Not surprisingly, I’ve spent more than the usual amount of time over the last two or three days listening to Bob Dylan, although it wasn’t because I needed to persuade myself that he deserved the Nobel committee’s 2016 prize for literature. Funnily enough, the track I’ve ended up playing constantly is one that he didn’t write: the Anglo-Scottish ballad “Barbara Allen”, which dates back to the mid-17th century. It is said to have been a staple of his repertoire in his early days in the Greenwich Village folk clubs, and he has credited it as one of the traditional ballads which taught him that songs could be more than three minutes long. In that sense it played a part in the creation of “Desolation Row”, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, “Tangled up in Blue”, “Isis”, “Brownsville Girl”, “‘Cross the Green Mountain” and his other epics.
A live performance of the song from his apprentice years is included on Live at the Gaslight 1962, taped in the MacDougal Street basement in October that year, while he was in the middle of recording Freewheelin’. There are three things that give it a prominent place in my list of secret Dylan favourites (alongside “House Carpenter”, “Yeah Heavy and a Bottle of Bread”, “Going, Going, Gone”, “Changing of the Guard” and the live version of “Queen Jane Approximately” with the Grateful Dead).
The first and most obvious is his tone, for which only the word “tender” will do, and which is perfectly suited to a tale that ends with the entwining of a red rose and a briar growing out of the graves of the two protagonists. As so often from his performances in this period, you can only wonder at the depth of feeling with which the 21-year-old imbues the song. The second is the artful way he handles the song’s cadences, using his voice and guitar to create tension by stretching and releasing the lines in the way that would become an important factor in some of his best songs (e.g. “It’s Alright, Ma”).
The third is tiny but, to me at least, significant. Most people singing this ballad, including Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton, begin with the lines “Twas in the merry month of May / When the green buds all were swelling / Sweet William on his death bed lay / For love of Barbara Allen.” Dylan prefers an alternative version, which was also known before the song made its Atlantic crossing, and which usually goes thus: “In Scarlet Town, not far from here, / There was a fair maid dwelling / And her name was known both far and near / And her name was Barbara Allen.” Then he sings the verse with which others open it. I like his way of opening it better: it’s more direct, more compelling.
But he does something else. He changes “Scarlet Town” — which apparently may originally have been a play on the name of the English town of Reading — to “Charlottetown”. It turns out that there are only two places of that name recorded in the Times Atlas of the World. One is in Guyana. The other is on Prince Edward Island in Canada, which turns out to be on the same latitude — just a little above the 46th parallel — as Duluth, Minnesota, Dylan’s birthplace.
They’re 1,350 miles apart, as the black crow flies, but unless somebody can tell me that other singers before Dylan made the same substitution, I’m going to think of it as a conscious choice with an intention behind it. To me, it’s an early example of how he was starting to construct his own songs by reassembling, reshaping and repurposing existing materials, a modus operandi sustained from “Hard Rain” to “Early Roman Kings”. For that reason, I find it unusually moving. And after all, more than 50 years later, on Tempest, his most recent album of his own songs, he included a piece which began “In Scarlet Town, where I was born…”
* The photograph above was taken in 1962 by Joe Alper, whose other images of Dylan can be found at http://www.wallofsoundgallery.com.