Turn him loose, let him go
Let him say he outdrew me fair and square
I want him to feel what it's like
To every moment face his death
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Fort Brown, Brownsville, Texas
Originally titled “New Dansville Girl,” “Brownsville Girl” is lauded by many as one of Bob Dylan's great epics, with the length and emotional drama to rival any cut of Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.
This song provides a veritable map of a romance, and marks a return to storytelling style writing on the part of Dylan after a brief hiatus. Further testament to Dylan's return to this style is his collaboration with playwright Sam Shepard on the lyrics. At three different junctures in the nearly twelve minute expanse of “Brownsville Girl,” Dylan references a movie he had seen with Gregory Peck. This detail provides a metaphor for the experiences described in “Brownsville Girl” as well as a point of contention among Dylan historians. What this element illuminates in the song is best examined through an explication and exploration of the song itself.
The Brownsville referred to in the title of the song is likely Brownsville, Texas, a border town situated several hundred miles south of Corpus Christi, on the far reaches of the Rio Grande. This detail is disputable, as Dylan never makes explicit which Brownsville he may be referring to, but many of the geographical details point to a southwesterly locale. Yet, complicating this supposition is the original title of the track, “New Danville Girl.” New Danvilles are much fewer and farther between in the United States than Brownsvilles, and the only city that currently has the name New Danville is located in the southeast corner of Pennsylvania. References to the Painted Desert of Arizona, The Alamo in Texas, Amarillo and Corpus Christi all point the careful listener to Texas as the most likely point of origin for the captivating subject of this song.
University of Texas at Brownsville, Graduation Day
The first lines of this song speak of the pervasive Gregory Peck film, as Dylan sings:Well, there was this movie I seen one time
About a man riding 'cross the desert
He was shot down by a hungry kid trying to make a name for himself
Mirroring the plot of this film, the protagonist and Brownsville girl of this song ramble around the desert, leading to the conclusion by many theorists that the film featuring Gregory Peck provides a simple and succinct way of reiterating the plot and themes of the song. Recalling the film, the protagonist slowly weaves memories of the song's namesake into the lyrics, beginning with “I keep seeing this stuff . . ./ You know I can't believe we've lived so long and are still so far apart.” From here Dylan leads us across the western United States, interweaving points on the map with memories of a lost love. References include the Painted Desert where she came to him in a “busted down Ford and... platform heels.” The two drive all night to San Antonio and “slept near the Alamo,” from there cruising down to Mexico, where the Brownsville Girl disappears forever. At this juncture the protagonist remarks, “I would have gone on after you but I didn't want to get my head blown off,” an image akin to something you might see in a film about the Wild West, making the Gregory Peck references more apt.
Now, the character who speaks in this song traverses different parts of the country with a different woman, but the memory of the first lingers in every line and syllable. When asked how far they will go, Dylan replies, “'til the sun peels the paint and the seat covers fade and the water moccasin dies.” To this endless rambling another character replies, “ah, you know some babies never learn.” Married to this notion, in the final verses of the song, Dylan returns to the film, saying, “there was a movie I seen one time, I think I sat through it twice.” ~ Maggie Grimason
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