Highlands is a bit of an oddball on Time Out of Mind. Although the tone is dark like the rest of the album, it also has a good bit of surrealistic humor. And although it’s a blues number, it also feels more like an Irish ballad. It both fits and doesn’t fit.
It’s definitely one of the best songs on the album. Actually, it’s one of my favorite Dylan songs, period. It’s a serious song full of serious thoughts, yet at the same time, it makes me laugh, and surprises me at every turn, and keeps me guessing the entire time. And it sticks with me long after I’m done experiencing it, which is the best sign that something is a great work of art.
Before getting into the Fragments tracks, let’s discuss the song in general.
As most of you probably already know, Highlands seems to have been inspired by the poem My Heart’s in the Highlands, by the 18th century Scottish poet Robert Burns.
My heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here, My heart's in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer; Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe, My heart's in the Highlands, wherever I go. Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North, The birth-place of Valour, the country of Worth; Wherever I wander, wherever I rove, The hills of the Highlands forever I'll love. My heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here, My heart's in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer; Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe, My heart's in the Highlands, wherever I go. Farewell to the mountains, high-cover'd with snow, Farewell to the straths and green valleys below; Farewell to the forests and wild-hanging woods, Farewell to the torrents and loud-pouring floods. My heart's in the Highlands my heart is not here, My heart's in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer; Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe, My heart's in the Highlands, wherev'r I go My heart's in the Highlands, farewell.
It seems that both Burns and Scotland have long held a place in Dylan’s heart. Apparently, he owns a house in Scotland (see the first link in Further Reading). He accepted an honorary degree from St. Andrews. He told The Guardian that one of his favorite poems is Burn’s A Red, Red Rose. He had actor John C. Reilly perform Burn’s Coming Through the Rye on his Theme Time Radio show.
Like many American school kids, Dylan might have been introduced to Burn’s work in high school. If not, he certainly heard it during his days in Greenwich Village in the early sixties. Many folk artists performed Burn’s songs or turned his poetry into songs. Perhaps the most well-known was Dylan contemporary Jean Redpath.
Lyrically, I think Highlands might be the best song on TOOM. Although Not Dark Yet and a couple others are also pretty great, I’d argue that the performance of those songs pushes them over the top more than the lyrics.
Highlands is a profound meditation on mortality, a portrait of an existential crisis in progress, and funny. The “fur coat” line is classic Dylan ironic humor. The song is a terrific shaggy dog story, reminiscent of Talkin’ World War III Blues.
I especially enjoy the description of the confrontation with the waitress in the restaurant. They say it’s a mistake to meet your hero. I really have no desire to meet Dylan in person. However, if I did, I think I’d ask him if that scene is based an actual event. It seems like it is.
A couple other quick observations. Highlands is one of the rare late-period Dylan songs that has no overt religious references. He does sneak in a reference to Swing Low Sweet Chariot – Big white clouds like chariots that swing down low. Swing Low itself is a hymn, so I guess that counts.
Now lets get back to Fragments.
I’ve always found the original version annoying. The guitar accompaniment is too loud and too repetitive, so much so that I have a hard time making it through the song. So to me, these new versions are very welcome.
The alternative version is an improvement. Dylan jettisons a few lines (this site has all three versions) and speeds the whole thing up slightly. The bass and drum play more prominent roles, making the whole thing a bit more danceable. The guitar part is more varied as well.
The live version mixes things up a bit more. Dylan’s more varied vocal adds significantly. The accompaniment is similar to the alternative version, although the guitar is more bluesy. He bungles the lyrics a bit, repeating a couple lines and omitting others. In these days of short attention spans, I’d like to hear Dylan try it out at an even faster pace.