “Brownsville Girl,” in the former the female chorus is more restrained—to the point at times of sounding a bit lame. The restraint is appropriate to the sober severity of Dylan’s performance of “New Danville Girl” and serves the song well. If it weren’t for some surprisingly weak spots in the lyrics and one short stretch of vocal strain, “New Danville Girl” would be a perfectly good recording. Flawed as it is, it’s the preference of those who prefer a “purer,” more restrained and serious Dylan. In “Brownsville Girl,” recorded over a year later, the bringing forward of the chorus (the Queens of Rhythm, with Madlyn Quebec out in front) with big instrumentation puts off many die-hards. They find it slick and overblown, and it doesn’t help that in both versions the words of the refrain (“Brownsville girl, with your Brownsville curls .  .  .”) are banal in a way unworthy of the complexity of the rest of the song.

But I think Dylan’s decision to ramp up the chorus is appropriate to his original conception of the song, at least to judge from the style and subject matter of the lyrics. Like “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” from Blood on the Tracks (1975), this is a fractured-story song about romance and memory. We’re never quite sure where we are in time or what’s real, imagined, or remembered from the big screen. The song that became “Brownsville Girl” was co-written over two days by Dylan and the playwright and actor Sam Shepherd , and while there’s no way of knowing who was responsible for what, the narrative has a bigger, more pictorial momentum than it might have had coming from Dylan alone. With Gregory Peck as a central figure and the dominant image of two lovers in a car speeding across the desert, that pictorial quality is Technicolor cinematic. As a song about memory, illusion, and romantic loss and yearning, “Brownsville Girl” is one great tragicomic construct of empty yet potent Hollywood clichés.

The Queens of Rhythm chorus, with its accompaniment of big, blatting Hollywood trumpets and sax, is one with this. By the eleventh verse, the chorus has begun to function like a chorus in classical Greek drama: the women are paying close attention to the singer’s assertions, and at times they, or sometimes just Ms Quebec, react with varying degrees of scepticism, scorn, amazement, interrogation, and sympathy to his claims and revelations. The banality of the refrain is unfortunate, and it doesn’t need to come with such blaring music, but doing it this way was, I think, a reasonable aesthetic decision on Dylan’s part. It’s certainly of a piece with the exuberant, open, affectionate way he has now chosen to deliver the lines.

In “Brownsville Girl” Dylan has also brilliantly repaired each and every weak spot in the “New Danville Girl” lyrics. For example, the lines about the movie “All I can remember about it is it’s starring Gregory Peck and he was in it,/ And everything he did in it reminded me of me. Yeah!” become “All I remember about it was Gregory Peck and the way people moved/ And a lot of them seemed to be lookin’ my way.” While “Oh, you got to talk to me now baby, tell me about the man that you used to love,/And tell me about your dreams, just before the time you passed out. Oh yeah!” is vastly improved as “Strange how people who suffer together have stronger connections than people who are most content./ I don’t have any regrets, they can talk about me plenty when I’m gone”—to which Ms Quebec responds with an incredulous Oh yeah? and we know that the proper speaker and delivery have been found for those awkward “New Danville Girl” yeahs.

When I was asked to write about “Brownsville Girl” and not just listen to it for the ten thousandth time, I was surprised to find that the library of my alma mater has three hundred books—or at least entries under “Books”—on Dylan and 14,436 articles. I’d noticed before that most writing about Dylan is poor, dull, depressing stuff. It’s mostly either by fans who are saying more about themselves than about him or by academics who perform painful exegeses on the songs as if they were canonical poems. Also, like many genuinely (for lack of a more fashionable word) great artists, Dylan brings out the worst in his most faithful commentators. It’s an unfortunate feature of human psychology that a note of condescension, or even pity, sounds in the work of small people dealing with genius (another unfashionable word), a kind of insolence that comes of a presumed familiarity originating somewhere deep and dank in their own needs. These are people always getting stuck in time, raging at the new Dylan, because he’s moved on. They don’t understand that moving on is what artists do.

