‘Cross the Green Mountain by Bob Dylan an analysis

‘Cross the Green Mountain by Bob Dylan

”Memories linger, sad yet sweet/And I think of the souls in heaven who we’ll meet”

‘Cross the Green Mountain was written for the soundtrack of Gods and Generals, a Civil War TV series, in this very well constructed ballad Dylan puts himself in the mind of a Civil War soldier (a dying man). I’m not sure that it was written specifically for the movie or if Dylan had written it earlier and found use for it now, it’s hard to say.  The mood is strikingly brought forward by his band, rolling along like in so many of his long and significant tunes. It is a major work of art, it deserved a better fate than to be tucked away on the bootleg series or on a TV-soundtrack!

I do not pretend to have the complete meaning to the song or found all the references Bob Dylan has used, so please enlighten me in the comments section. When I get enough new information I will update the post.

Check also out:
Analysis of Dylan’s Scarlet Town

Analysis of Pay in Blood

Analysis of Tin Angel

When I listen to  “’Cross The Green Mountain,” the feeling of the song goes right into me. The first part of the song sets the scene and the second part read as a soldier’s letter. Bob Dylan’s song is a universal (anti-)war ballad.

The Storyteller describes the scenes as nightmarish, but we quickly understands that he is part of this real-life nightmare, it is not just a dream. I described the music as “rolling along” and it does, but it is more, it kinda mixes “Knockin on heavens door” with a New Orleans funeral march. Dark but respectful.

gods and generals

The video is a masterpiece as well, our man riding among horrible scenes of death and mutilation. He’s like a dark angel or a greek choir sitting on a large horse or walking among the dead. That’s the good, the bad is that the video is only for the first four verses of the song!

Ok, so let us “dissect” the song, let us find out what references Dylan has played with. Bob Dylan must really have dug into Civil War era poems, and absorbed their “feel” and spirit but also direct images and phrases.  The Lyrics are built up with short sentences and clear language very reminiscent of songs from the era it depicts. Quite a lot of the poems are taken from a collection called: “Singers and Songs of the Liberal Faith”.

Dylan comes from a tradition of songwriters that uses and swaps things around and echoes older sources as a rule and matter of factly. The “folk music way”.

In addition to old Civil War poems there are snippets from the Bible of course.


‘Cross the Green Mountain by Bob Dylan the Lyrics:

I cross the green mountain, I sit by the stream
Heaven blazing in my head (5), I dreamt a monstrous dream
Something came up out of the sea (1)(2)
Swept through the land of the rich and the free (Dylan has since said that USA is a land built on slavery, this line probably conveys the same sentiment)

I look into the eyes of my merciful friend
And then i ask myself, is this the end?
Memories linger, sad yet sweet
And I think of the souls in heaven who will meet (Very hymn-like lyrics, with words and phrases like: Mercy, friend, “is this the end?” souls, heaven,  will meet . Very hopeful.)

But now Dylan gives us two very dark verses…

Altars are burning with flames far and wide (another Biblical allusions to altars and fire, but also the burning landscapes of war)
The foe has crossed over from the other side (3)
They tip their caps from the top of the hill
You can feel them come, more brave blood to spill

Along the dim Atlantic line (4)
the ravaged land lies for miles behind
The light’s coming forward and the streets are broad
All must yield to the avenging God (9)

The Darkness is gone and the hopeful story gets full attention again (the narrator gets his saying)

The world is old, the world is gray
Lessons of life, can’t be learned in a day
I watch and I wait, and I listen while I stand
To the music that comes from a far-better land

Close the eyes of our captain, peace may he know
His long night is done, the great leader is laid low (10)
He was ready to fall, he was quick to defend
Killed outright he was, by his own men

The next four verses are about the soldier meeting his “merciful friend” aka death.

