Todd Harvey provides an interesting, detailed analysis of the musical similarities of Girl of the North County and Boots of Spanish Leather. The melody for both songs was borrowed from Martin Carthy’s version of Scarborough Fair. He also points out that on the Witmark Demos recordings the melodies of the two songs are virtually identical.
The song is surely autobiographical. Dylan’s girlfriend at the time, Suze Rotolo, had taken a trip to Italy during the time frame the song was written, in part to separate herself from Dylan. The distress this caused Dylan has been well-documented. Rotolo said in an interview published in The Dylan Companion:
“There was a period when I was part of his possessions. I don’t think he wanted me to do anything separate from him. He wanted me to be completely one hundred percent a part of what he was – the assumption is that the female doesn’t really do anything, and he didn’t enjoy the idea of me being separate from him.”
Why Dylan chose to use the term “Spanish leather” instead of say, the more well-known “Italian leather”, has been much debated in Dylan-obsessed circles. In a poetic sense, it certainly sounds better. Also, Dylan was undoubtedly familiar with the phrase since it was used in the traditional Black Jack Davey, which Dylan recorded on As Good As I’ve Been to You.
Dylan included a 1996 live version of Boots as the B-side of the single Not Dark Yet, a song recorded for the 1997 album, Time Out of Mind. On this recording, Dylan is accompanied by his touring band. While it is a nice version and has a fuller, more complex sound, I much prefer the intimacy of the original. Dylan seems to have decided that all his songs are better with a full band. His last solo performance was in 1992. Too bad, in my opinion.
Below is a terrific short interview (and performance) with Studs Terkel. He claims he didn’t get “Spanish leather” from Gypsy Davey.
Oh, I’m sailin’ away my own true love,
I’m sailin’ away in the morning.
Is there something I can send you from across the sea,
From the place that I’ll be landing?
No, there’s nothin’ you can send me, my own true love,
There’s nothin’ I wish 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’.
That 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 want from you today,
I would want again tomorrow.
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’.
Well, if you, my love, must think that-a-way,
I’m sure your mind is roamin’.
I’m sure your heart is 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.