Basement Songs: Bob Dylan, “‘Cross the Green Mountain”

Written by Basement Songs

I dread an empty house.  When Julie and the kids are out of town, as they were the week before Christmas, our home is too quiet. No matter how many televisions I have blaring or how much music is playing, those sounds can’t replace the laughter of Sophie and Jacob or rise and fall of my wife’s voice when she’s on the telephone. Used to be I looked forward to spending some time alone when they went away to visit relatives back east. As each year passes the length of time I enjoy alone dwindles; I’m down to about twenty-four hours before I’m feeling lonely.

The Sunday before I was scheduled to fly out and meet my family in Ohio, I vacuumed, tinkered on the computer, watched some movie I can’t recall and let my iPod shuffle throughout the night. That’s when Bob Dylan’s epic “’Cross the Green Mountain” was introduced to me, its haunting melody wrapping itself around me, comforting my winter blues. The song, originally performed for the 2003 Civil War film Gods and Generals, is one of Dylan’s finest later works. Its existence went relatively unnoticed until he released it on his latest outtakes Bootleg Series compilation, Tell Tale Signs. For years, the master songwriter has been mocked for his nasally vocals and what sounds like a lack of interest in some of his deliveries. That’s not the case with “’Cross the Green Mountain”. Each note he reaches for, each word he sings is done with conviction and a sincerity that leaves a lasting impression long after the song’s eight minute running time. And while he does this, his stellar band marches the song along with quiet elegance. The organ, the violin, the bow across the bass and the strumming guitars make this song heavenly.

Dylan’s Civil War tale could be about any war, as his aching voice and the worn down nature of his singing easily capture the essence of a soldier pining for home while he reflects on what may be his last battle, his last moments in life. The grace and beauty of “’Cross the Green Mountain” made me think of Julie, Sophie and Jacob, longing to be by their side.

On Christmas Eve I flew into Cleveland, arriving in the mid afternoon. Entering a house full of warm spirits and the aroma of home cooked food, I received big hugs and kisses and quickly felt at peace. While I navigated around running, screaming children and narrow doorways, I couldn’t take my eyes off of Julie. With each conversation I had and every cookie I nibbled, I found myself glancing around, past the backs of people’s heads, just to watch the way she smiles and how her incredibly curly hair bounces when she laughs. I stood mesmerized as she walked across the room or pitched in to help her mom with the cooking. The rest of my vacation I kept stealing these moments, constantly saying to myself, “I am so damn lucky.”

The morning of New Year’s Eve we drove to Pennsylvania for my cousin’s wedding, into a rural part of the state founded soon after the Revolutionary War. As we past aged farms, cold cows, and skeletal trees that had long lost their leaves, I hummed “’Cross the Green Mountain” and thought of the many homes I’ve had: North Olmsted, Bowling Green, North Hollywood and Saugus, CA. I turned my head to my wife riding beside me, then glanced back at my children in the backseat. I dread an empty house because without Julie and Sophie and Jacob, the house is just a building. They make it complete; they make it a home.