It’s the last day’s last hour, of the last happy year
I feel that the unknown world is so near
Pride will vanish and glory will rot
But virtue lives and cannot be forgot (6)

The bells of leavening have rung
There’s blasphemy on every tongue (1)
Let ’em say that I walked in fair nature’s light
And that I was loyal to truth and to right

Serve God and be cheerful, look upward, beyond
Beyond the darkness of masks, the surprises of dawn
In the deep green grasses of the blood stained world
They never dreamed of surrenderin’, they fell where they stood

Stars fell over Alabama, I saw each star (Jazz song from the 30s, also sung by Frank Sinatra: Stars Fell on Alabama))
You’re walkin’ in dreams, whoever you are
Chilled are the skies, keen as the frost
The ground’s froze hard and the morning is lost

The point of view switches again, first to the mother then back to the soldier in the last verse

A letter to mother came today (7)
Gunshot wound to the breast is what it did say
But he’ll be better soon, he’s in a hospital bed
But he’ll never be better – he’s already dead

I’m ten miles outside the city, and I’m lifted away (8)
In an ancient light, that is not of day
They were calm, they were blunt, we knew ’em all too well
We loved each other more than we ever dared to tell

1.  Biblical ref. Revelations 13:  “I saw a beast rise up from  the sea” see also Verse 8, second line: “...And the beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name…” The second one not so obvious maybe, but Dylan clearly compared the battlefield to the Armageddon.

2. Biblical ref. Daniel 7: “..And four great beasts came up out of the sea.”

5. W.B Yeats – Lapis Lazuli (verse2, in the middle):
All men have aimed at, found and lost;
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.

Nathaniel Graham Shepherd’s Roll Call (verse 5): “For the foe had crossed from the other side,…”

4. Charleston by Henry Timrod: “…along you dim Atlantic line.”

9. The Bible,  Nahum 1:2: … The LORD is a jealous and avenging God; the LORD is avenging and wrathful; the LORD takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies…”

6. The last line in R.C. Waterston the poem The Departed.

“The memory of the just
Shall still be dear, whate’er their earthly lot:
Dust may return to dust,
But Virtue lives, and cannot be forgot.”

NOT midst the lightning of the stormy fight,
Nor in the rush upon the vandal foe,
Did kingly Death, with his resistless might,
Lay the great leader low.

This verse is an allusion to Walt Whitman’s “Come Up from the Fields Father” 

In that poem a letter arrives to the home of a civil war soldier
(Peter). The mother reads the letter: “Gunshot wound in the breast,
cavalry skirmish, taken to hospital, / At present low, but will soon
be better.”

His mother grieving and her daughter tries to console her:

“See dearest mother, the letter says Pete will soon be better.”

However…: “Alas poor boy, he will never be better,
(nor may-be needs to be better, that brave and simple soul.) / While
they stand at home at the door he is already dead, / The only son is

8. Referencing the William Channing Gannett poem (from the book Singers and Songs of the Liberal Faith), Sunday on the Hill-Top: 

Only ten miles from the city,
And how I am lifted away
To the peace that passeth knowing,
And the light that is not of day!


There are several other snippets and phrases that reminds us of or that “sounds like” other poems. Poems by Longfellow, Whitman and Ward Howe. This isn’t about picking text lines, but more the over all feel and rhythm.

– Hallgeir

It is on YouTube as well:

40 thoughts on “‘Cross the Green Mountain by Bob Dylan an analysis”

  1. I recall reading an interview with Dylan that I believe was before the release of ‘Cross the Green Mountain’ and in this interview he stated that if one wished to learn about the Civil War they would need to consider the context, otherwise one might just be going over’facts’ presented by a 20th (or 21st) century viewpoint. Dylan said if you really want to learn, go get a newspaper from, say, July 20th, 1863. Then you’ll be ‘witnessing’ as it was being reported in that far-away time that it actually took place. This point of context he seemed to be stressing came rushing back to me when I played this recording for the second time and I listened to the verse “a letter to Mother, came today….” –I was, to say the least, blown away by this man’s songwriting ability for in that short verse Dylan is bringing the 1860’s culture to a 21st century mind by saying one could get a letter saying “he’s in a hospital bed & we expect him to live” when “he’s already dead….” time moved at a much slower pace that in those days this could be the reality you would experience. What other songwriter would pen a song that contained such a salient point? Bob Dylan continues to amaze (and teach) me with his work.

