The Sound of Grief in Dylan’s Nettie Moore

Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash

Life is complicated and people are complicated. No two snowflakes are alike, nor are our responses to grief. This past week I had an encounter with an old friend and though it’s been 40 years the memories of long ago were immediately present to both of us. We remembered good times and lost times, good friends and lost friends.

Public domain.

Later that day I was listening to Dylan’s album Modern Times and heard the grief he conveyed in the chorus of Nettie Moore in a way I’d never heard before. I’ve always enjoyed the song and have played it many times since Modern Times was released in August 2006. The album became Dylan’s first #1 in the U.S. since Desire in the 1970s. In fact, in selling near 200,000 copies its first week it catapulted to #1 the week it was released.

As I listened to Dylan singing “Oh I miss you Nettie Moore, and my happiness is o’er” the words and the impact of its meaning were profound, and I was once again reminded of why and how Dylan became such a significant influence. He didn’t just write songs, he breathed into them their essence.

Illustration by the author.

Go back to the beginning. When Peter, Paul and Mary sang “Blowin’ in the Wind” it was a great song, and it did have great words with a great message. But the beauty of their blended voices belied the song’s essence. Contrast this to Dylan’s own lament, asking powerful questions, line by line. Like a Biblical prophet crying out, “How long, Oh Lord?”

“Seven Curses” comes to mind as well. The song found a wider hearing when it came out on the Bootleg Series Vol. 1–3: Rare and Unreleased, but while out in the yard last summer I heard a version on Pandora that I hadn’t heard before. In both instances the manner in which it was sung is almost more heartbreaking than the story itself. In other words, Dylan becomes the spirit of the song, or rather, channels the spirit of the song.

According to Wikipedia “Nettie Moore” takes its title, and some of its chorus, from an 1857 composition “Gentle Nettie Moore” by Marshall Pike and James Lord Pierpont. Like much of Dylan’s work it is rooted in the music of Americana and the folk traditions that birthed American folk music.

Illustration by the author.

There’s more that could be said here, including pointing out some rather amusing lines like “the judge is coming in, everybody rise.” But that’s a tangent. The song has many verses, some circumnavigating a very wide landscape, but Dylan always returns to this chorus and delivers it with pained conviction.

Oh, I miss you Nettie Moore
And my happiness is o’er

Winter’s gone, the river’s on the rise
I loved you then and ever shall
But there’s no one left here to tell,
The world has gone black before my eyes

I write about it here today hoping that if you have the song you might play it and listen with more focus than usual to the anguish conveys.

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For another view on the manner in which Dylan is more than a writer of songs, here’s a link to my review of Betsy Bowden’s Performed Literature. No Dylan book is a perfect mirror. Like the 3,000 facets of a dragonfly’s eye, each contributes a different angle that must be synthesized into a full picture. In the end, maybe all that matters is what it means — or doesn’t mean — to you.

Meantime, life goes on all around you. Don’t be afraid to feel it.

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