Boots of Spanish Leather - Part 2

by Patrick J. Webster

656 words on

Complex and unknowable narrative voices as girl leaves boy


Before going on to look at the masculine quotient to travel in Dylan’s work, I thought I might try to envisage an overall sense of the narrative structure of the song. It is one I picture in terms of an inversion of the clichéd boy leaves girl structure. As suggested previously, in this song, for one of the very few times in Dylan’s work, we are offered the prospect of a feminine voice travelling out into the world - leaving a static masculine voice behind. Within the wide and diverse range of Dylan¹s canon this is almost unique; there are few other examples -one of the few others being the obscure but interesting ‘Gypsy Lou’ (1962) -an overlooked song -one that awaits future consideration.

In ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’ the redolent scenario is that of girl leaves boy, and the story is told in a series of letters, one a response to the other, and so on -at least at the start of the song. The nine stanzas are gender voiced as follows:

Stanza 1 Girl
Stanza 2 Boy
Stanza 3 Girl
Stanza 4 Boy
Stanza 5 Girl
Stanza 6 Boy
Stanza 7 Boy
Stanza 8 Boy
Stanza 9 Boy

The change in narrative voice in the latter stanzas, the sudden absence of a female response, this alone alerts the listener to the nuances in the fate of the love being expressed. The restraint and dignity with which the masculine voice deals with this rejection is the central gesturing device that gives the song, or so it would seem to me, its ranking as one of Dylan¹s very greatest love songs.

The appeal of the song lies in its ambiguity - in its restraint - in its almost stoical avoidance of petty detail. We do not know why the girl has gone to Spain, we do not know the boy could not go with her. All we know that a love that once seemed real slowly dissolves into silence and unresponsiveness.

I think it is important to resist any notion of looking towards a biographical reading of the song to resolve the ambiguity here. We do not know the identity of the two protagonists. All we know is the fact that the female voice has left the male voice - she has sailed for Spain -presumably from America ­although this is not actually stated.

I say it is important that we do not attempt to restrict our reading by a recourse to so called biographical ‘facts’ because - I would argue - there are - in fact ­no such things as biographical ‘ facts’  - at least not when we are dealing with an artistic creation. We have no notion of what was in the mind of the author ­of the person we know as ‘Bob Dylan’ when he wrote this song - in 1963, nearly forty years ago. Furthermore, it seems to me that an attempt to do so is wholly reductive. No matter the level of research Dylan’s many biographers involve themselves in - I would restate this simple statement - knowledge of an artist’s life need have no bearing on our interpretation of the artist’s work. A recourse to such devices belittle the artistic complexities of a literary text and are intellectually trite and banal.

It is a song - as Christopher Ricks once put it - about faith misplaced. I think this aptly embraces the theme of the song - but the relationship it has to so called real life is forever unknowable.

It is, nonetheless, a song in which the narrative voice is capable of achieving a real sense of epiphany - an awareness and an artistic comprehension of an almost God’s eye view of the relationship in question. Next time I want to discuss this and find a linkage between this and the issue of movement together with the carnivalesque upturning of gender constructs.