Dylan Tribute: 9 Amazing Covers of “Girl From The North Country”

by Peter Wendel
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Album photo for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963)

There is no other composition in the vast American songbook that captures lost love more beautifully and hauntingly – the emotional desolation symbolized in the “howlin’ winds” and frozen rivers of the North Country.

Dylan’s deeply moving ballad, “Girl From The North Country,” is a mournful and tender tribute to an ex-lover who has gone away. Summer has passed and you can feel the cold loneliness of winter rolling in – a gray chill that grips the land and chases out the warm glow of summer.

The bleakness of the frozen imagery – like “rivers freeze” and “snowflakes storm” – is thawed by the human kindness and caring words of the singer. Seemingly, he is asking a friend to check on the “girl” he still loves (despite the fact that she’s left him):

If you go when the snowflakes storm
When the rivers freeze and summer ends
Please see if she’s wearing a coat so warm
To keep her from the howlin’ winds

“Girl From The North Country” – fashioned after traditional English ballads – was released in May 1963 on Dylan’s second studio album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Bob would re-record the song as a duet with country legend Johnny Cash in February 1969. That recording is the opening track on Dylan’s ninth LP, Nashville Skyline.

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Joan Baez and Dylan in 1963 [photo credit: Rowland Scherman]

Dylan wrote “Girl From The North Country” after his first trip to England in the winter of 1962. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about Bob’s inspiration:

[I]t is suspected that this song could have been inspired by his then girlfriend, Suze Rotolo. Dylan left England for Italy to search for Suze, whose continuation of studies there had caused a serious rift in their relationship. Unbeknownst to Dylan, Rotolo had already returned to the United States, leaving about the same time that Dylan arrived in Italy. It was here that he finished the song, ostensibly inspired by the apparent end of his relationship with Rotolo. Upon his return to New York in mid-January, he convinced Rotolo to get back together, and to move back into his apartment on 4th Street. Suze Rotolo is the woman featured on the album cover [The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan], walking arm in arm with Dylan down Jones Street, not far from their apartment.

What follows is a tribute to Bob Dylan and his timeless masterpiece, “Girl From The North Country.” As we drift into colder, darker days, let the tenderness of this haunting yet hopeful ballad – and this parade of stellar covers – warm your soul.

The covers are listed in no particular order. 

GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY
Bob Dylan (1963)

Here’s the original from the 1963 album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. This is where it all started. Dozens of artists from around the globe would cover the song, which was modeled on traditional English ballads, like “Scarborough Fair.”

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme
Remember me to the one who lives there
For once she was a true love of mine

Do the last two lines sound familiar?

With “Girl From The North Country,” Dylan tapped into a place beyond nostalgia – striking a chord that runs all the way back to the foundations of humanity. It’s enough to give you chills.

Dylan and Johnny Cash (1969)

In February of 1969, Bob re-recorded “Girl From The North Country” as a duet with Johnny Cash. It is the opening track on Dylan’s ninth LP, Nashville Skyline. This version highlights two of the most unique and treasured voices of a generation – standing at the crossroads of folk and country. If this doesn’t touch you…well, I’m not sure what to say.

Eddie Vedder (2008)

The golden-throated Pearl Jam frontman is blessed with one of the most powerful, mesmerizing voices in rock music. If God had a voice, it would sound like Eddie Vedder’s. He is a deeply stirring vocalist who pours everything he’s got into the ballads he performs (for example, “Daughter” and “Better Man”). Vedder’s live take on Dylan’s classic is no exception. It was recorded in August of 2008, at the Warner Theatre in Washington, DC. It even holds its own when compared to Eddie’s much-celebrated cover of Dylan’s “Masters Of War.”

The Black Crowes (2008)

Here we have frontman Chris Robinson and his brother Rich Robinson performing “Girl From The North Country” at the 2008 Newport Folk Festival. Chris (the elder brother) has a one-in-a-million voice that shines with hints of Dylan.

Lions (2009)

This full-throttle rendition may be the least like the original – but it works. The Austin-based quartet gives the nod to Dylan with this rock-anthem garage-band take on the 1963 classic. The distant dreamscape-quality of the vocals harkens back to a simpler time amid the howling winds of the North Country.

Joe Cocker (1970)

Joe Cocker and Leon Russell performed “Girl From The North Country” at the Fillmore East in March of 1970. Cocker released the cover on the 1970 live album, Mad Dogs And Englishmen. It’s tough to beat Joe’s soulful vocals – simply magical.

Counting Crows (2011)

Frontman Adam Duritz dedicates this live performance of “Girl From The North Country” to Roy Harper, another artist that covered the song. This soul-stirring rendition from Counting Crows was recorded in 2011 and released on the cover album, Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did On Our Summer Vacation) in 2012.

Johnny Cash and Joni Mitchell (1969)

A beautiful cover of a beautiful song. The contrast between the delicate sweetest of Joni’s vocals and Johnny’s rugged baritone is simply breathtaking. This live performance is from a 1969 episode of Cash’s TV show.

Rod Stewart (1974)

Stewart is known for covering everybody under the sun, and of course, Dylan is no exception. Rod included a cover of “Girl From The North Country” on his fifth solo album, Smiler (1974). Although the LP was panned by critics as “unadventurous,” the Dylan cover is a bright spot. This is an “alternate version” of the rendition that appears on Smiler.

Neil Young (2014)

Nobody ever accused Neil Young of being “unadventurous” – and his cover of “Girl From The North Country” is a good case in point. Neil’s rendition of Dylan’s masterpiece appears on the album, A Letter Home (2014). Young’s website described the LP: “an unheard collection of rediscovered songs from the past recorded on ancient electro-mechanical technology captures and unleashes the essence of something that could have been gone forever.”

Crosby, Stills & Nash (2012)

This live performance from the harmonizing powerhouse trio is as haunting as it is tender.

Peter Wendel is a journalist and PR consultant. He's attended hundreds of concerts and festivals, including the Peach Mountain Jam, The All Good and Lockn'. He's ridden legendary Grateful Dead runs from Ventura County Fairgrounds to Irvine Meadows (CA) from the Nassau Coliseum (NY) to the Boston Garden (MA). Peter is a former U.S. Marine who – after running into trouble with every last one of his commanding officers – received an honorable discharge and a direct order never to return. Born in California and raised in New Jersey, Peter lived in Boston and Joshua Tree (CA) before settling in the nation's capital. Find him on tour at PWendel@SongMango.com.

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