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Did an obscure Bob Dylan song by way of Woody Guthrie predict the 2023 battle for women’s rights?

A recent story out of Danville, Illinois makes 1984’s ‘New Danville Girl’ — co-written by Sam Shepard — seem eerily prescient

Last week, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul declared that an attempt by the small city of Danville to ban abortion was in “open defiance of state law.” Raoul explained that the state’s Reproductive Health Act forbids local municipalities from limiting abortion rights. While those who believe in the fundamental rights of access to reproductive health care and bodily autonomy were celebrating the attorney general’s statement, which indicated that the proposed ordinance would not take effect, fans of a specific strain of folk and rock music heard an echo in the name of the battleground in which this struggle for choice is taking place.

“Danville Girl” is the title of a folk song that dates back to the late 19th century. The first known recording of the song was by Dock Boggs in 1927. Jimmie Rodgers, the “Singing Brakeman,” often considered the progenitor of country music, contemporaneously performed and recorded a similar version of the song he called “Waiting for a Train,” as did George Reneau, who recorded his version of the song as “Reckless Hobo” in 1925. Woody Guthrie’s adaptation of “Danville Girl,” which he first recorded in 1944, insured that the song would become part of the folk music canon.

Guthrie’s “Danville Girl,” like its previous versions, was a cross between a railroad song and a sex song, a kind of precursor to Junior Parker’s 1953 blues song, “Mystery Train,” first popularized by Elvis Presley’s rockabilly version in 1955 and revived by The Band in a moody cover they recorded in 1973. In Guthrie’s version, the narrator asks the stationmaster, “What time does your train roll by,” which is followed by a series of double-entendres, including “I wanna watch your train roll by,” “Standing on the platform smoking a big cigar” (sure, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but sometimes it ain’t), and “Waitin’ for some old freight train that carries an empty car.”

When the train arrives, the singer feminizes it, saying, “I rode her down to Danville town,” where he “got stuck on a Danville girl.” He apparently has an assignation of some sort with the title character before he “bid that gal adieu” on “the very next train come down that track.” There is a hint of malice toward the woman — “She wore her hat on the back of her head like high-tone people all do” — and his eagerness to get out of town immediately also suggests this may not have been a consensual affair. Danville, in Guthrie’s version, is a mythical place where women are victimized (a stand-in for pretty much every place), much as the women of contemporary Danville might have been had the state’s attorney general not stepped in and come to their aid.

The only thing we do not know for sure is where Guthrie’s Danville is. There are at least a dozen towns or cities named Danville in the U.S., in states including California, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Arkansas, Vermont, Alabama, Ohio, Iowa, Georgia and Kansas. Given the song’s musical provenance, Kentucky’s Danville is probably the best guess.

The next time Danville is prominently featured in a popular song is in the 1969 Civil War ballad “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by The Band (best known by Joan Baez’s top-five hit version from 1971). Again, Danville appears inextricably intertwined with a railroad. The song opens with the scene-setting line, “Virgil Caine is the name and I served on the Danville train, ‘til Stoneman’s cavalry came and tore up the tracks again.”

The Band’s songwriter, Robbie Robertson, based the narrative on the real-life George Stoneman, a general in the Union Army who would eventually go on to become governor of California. The Richmond & Danville Railroad, which ran through Virginia, was a key supply line for the Confederacy, and thus it became a frequent target of attack by Stoneman’s Union army troops.

Woody Guthrie was one of Bob Dylan’s most important musical influences, and The Band evolved out of Dylan’s group, the Hawks, who backed him on his somewhat controversial “electric” world tour in 1965-66. So perhaps it is not so surprising that Dylan himself would eventually get around to penning his own version of a Danville song.

Dylan first recorded “New Danville Girl” in 1984 as part of the recording sessions for the 1985 album, Empire Burlesque. The lyrics are co-credited to Dylan and playwright Sam Shepard, with whom Dylan enjoyed a longtime friendship and collaboration; Shepard chronicled Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour and helped concoct scenes for the tour film, Renaldo and Clara. While “New Danville Girl” did not make the final cut, the 12-minute recording — a cinematic epic in song — finally surfaced officially in 2021 on the archival box set, Springtime in New York: The Bootleg Series Vol. 16 (1980-1985).

In light of the events in Danville last week, a few lines from “New Danville Girl” resonate loudly nearly 40 years later. In the song, Dylan sings the lines: “And everything that’s happening to us/ Seems like it’s happening without our consent.”

And: “Way down in Mexico you went out to see a doctor/ And you never came back.”

Why did the narrator and the Danville girl — who, incidentally, sports a “Danville curl” just like the one in Woody Guthrie’s “Danville Girl” — drive through the night “into San Antone” and across the border into Mexico “to see a doctor”? Was the Danville girl seeking an abortion in a world where things were happening to her without her consent — perhaps a rape or a legal ban on a woman’s right to choose?

Dylan kept working on the lyrics to “New Danville Girl,” which resurfaced in 1986 in a new version bearing a new title, “Brownsville Girl,” on the album Knocked Out Loaded. Brownsville, Texas, is a popular border-crossing town to and from Mexico, so the change in location strengthened that aspect of the song’s plot. The name “Brownsville Girl” is also more euphonious than “Danville Girl,” and being more of a poet than Woody Guthrie, Dylan may have found the new title refrain more convincing to sing.

The last time Danville, Illinois, was in the news was 120 years ago, when a lynch mob broke into the local jail and abducted J.D. Mayfield, a Black man being held for questioning. The mob, which eventually grew to several thousand, hung Mayfield from a telephone pole, and then cut him down and brought his corpse to the center of town, where they proceeded to shoot bullets into the dead body before hacking it into pieces and setting it on fire. Other Black residents were beaten over the course of the next few days.

“This city is the throes of a race war,” reported the Evansville Courier & Press, and order was only restored after troops from the Illinois National Guard occupied Danville. In the aftermath, the mayor of Danville refused to press charges against any of the rioters.

As Dylan sang in “New Danville Girl,” the townspeople “wanted to crush that kid down and string him up by the neck.” Was Dylan aware of the Danville, Illinois, race riot of 1903 when he wrote that line? Or was such a line, sadly, applicable to any of the various Danvilles, USA? Indeed, is it applicable to most any city or town in the United States?

Are we even still allowed to ask such a question?

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