North Country Blues concerns the plight of a mine worker. Dylan was certainly familiar with a miner’s life. He grew up in Hibbing, Minnesota in the heart of what is called the Iron Range.
Hibbing was once the world’s largest open-pit iron ore mine.
In 1917 the entire town was moved two miles south so that the ore underneath could be mined. During the wars – World War I, World War II, and the Korean War – the economy boomed as the demand for iron increased. But by the mid-fifties, the best iron ore in the area was gone and the area suffered through a depression. Dylan, born in 1941, was very familiar with the trauma this event caused, even though his family was not directly affected.
Dylan writes specifically of Hibbing in the liner notes of Times:
The town I was born in holds no memories
but for the honkin’ foghorns
the rainy mist
the rocky cliffs
I have carried no feelings
up past the Lake Superior hills
the town I grew up in is the one
that has left me with my legacy visions
it was not a rich town
my parents were not rich
it was not a poor town
an’ my parents were not poor
it was a dyin’ town
(it was a dyin’ town)
a train line cuts the ground
showin’ where the fathers an’ mothers
of me an’ my friends had picked
up an’ moved from
t’ south Hibbing.
old north Hibbing . . .
with its old stone courthouse
decayin’ in the wind
windows crashed out
the breath of its broken walls
being smothered in clingin’ moss
the old school
where my mother went to
rottin’ shiverin’ but still livin’
standin’ cold an’ lonesome
arms cut off
with even the moon bypassin’ its jagged body
pretendin’ not t’ see
an’ givin’ it its final dignity
dogs howled over the graveyard
where even the markin’ stones were dead
an’ there was no sound except for the wind
blowin’ through the high grass
an’ the bricks that fell back
t’ the dirt from a slight stab
of the breeze . . . it was as though
the rains of wartime had
left the land bombed-out an’ shattered
is where everybody came t’ start their
town again. but the winds of the
north came followin’ an’ grew fiercer
an’ the years went by
but I was young
an’ so I ran
an’ kept runnin’ . . .
An old article on Hibbing’s relationship between the town and Dylan.
Here’s another about Dylan’s ten-year high school reunion.
According to Todd Harvey, North Country is based on a very old traditional ballad called Iron Ore Mine.
Note that the lyrics of Dylan’s song are from a woman’s point of view, which seems odd to the modern listener but was not uncommon at all for traditional folk singers.
Dylan has only played the song a few times live. Here’s a version from the Newport Folk Festival.
Dylan performing North Country Blues in Newport in 1963.
and now for something completely different.
Come gather ’round friends
And I’ll tell you a tale
Of when the red iron pits ran plenty.
But the cardboard filled windows
And old men on the benches
Tell you now that the whole town is empty.
In the north end of town,
My own children are grown
But I was raised on the other.
In the wee hours of youth,
My mother took sick
And I was brought up by my brother.
The iron ore poured
As the years passed the door,
The drag lines an’ the shovels they was a-humming.
‘Til one day my brother
Failed to come home
The same as my father before him.
Well a long winter’s wait,
From the window I watched.
My friends they couldn’t have been kinder.
And my schooling was cut
As I quit in the spring
To marry John Thomas, a miner.
Oh the years passed again
And the givin’ was good,
With the lunch bucket filled every season.
What with three babies born,
The work was cut down
To a half a day’s shift with no reason.
Then the shaft was soon shut
And more work was cut,
And the fire in the air, it felt frozen.
‘Til a man come to speak
And he said in one week
That number eleven was closin’.
They complained in the East,
They are paying too high.
They say that your ore ain’t worth digging.
That it’s much cheaper down
In the South American towns
Where the miners work almost for nothing.
So the mining gates locked
And the red iron rotted
And the room smelled heavy from drinking.
Where the sad, silent song
Made the hour twice as long
As I waited for the sun to go sinking.
I lived by the window
As he talked to himself,
This silence of tongues it was building.
Then one morning’s wake,
The bed it was bare,
And I’s left alone with three children.
The summer is gone,
The ground’s turning cold,
The stores one by one they’re a-foldin’.
My children will go
As soon as they grow.
Well, there ain’t nothing here now to hold them.