Sunday, May 18, 2008

Bob Dylan, Suze Rotolo, and "The Gypsy Laddie" of Spain

Remember the cover photo on "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," with Bob walking arm-in arm with a gorgeous blonde down an icy street in Greenwich Village? I was in my mid-teens when I first bought the record. In those days I yearned to be a folksinger, playing at hootenannies and at the coffeehouses of the Village and Chicago's Old Town. But I yearned even more to have a beautiful young woman on my arm as Dylan had.

The woman on the album was Suze Rotolo, who has just published a memoir about her love affair with Dylan and its eventual breakup. I haven't yet read the book, A Freewheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties , but I heard Terry Gross's interview with Rotolo on Fresh Air. Rotolo was only seventeen when she met Dylan, but she was an artist who had worked in the civil rights movement. She was a "red-diaper baby:" her parents were members of the Communist Party. Rotolo introduced Dylan to the music of Bertoldt Brecht and Kurt Weill, which influenced his music.

Rotolo's relationship with Dylan began to crumble when she took the opportunity to go to art school in Perugia, Italy. Dylan did not want her to go. Dylan's song, "Boots of Spanish Leather," was his way of dealing with her leaving. Terry Gross did not seem to realize the significance of the title, though Rotolo, and anyone familiar with the folk scene, surely did. Here's the last stanza:

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.

Many of Dylan's early songs paid homage to the English and Scottish ballads collected by Francis James Child and the Appalachian ballads compiled by Cecil Sharp. "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall, " for example, is based on "Lord Randal," while "Masters of War" takes its tune from "Fair Nottamun Town." "Boots of Spanish Leather" uses almost the same tune as Dylan's earlier "Girl from the North Country," which references The Elfin Knight, but laments that "She once was a true love of mine," as opposed to the ballad's future tense: "then she will be a true lover of mine." But the song's title refers to another Scottish ballad, "The Gypsy Laddie," or rather its American variant, "Black Jack Davy." In it a gypsy seduces the lady of a manor. Americans weren't familiar with gypsies, so the seducer is usually called "Black Jack Davy." One version calls him "Gypsum Davy." Americans didn't know about gypsies, but they knew gypsum. Here's an American version I learned back in the Sixties:

The landlord he came quickly to his door,
Inquiring for his lady.
The answer that they gave to him:
"She's gone with black-eyed Davy."

"Go saddle up my milk-white steed.
Go saddle and make hasty.
I'll ride all day, I'll ride all night
'Til I overtake my lady."

He rode all day he rode all night
Through waters deep and muddy.
He rode all day he rode all night
'Til he overtook his lady.

"Will you forsake your house and land?
Will you forsake your baby?
Will you forsake your own true love
And go with black-eyed Davy?"

"Yes I'll forsake my house and land.
Yes I'll forsake my baby.
yes I'll forsake my own true love
And go with black-eyed Davy."

"Last night you slept in a fine feather bed
And in your arms your baby.
Tonight you'll sleep on a cold riverbank
In the arms of black-eyed Davy.

"So you take off those high-heeled boots
All made from Spanish leather.
And give to me your lily-white hand
And say farewell forever."

In fact, it wasn't forever. Dylan and Rotolo got back together after she returned from Italy, though they broke up about a year later. But when he wrote "Boots of Spanish Leather," Dylan was sure that his own true love was saying farewell forever.

P.S. I found my beautiful young woman. One thing that brought us together was our love for the old ballads. I knew most of them only as poetry, but Kathleen, after years of listening to records by Jean Ritchie, Jeannie Robertson, and Ewan Macoll, could sing many of them. And in nearly 35 years of marriage, I've never had to ask for boots of Spanish leather.


SzélsőFa said...

In a way, Suzan Rotolo to Bob Dylan is like Helena to Timothy...

I don't know (or care) much about Dylan, but it was an interesting read, Stephen.

bart said...

thanks for the reminiscing here steve, i grew up a little later than you but still took on a lot of what happened in the 60's because i intuitively felt that something immense was taking place... dylan was among them as well as an army of caring, daring artists and musicians...

keep well...

steve said...

Szelsofa--In spite of his worldwide fame, Bob Dylan is very much an American singer. I thought about the connection between my characters and these--Timothy is a bright kid from northern Indiana, but who doesn't have the sophistication of the intelligence officers' daughter who grew up in Philadelphia. (Douglas McKechnie and Soraya Dubash have been giving me snippets of their story ever since Helena mentioned she was born less than 9 months after her parents' marriage. It happened during and after the partition of India, they tell me.)

Bart--I basically agree, though Dylan is a very complex character. A great book about that era is "Positively 4th Street" by David Haidu.

Lisa said...

I agree -- POSITIVELY 4th STREET was a great book. This was a wonderful post and it reminded me of a tiny bit of film trivia -- In the movie, VANILLA SKY, there is a scene that shows Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz walking arm and arm down the same street. The image was inspired by the over of Freewheelin' (I wouldn't have known, but it was in the special features on the DVD).

Patry Francis said...

That was the first Dylan album I owned, and it's remained my favorite. I always wondered about the woman on the cover.

Fascinating post, but the P.S. was the best part. Cheers to you and Kathleen.

steve said...

Lisa--Something I didn't know. I'll have to check out Vanilla Sky sometime--maybe next week, when I have some time off for my son's high school graduation.

Patry--Wonderful to hear from you. I've just started reading the book. Suze Rotolo writes of hearing Pete Seeger, Peggy seeger and Ewan Macoll, and even John Jacob Niles in person! These were people Kathleen and I knew only through LP records.