Without ever having the benefit of a hit single recording, Bob Dylan's "Girl From the North Country" has become a familiar song largely by virtue of its author's frequent performances of it. The tune is taken from an old English folk song that also provided the source for Paul Simon's "Scarborough Fair/Canticle." Dylan wrote the lyrics down in 1963, though he claimed to have had the song in mind for years. Biographer Robert Shelton, in No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan (New York: Beech Tree Books, 1986), speculates that Dylan's inspiration was his relationship with Bonny Jean Beecher, whom he met in 1960 while attending the University of Minnesota. In the lyric, the narrator asks a third person to remember him to a woman who "once was a true love of mine" if he encounters her in his travels in the north country. "Girl From the North Country" is a gentle, indirect love song, but powerfully affecting. The style is so courtly and formal that one could easily assume that it is a traditional folk song rather than a newly written one. The sessions for Dylan's second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, extended from April to December 1962, and promotional copies of the LP were issued in April 1963. But in the wake of the cancellation of Dylan's proposed appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show due to a dispute about his intention to perform the song "Talking John Birch Paranoid Blues," CBS, the television network that broadcast the Sullivan show and owned Columbia Records, for which Dylan recorded, decided the song couldn't go on Freewheelin', either, even though it had already been included on the promotional disc. The prolific Dylan seized upon the late opportunity to reshape the album by deleting other tracks as well and adding some new ones. On April 24, he recorded five recently written songs, four of which went on to the final version of Freewheelin' that was released commercially on May 27; among these was "Girl From the North Country."
Dylan performed the song frequently during the next year, but after he went electric in 1965 it dropped out of his set lists. On February 17, 1969, he re-recorded it as a duet with Johnny Cash that was released as the leadoff track of his album Nashville Skyline on April 9. The two took the song at a slower tempo, and Dylan, who had given up smoking, unveiled a noticeably different, smoother singing voice. The performance was ragged: there were minor lyric variations; Cash sang the third verse second; the fourth verse disappeared entirely; and when the two singers combined to repeat the first verse, they sang different words in the third line, Cash improvising "Please say hello," while Dylan stuck with "Remember me." On May 1, Dylan made a rare television appearance on The Johnny Cash Show, and he and Cash sang the song again. Fifteen days later, a Cash special on public television included footage of the recording session. Thus, though Columbia never released the recording as a single, "Girl From the North Country" gained greater exposure. In 1970, Joe Cocker gave the song its most prominent cover when he performed it on tour and put his live version on his gold-selling Mad Dogs & Englishmen album. Writings and Drawings, a book of lyrics and other material by Bob Dylan, was published in 1973. In it, the song was called "Girl of the North Country," an unexplained change in preposition that has become more common in references over time. The following year, Dylan returned to the concert stage and performed the song a couple of times in his tour with the Band. Rod Stewart gave "Girl From the North Country" another prominent cover that fall, putting it on his Smiler LP. On January 17, 1975, Dylan released Blood on the Tracks, which featured "If You See Her, Say Hello," a song that had the same theme as "Girl From the North Country" and sounded very much like a more sophisticated rewrite of the earlier song. Though it was not performed on the 1975-1976 Rolling Thunder Tour, "Girl From the North Country" reentered Dylan's set list when he returned to performing in the Far East in 1978, and it remained a concert favorite as the singer became a peripatetic performer in later years. His rendition of the song on July 8, 1984, at Slane Castle in Ireland was released on Real Live on December 3, 1984. On October 16, 1992, when he appeared at the tribute concert staged in his honor at Madison Square Garden, it was one of the songs he sang. The resulting album, Bob Dylan -- The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration, billed the song as "Girl of the North Country."