Call and (Heartrending) Response: Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather”

One of my favorite musical activities is to snag a bunch of versions of the same song off You Tube or iTunes and then luxuriate in the fine art of interpretation. It’s rather like stepping into a favorite winery and assenting to the server’s inquiry with, “Why yes, I believe I will try seven different pinots from your seven different vineyards scattered over hill and coast and dale. Cheers!”

This is especially true when the song is just flat-out great, garnering the deep respect and reverence of the covering artists.

A song, for example, such as Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather.”

What a song.

What a poem.

Recorded in 1963 and released the following year on his “The Times They Are Changin’” album, “Boots of Spanish Leather” shows Dylan at just about his writerly best, a mere babe at 22 years old, giving clear indications of the literary bent that would earn him the Nobel Prize for literature 52 years later. The song is in the form of a duet between two lovers, she setting sail for the wider world and inquiring whether he wants her to send him anything from her travels.

Oh no, he says, though he does so in this beautiful-but-somber poetic reflection:

No, there’s nothin’ you can send me, my own true love
There’s nothin’ I’m wishin’ to be ownin’
Just carry yourself back to me unspoiled
From across that lonesome ocean.

(Don’t worry, you can read and then listen to the full lyrics below, and the song itself is so stripped of ornamentation in most versions of it that the lyrics, unlike many songs, are fully, refreshingly discernible to the listener.)

“Boots of Spanish Leather” is a haunting song in every way, as the singer gives voice to the divergent life courses and decisions that will reveal, stanza by stanza unpeeling like an onion, that these lovers will be parting forever. Dylan inhabits both of their hearts and voices. When the male insists he wants nothing from her but herself, the female, knowing early in the song the true depth of her decision to leave, comes back just as insistent:

Oh, but I just thought you might want something fine
Made of silver or of golden
Either from the mountains of Madrid
Or from the coast of Barcelona

A keepsake, as it were. Something to touch in honoring what was, but can be no more. Her eyes are already on other shores.

 

 

Just one of the marvelous aspects of these lyrics is the muted, mournful quality of the couple’s communication. There’s somethin’ goin’ on here, to recall another Dylan song of a very different bent, and both lovers have more than an inkling of what it is. But there’s no drama, no recriminations, no shouting or wailing from across the room or while collapsed on the couch.

Only the near silent, soft, barely contained weeping of a departure that portends a painful emptying of the promise that once was.

Let’s either listen to Dylan’s rendition here or read the lyrics (or both) before moving on to appreciate a lovely cover treatment of the song that gives it a novel, even more haunting twist than the original.

 

 

Oh I’m sailin’ away, my own true love
I’m a-sailin’ away in the mornin’
Is there somethin’ I can send you from across the sea
From the place that I’ll be landin”?

No, there’s nothin’ you can send me, my own true love
There’s nothin’ I’m wishin’ to be ownin’
Just carry yourself back to me unspoiled
From across that lonesome ocean.

Oh, but I just thought you might want something fine
Made of silver or of golden
Either from the mountains of Madrid
Or from the coast of Barcelona

Oh, but if I had the stars from the darkest night
And the diamonds from the deepest ocean
I’d forsake them all for your sweet kiss
For that’s all I’m wishin’ to be ownin’.  

But I might be gone a long time
And it’s only that I’m askin’
Is there something I can send you to remember me by
To make your time more easy passin’ ?

Oh, how can, how can you ask me again
It only brings me sorrow
The same thing I would want today
I would want again tomorrow.

Oh, I got a letter on a lonesome day
It was from her ship a-sailin’
Saying I don’t know when I’ll be comin’ back again  
It depends on how I’m a-feelin’.

If you, my love, must think that-a-way
I’m a-sure your mind is roamin’  
I’m a-sure your thoughts are not with me
But with the country to where you’re goin’.    

So take heed, take heed of the western wind
Take heed of the stormy weather
And yes, there’s something you can send back to me
Spanish boots of Spanish leather

 

Surprisingly few singers have covered “Boots of Spanish Leather,” though I suspect it has been a bit daunting for most even to try. Which is a shame, really, given its raw beauty and weighty emotional hues. Who past a certain age (like maybe 13?) can’t relate to the heartbreak of losing one’s “own true love?”

