This traditional tune tells the story of a woman deserted by her lover when she needs him the most. It was first recorded in Texas by the musicologist John Lomax in 1908 and became a folk music staple, with famous covers from Pete Seeger, Fred Neil, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Jeff Buckley, among many others.
The actor Oscar Isaac recorded a tender version for the Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis. Isaac played the film's titular star who navigates New York's folk music scene in the 1960s, but can't quite catch a star-making break. A second interpretation of the tune also features on the soundtrack – a duet between Isaac and Marcus Mumford.
Inside Llewyn Davis is loosely based on The Mayor Of MacDougal Street, the posthumous memoir of cult US folk artist Dave Van Ronk, who had connections with Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell.
The Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack was produced by T-Bone Burnett and Marcus Mumford. Burnett previously worked with the Coens on the music and soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou?, whilst Mumford's wife, Carey Mulligan, co-stars in the movie.
Oscar Isaac's musical chops were honed in a ska outfit called The Worms and a punk band with the name of The Blinking Underdogs. He played lead guitar and sang vocals for the latter sharing bills with the likes of Green Day. Isaac quit the group in the early 2000's to study drama and it wasn't until he was cast by the Coens for Inside Llewyn Davis that he made a return to public performance.
The song was originally titled "Fare Thee Well," but Lomax changed that title with his recording because he heard it being sung by a young woman named Dink. He heard her singing the song while she stood on the shore of the Brazos River (one of Texas' longest rivers) and washed her husband's clothes.
Bob Dylan's performance of this song was part of the "Minnesota Hotel Tape," which is the unofficial name given to a tape he made very early in his career. The date was December 22, 1961, and the location was the apartment of friend Bonnie Beecher (possibly the subject of "Girl From The North Country"). Her apartment was nicknamed "the Hotel," hence the somewhat misleading name of the tape. Three songs from that tape made it onto The Bootleg Series, with this one and "I Was Young When I Left Home" appearing on volume 7 and "Hard Times In New York Town" appearing on the volumes 1–3 collection.
Dylan also performed the song live one time. He played it with folk queen Joan Baez in Gainesville, Florida, on April 25, 1976.