The only Dylanologist I have come across who has done anything like justice to “Brownsville Girl” is Michael Gray—who gives it ten full columns in his Bob Dylan Encyclopedia (2006)—with the late Aidan Day in Jokerman (1988) coming second. Day is an intelligent practitioner of the lit-crit persuasion and does a reasonable analysis, with which his reader can disagree in a hundred ways. Gray, I think, comes more to the point, because he understands that with Dylan the primary art is in the performance. Because—to get this out of the way—a song is not a poem. A poem, a lyric at least, seeks singularity, to imprint itself in the mind by means of language. A song is written to be sung. The words on the page are verbal formulas from the past, conventional units, assembled and performed to unlock their latent emotional power. This is not to say that a song is not a literary form—of course Dylan deserved a Nobel for Literature—only that it’s inappropriate to ask of it what you ask of a poem. The relations between the parts of a song—tried and true verbal formulas—if they are going to work when sung, need to be left too loose for that.

Literature is about voice, and in a song the complexity comes from what the singer makes of the potential of the voice in the lyrics as written. This circumstance has crucial implications for the “poetic” nature of song lyrics. Dylan has many strengths. He is a superb and prolific songwriter. He once had a very strong singing voice, and he still has an inimitable one. But he has always been, first and foremost, about the speaking (listen to Theme Time Radio Hour sometime) and singing voice. He is a master vocal stylist, like Sinatra, except that he writes his own material and he has access to a range of characters that is not short of Shakespearean. It’s been said that on the few occasions Dylan splices in a change to a recording, it’s not because he hasn’t hit the note but because the character wouldn’t have said it that way. This is a matter of intonation, not pitch or diction. Dylan has always sung in characters. They’re all him and they’re all different. He’s always been a vessel for voices from everywhere, including the weirdest depths of human nature and of the past.

In “Brownsville Girl” the character is a lost lover, partly the “hungry kid” in the movie he’s remembering, “trying to make a name for himself” by shooting the Gregory Peck character in the back, and partly a Gregory Peck fan who’d line up in the rain to “see him in anything.” As if to follow through on the instability of what-happens-when in Guthrie’s “Danville Girl” and the suggestion of recurrence that issues from that, the Brownsville girl exists in his memory but also in her replacement: “Now I know she ain’t you but she’s here and she’s got that dark rhythm in her soul.” What exactly happened in the earlier romance is no clearer than the difference between reality and the scenes from the movie that fill his mind.

This is an astonishing, sustained, bravura performance, of hope, delusion, romantic flamboyance, longing and loss. Dylan delivers urgent, nimble, intricate lines that are too long for the stately, too-slow-feeling music. As he does so, he shifts with extraordinary fluidity and tact between singing and talking, sometimes within the same line, or even the same word. Part of the failure of that 1980-92 stretch of bad work was Dylan’s unaccountable decision (made well before that) to distance or bury his voice in slick productions. Here the production is slick, but the lyrics and delivery are enough to enable the voice—the character’s voice—to soar, in all its boyish, tragicomic folly and glory.

I won’t quote any more of the many wonderful lines in the song than I have already. However terrific, they need to be experienced sung. Like Burroughs and Beckett, Dylan is one of the finest comic writers of the modern age, but to experience the humour fully, you need to hear him deliver the lines. At his best, and here he is at his best, Dylan’s laser subtlety of vocal focus, the faultless psychological detailing of emotional nuance, is unmatched in Western popular music. If you really want to know how good a song “Brownsville Girl” is, listen to the beautiful live performance of it by Bonnie “Prince” Billy, a.k.a. Will Oldham, on YouTube. If you’ve ever had any feeling for the song at all, listen to Oldham’s version, and I guarantee you’ll be moved to tears, or come close. Then go back to Dylan’s version and laugh and marvel and feel the enormous yearning joy of it. Weep or exult, it’s your choice.

Greg Hollingshead

From ELQ 41:1 (2017)