Among those who have released their own versions is Joan Baez, who conducted a well-chronicled affair with Dylan but who was not the source of this song. That honor, as it were, goes to his first serious girlfriend, the late Suze Rotolo, who sailed out of his life in the summer of 1962 so she could go study art in Italy.

Others who have stepped up with their own versions are Nanci Griffith, Richie Havens, The Seldom Scene, The Lumineers, and the indie group, The Airborne Toxic Event. (Now that’s a whole other post: Fabulous Opaque Band Names!) All of them worthy, in their own right.

But I want to tend here to a new-ish version (2014) from the North Carolina-based duo Mandolin Orange (another fine band name), who approach it from the profound and convincing angle of it being a true duet, a kind of call-and-response, between two singers, a man and his woman, both with their own stories to tell, in their own distinct voices.

The young couple, Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz, play an understated guitar and fiddle, respectively, slowing the pace and lowering the pitch to bring forth the deep melancholy of these lovers and their halting, painful search for resolution. Their 6:49 version, complete with tastefully restrained instrumentals, contrasts with Joan Baez’s clocking in at 4:29 and Dylan’s own at 4:40..

Baez, her voice golden as always, sounds almost chirpy in comparison, her voice unable to restrain itself and thus missing the near desperation and wistfulness that Dylan brought to the tale, and which Marlin and Frantz pick up on and make more profound still by inhabiting the separate roles of the bereft young man and his departing love.

Check it out here:

Much has been made of the song’s denouement, when the male acquiesces at last, after he receives his letter in the mail indicating the finality of his lover’s decision. Then it turns out he wants something material after all: “Spanish boots of Spanish leather.”

Oh! He will take her up on that offer of “something fine.” No shotglass from the Barcelona Hard Rock Cafe!

This is a great and surprising Dylan line, part devilish, part shoulder-shrugging, part just surpassingly mournful and sad. Interpret as you will, because the song is yours, as Dylan would surely attest.

Should we laugh bitterly with him as he says, “O.K., what the hell, so you’re not coming back, fine, then send me some nice boots, and no knock-offs, either!”

Or perhaps cry one last time for his wistful, desperate claim to a parting gift, a fine item fit for everyday use, suffused with a romantic, exotic undertone, that he can touch and walk in and gaze upon daily, perhaps for years, from his “own true love.”

The answer, my friends, like so many of Dylan-the-storytelling-poet’s finest tales, is blowin’ in the wind…

***

Here’s The Airborne Toxic Event’s version, and it is really good, too…

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Twitter: @AndrewHidas

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Deep appreciation to the photographers!

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com   

Leaf photo near top of page by Tony Hammond, Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex, England, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/8525214@N06/

Ship photo by Louis Vest, Houston, Texas, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/oneeighteen/

5 comments to Call and (Heartrending) Response: Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather”

  • Angela  says:

    I have had the distinct pleasure of hearing Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz perform this song in live time, and it was one of those memorable musical moments that has the capacity to shift things in the soul.

    Concerts in the modern standing, rather than seated, venues can sometimes be noisy affairs with lots of background chatter, but when Mandolin Orange plays Spanish Boots the room becomes riveted in its attentiveness, and you could hear a pin drop. We were held collectively in their mastery and rendering of this beautiful music, in the poignancy of the tale.

    Thank you for calling out the power and beauty of music on this grey December morning!

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    I had much the same response coming across the video version in the quiet of my home, Angela. Kind of wanted to stop my breathing and slow my heartbeat till song’s end. It’s always striking to hear new life and perspective breathed into a classic work of art, especially by young artists honoring the richness of what has come before.

  • Al  says:

    Thanks Andrew for shedding new light on an old tune. Al

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Thanks Drew – loved hearing the 2 contemporary versions – both done with delicate taste and nuance…
    hadn’t heard or thought of this song in about 40 years – a real delight… found the ATE’s version especially pleasing with the additional instrumentation and harmony singing… delightful, am sure Sir Bob would approve!

    • Richard Graey  says:

      Reminds me a lot of Dylan’s ‘North Country’, which really resonates with me.

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