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How Sam Shepard helped create a classic Bob Dylan song

A few months before the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, playwright, and actor Sam Shepard died, Bob Dylan shared two tracks on his website that he believed had been woefully ignored. One of those tracks was an eleven-minute gospel-infused song called ‘Brownsville Girl’. Released on Dylan’s 1986 album Knocked Out Loaded, it became something of a surprise hit. Despite its length, inaccessible structure, and frequently obscure imagery, the song has been included on the tracklist of two separate greatest hit albums and continues to be regarded as a classic track by die-hard fans.

The song’s enduring appeal is fascinating because, by all accounts, it comes from Dylan’s worst album. Indeed, Dylan himself only had the courage to play ‘Brownsville Girl’ live the once. Since its release, it has sat below the surface, biding its time. When Dylan shared the song in 2017, it came up gleaming. Looking back, ‘Brownsville Girl’ has some of the most sublime imagery in Dylan’s catalogue, which is no surprise given that the song was written by two of the greatest wordsmiths of their generation.

Racking up a gargantuan 17 verses, Dylan and Shepard engage in a free-flowing conversation set to pounding drums and tactile acoustic guitar. 

Musically, the track has no set structure. Instead, it moves with the flow of that same conversation, following Shepard and Dylan as they cover everything from the Gregory Peck film The Gunfighter to their anxieties regarding the creative process and some startlingly poignant explorations of enduring love. The latter catches the listener off guard, and when Dylan sings the line, “Strange how people who suffer together/Have stronger connections than people who are most content,” we see the influence of Shepard very clearly. Here, the playwright’s ability to identify the paradoxical nature of human experience imbues ‘Brownsville Girl’ with an almost mythological universality.

Describing his experience of writing ‘Brownsville Girl’, Shepard once said: “Working with Dylan is not like working with anybody else. With Dylan, you’re continuing on this hunt for what he’s after, who he is, this continual mystery about his identity.” Shepard was already familiar with Dylan’s enigmatic character. He’d joined the songwriter on his infamous Rolling Thunder Revue tour in 1976, and the tour was a rejection of commercialism and major-label interference. Dylan’s idea was to create an entirely self-generating tour, during which the group of artists and musicians he had accumulated would sell their own tickets and do their own promotion.

Shepard was invited along to make a film about the run of shows. In Shepard’s eyes, the invitation represented an opportunity to access one of America’s most mysterious personalities. However, as the tour progressed, Shepard became frustrated with his inability to capture anything close to the “real Dylan”. As a result, his role ended up being much more ambiguous, with the playwright moving from scripts to imagistic accounts at a moments notice. For Shepard – a man famous for his ability to access the very core of his characters – Dylan represented an impossible challenge.

‘With Brownsville Girl’, it’s possible Shepard was attempting to peel away the multiple layers of theatrical artifice and persona that he believed disguised the true Dylan. But what’s more likely, is that Shepard actually helped cement the mystique that has made Dylan one of the most written-about recording artists of all time. Shepard scripts for theatre and film frequently focused on rootless characters on the fringes of American society. 

Dylan, despite being one of America’s most popular artists, managed to retain the fringe identity that had defined his early career. It doesn’t seem beyond the realms of possibility, therefore, that Shepard helped to reaffirm that identity when Dylan was on the verge of being absorbed by his own success. But with Dylan being Dylan, we may never know for sure.

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