Echo Helmstrom Casey died in California last week at 75. She was said to be the inspiration for Bob Dylan’s haunting song, "Girl From the North Country" – and for the wonderful covers that live to this day.
The song will be a classic as long as people have drifting thoughts of the first girl/first boy they loved.
I didn’t know anything about Echo Helmstrom until Laura Vecsey, my eldest, sent me a link from the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Of course, there had to be an Echo Helmstrom.
Echo. Not even Bob Dylan could make that up.
She echoes in the soul.
It’s a winter song. Winter in New York, early 60’s, and the former Bobby Zimmerman is thinking how cold it must be in Hibbing, so he writes:
Well, if you go when the snowflakes storm
When the rivers freeze and summer ends
Please see for me if she’s wearing a coat so warm
To keep her from the howlin’ winds
What kinder thoughts could anyone have for a girl back home in the north country?
According to the very nice article by Matt Steichen in the Star Tribune, Echo Helmstrom was a seeker, much like young Bob Zimmerman; they met in high school and then parted. Later, he must have known – Bob knows everything – that she also got away from the howlin’ winds, and moved to California, and lived her life, often complicated by the Dylanologists. (One of them even went through Dylan’s garbage in Greenwich Village but that’s another story.)
There’s no sense that Bob and Echo ever met again, or kept in touch. Then again, Dante met Beatrice only twice, fleetingly. But Dylan thought enough of Echo and her piercing eyes and blonde hair that he wrote the song about her, and really, what else is there?
The music and the lyrics live on – in Dylan’s original, and in the covers which can be tricky, ranging from the ridiculous to the masterful: Levon Helm and The Band acing Springsteen’s “Atlantic City;” and KD Lang owning Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” in my opinion.)
I came to Bob Dylan via my kid brother Chris, who sang and played guitar and harmonica in coffee shops in the mid-60’s.
In 1969, Dylan made the immortal album “Nashville Skyline” in the city that had long resonated with me. Johnny Cash, who admired the brash kid, welcomed him to town and came into the studio, clearly not having totally mastered the lyrics to “North Country,” and he fluffed some entries, but Dylan let it flow because it was Johnny Cash and because it was real.
(NB: the version above is from Dylan’s respectful visit to Cash’s TV show later. Cash had long since mastered the lyrics and the beat of the song.)
Impromptu or rehearsed, what a duet – Dylan’s cutting brilliance, Cash’s throbbing pain, singing about a girl from back home.
See for me that her hair's hanging down
That's the way I remember her best
The song is perfect today, nearly half a century later. Rosanne Cash included it in her 2009 CD. “The List,” springing from the 100 songs her father deemed vital to the American soul. There is a very sweet guitar riff by her husband John Leventhal, and backup by three other musicians.
“The Girl From the North Country” lives, whether by Bob Dylan, or Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, or Rosanne Cash, back-to-back-to-back, on my iPod.
Now Laura Vecsey has an idea, which she has posted on Twitter: Rosanne Cash and Bob Dylan should record a duet, to complete the circle, to honor the girl from the north country.
For she once was a true love of mine.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.