The Story That Inspired “Spanish Mary”


Bob Dylan is arguably one of the world’s most popular and acclaimed songwriters. Over the years, he has sold 125 million albums and performed thousands of shows across the globe. His impact includes cultural landmarks, such as the legendary The Basement Tapes, which has now spawned The New Basement Tapes.

Bob Dylan | Photo Credit The Basement Tapes

In 1967, Bob Dylan created the legendary The Basement Tapes. The songs were written and recorded by Dylan while he lived as somewhat of a recluse after a motorcycle accident. During that time, he worked with Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manual and eventually Levon Helm.

The group recorded hundreds of covers and new songs, including Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” “The Mighty Quinn,” and “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.” After rumors spread about the collaboration, a bootleg record started to be passed around record stores as they were not commercially available until the mid-1970s.

Now, Lost On The River: The New Basement Tapes is a music event that took nearly five decades to form. The album features never-seen Bob Dylan lyrics from a supergroup, consisting of Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford (Mumford & Sons), Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes), and Rhiannon Giddens.

The song, “Spanish Mary,” is particularly iconic from legendary performer Rhiannon Giddens, formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Each artist tore apart and restructured each song for the new album. In many ways, the collaboration is truly the best of the best writing and recording songs from the best songwriter alive. 

Rhiannon Giddens Sings Vocals on Bob Dylan Track

There is a ripped notebook page from an old legal pad that was handwritten in blue ink by the great Bob Dylan. The lyrics are broken into six parts and it almost looks like a dog or shark got a hold of the yellow sheet of paper. Despite the stains and rips, the supergroup was able to bring the song to the surface.

The song “Spanish Mary” begins with a handful of sailors. Rhiannon Giddens sings Bob Dylan: “There were three sailors, bold and true. With cargo they did carry. They sailed away on the ocean blue. For the love of Spanish Mary. So deeply now were they disturbed. No longer could they tarry. Swoon and swerve. For the love of Spanish Mary,” she sang.

Spanish Mary | Photo Credit Showtime

Rhiannon continued, “In Kingston Town of high degree. The buffoon, the fool, the fairy. All paid the dues and inquired to me. For the love of Spanish Mary.” Then, the chorus went, “Beggar man, beggar man tell me now lie. Is it a mystery to live or is it a mystery to lie.”

In the end, the subject would not reply to the rumors, but would only speak for the love of the Spanish Mary. Finally, Dylan begged the question once more, “Is it a mystery to live or is it a mystery to die?” Thanks to the old piece of legal paper, the new song is now a major hit for all true Dylan fans. 

Additional hits include “Kansas City,” “When I Get My Hands On You,” “Florida Key,” and “Lots On The River,” among others. 

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