By: Willow Maclay
I’ve always really liked the front cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. There’s this girl and she’s clasping onto Dylan’s arm as tightly as she can. It looks cold outside in that way filmmakers romanticize about when they make films about New York City, and when I look at this image I can hardly blame them. The girl has the biggest smile plastered across her face that I’ve ever seen on anybody, and it makes me wonder if I’ve ever had a moment that brought me as much joy as this girl is experiencing in the presence of Bob Dylan. I’ve never done any research about who she was or what her relationship to Dylan might’ve been, because for me that would destroy the illusion of the emotional simplicity of the image. I look at this image and I know exactly what Bob Dylan means when he sings “She gave him a rainbow”. Doesn’t matter to me that the real meaning is probably tied up in anti-war sentiments, because love can have two definitions. Dylan knows this too.
I get really swept up in her eyes whenever I listen to this album. They’re so wide. Clear. Honest. I know the feeling of having my head pressed up against the brown leather jacket of someone I care about on a cold day. But even if I didn’t have that experience there’s so much texture in the image that looking at it means feeling the same things that this girl does. The second track on this album is Girl From the North Country and I wonder if that song is about her. This album is filled to the brim with images of war and songs that would become protest anthems and then songs of nostalgic days gone by and then golden oldies and then history, but this song slipped through the cracks. Dylan re-recorded it with Johnny Cash years later and it’s become the go-to version of the song since. On this album it’s like a port at sea, where the author gets lost in something that’s slipping away right in front of him. Her soft yellow hair. Mine’s yellow too. In December of 2014 my husband and I were walking in the woods in his hometown. It was cold, but I didn’t mind, because I was underneath his arm. Like the girl with Dylan. When I was a kid I always wondered what being a woman would actually feel like and I have no clearer answer than this song. When we were walking home it came up on shuffle and it lifted something cinematic out of the air during our first Christmas together. I always hated Christmas, because I never got what I wanted. We kissed in that way people do when they talk about old Hollywood, and he put his hand on my breast and this song was given new context.
We kept walking through the woods until we approached the cemetery where his grandfather had recently been buried and I placed my hand on the cold grave, but I didn’t feel alone at all. There’s something spiritual about hope and memory and longing and my husband tells me that his grandfather would have liked me. Bob Dylan is now about the age of my husband’s grandfather when he passed away, but it doesn’t feel like Bob Dylan could ever die. He feels more than human somehow. I grew up with his music when it was already considered American history. He’s no different than Abraham Lincoln or Betsy Ross or Mickey Mouse. When I listen to Dylan it’s easy to get sucked into his gravitational pull with the currents of his words and the prose I might not ever understand completely. Listening to Dylan is sometimes like reading the Bible. It feels just as sacred, more even, and we give songs and artists a god-like stature because to make someone feel an emotion with such clarity is the same thing as righteousness. The same thing as grace. Bob Dylan is god. Judas for some. But when I look at the front cover of this album he doesn’t seem so large. He’s boyish, and he’s cold just like her. There’s the smallest glimpse of his lips brimming. A secret smile hidden in the corner of his mouth. When Dylan sings it comes across like hymns or psalms or a call to arms, but on the cover of this album his mouth is closed. In this image he’s human, just like this girl. Walking the streets of New York City, just like everyone else.