Boots of Spanish Leather - Part 3

by Patrick J. Webster

782 words on

Gendering journeys, perfect love songs and patriarchal disjunctions


To restate: ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’ is a song in which girl leaves boy; a carnivalesque upturning of our expectations as listeners to Dylan’s work. Furthermore, a carnivalesque upturning of gender constructs in Dylan’s work. I say this insomuch as I would argue that one of the significant ideological gestures in Dylan’s canon is that his male characters leave women and not the other way around.

To further restate: one can perceive of such ideological gestures from the very beginning of Dylan’s work to his most recent. If one looks at the first words he offers us , the opening line to the opening song in Lyrics:

Ramblin’ out of the wild west
Leaving the towns I love the best ...

All the way through to that great line from’Mississippi’ I quoted a few months ago:

I’ve been in trouble ever since I put my suitcase down ...

Now this, or so I would argue, is nothing so simple as saying men travel and women don’t - even within the artificial limits of Bob Dylan’s lyrics this would appear wholly reductive and over generalising. No, what I am suggesting is more subtle, I would argue that travel in Dylan’s work becomes a gendering experience.

One finds this in many of Dylan¹s songs – I’m almost tempted to say in all of them save for the one I’m writing on - but that would be again too reductive, too generalising. What I will say is that one of the main ways Dylan defines masculinity in his work is via movement.

If you look at Dylan’s work in this light, then many of the contradictions and confusions over gender and sexuality, over desire itself - at least start to become clearer. You sometimes get jokes – take ‘Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie’ - and you sometimes get a very serious treatment – see ‘Isis’ for one of the most significant examples of this. Here is a song I must one day turn to. ‘Isis’, it seems to me, is one of Dylan’s most explicit songs from the perspective of travel as a gendering experience. It is Dylan’s own Ulysses, a song in which a man leaves a woman, undertakes a great journey - attempts an exploration of his authentic sexuality - and then in a great overarching gesture returns to his starting point. It is perhaps one of Dylan’s greatest songs - but also, given the wholly restrictive ideological constructs of our times - a dangerous one to approach - especially within the male dominated world of Freewheelin.

To return to ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’ - to the third line of verse two:

Just carry yourself back to me unspoiled ...

This word unspoiled is interesting - I said before that I perceived of ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’ as one of Dylan’s greatest love songs. I stand by this, it is such and it is also a song of some dignity, a song in which a lover graciously accepts his love object no longer loves him. This, it seems to me, is something very hard to do, and the only song that comes into my head at the moment that manages to similarly accomplish this is Leonard Cohen’s recent, ‘Alexandra Leaving’, a song that I think was mentioned in a recent Freewheelin’. A song as perfect in its way as ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’, both songs tell us we have to prepare for such an occasion.

Anyway, disregarding all of this, I would suggest that this word ‘unspoiled’ betrays a masculine voice’s attempt at total acceptance and dignity - in a way that Leonard Cohen’s song does not. The idea of telling someone to come back unspoiled betrays itself because it restates the idea of a patriarchal authority being cognisant it must control female sexuality. Unspoiled is a subtle way of suggesting the girl must stay pure on her travels across that lonesome ocean. She must carry herself back with her virginity intact - or at least a kind of virginity - we assume she and the narrator are lovers in a physical sense.

To be continued ...


Addendum 1: Heterodiegetic - an apology to Robert for this - it is a word from narrative and literary theory - a piece of jargon - that slipped in by accident. It refers to a narrator who is in her or his own narrative and acts as a primary character. It means a first person narrator - or almost - there are various kinds of first person narrator - this being merely one.

Addendum 2: Why is a man like a supermarket car parking space? Keep this in mind for next month.