  2. From a strictly structural point of view, the closest earlier work lies within “Like a Rolling Stone”, with its 4 chord progression, which in Rolling Stone is based as a Tonic in the first, lowest chord in the progression, likely Emaj. Then F sharp minor, then A flat minor, then using A as dominant and B 7th as the Sub- Dominant, returning at the beginning of the next verse/stanza back to E. In “Rolling Stone”, the sub-dominant is used as the turn around chord, and stanzas resolve the tension of the sub-dominant back to E maj.(tonic), in the verse. The refrain uses alternating A and B 7th, then degrades back through the two minors, etc. then the timeless hook-refrain, “How does it feel?”
    However, in the magnificent “Green Mountain”, the opening chord is the Dominant A, not the tonic E, and this is often mixed with the sub-dominant B-7th, which resolves its tension back to the E, a 5 chord progression with A as sub-dominant. The opening stanza, all instrumental, assumes the verse to be understood a s beginning in E, but initially cleverly states the descending progression, resolves, then turns to ascend from the F-sharp minor, “I cross the green mountain”, then(A-flat minor)”slept by a stream”, then “Heaven blazed etc….” pauses in the dominant A, only to descend back through the F-sharp. This is a very different and unusual development, and it creates an elegiac, mournful and atmospheric mood which is consistent with the video, part present, part memory, and part future, the wonderful time bending sequence during the portrait- taking has the observers’ viewpoints rapidly sequencing from the present to the (then) future, mixing reality with dream, a really brilliant bit of content which satisfies the most discriminating tastes in literature , film and music.
    About halfway through the group of verses at intro, the sequencing retrogrades from the A maj. and creates the base there, and then descends back to the Tonic after a brief sojourn in B7. Very sophisticated structure, deceptively complex, but without straining the unschooled listener as to intricacies. This makes the structure a triumphant, and unexpected turn for the more sophisticated listener, compared to “Like a Rolling Stone”, probably his first Masterpiece.
    It took me a long time to realize what was happening and to find out the chords. The orchestration, with the muted chord-ing on the electric guitar, and piano, and the punctuation with the Appalachian style paired fiddles harmonizing, the use of the military snare rattling at turns, and his gravelly, foggy vocals given to elasticizing the phrasing /timing(known as “Rubato”), breathing a natural cadence and authenticity into the work, marking it as unmistakably Dylan, at his mature, complex and layered prime. Bravo Maestro! High marks for complexity, novelty/originality, authenticity and fit between the context and the elements! The wig and hat were the only awkward parts of this puzzle, the quirks of genius, keeps us off balance and questioning his intent…

    Not being schooled as a notation reader, nor studying composition formally, the structural descriptions are the best I could do, and I apologize to those with formal classical learning for any shortcomings, of which there are many, I’m sure.
    My interest in posting these observations is to just highlight/underscore the growth in virtuosity the composer has undergone

  3. Along with Eric Bogle’s ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ one of the great songs about war. And, yes, highly underrated. ‘And the Band Played… ‘ is covered by many artists, including The Pogues, Joan Baez, Liam Clancy and The Bushwackers (best version) while ‘Cross the Green Mountain’ has, to my knowledge, never been covered (that would be a hard act).
    Both songs reference other poems, but while Dylan’s has many sources, Bogle’s song is a take on one poem: Andrew Patterson’s poem Waltzing Matilda (to many Australia’s unofficial national anthem).
    Not sure why, but Cross the Green Mountain reminds me of a wonderful Canadian film called ‘Incident at Owl Creek Bridge’. Maybe it’s the sense of longing for that which can never again be. Dylan carries this off beautifully (I;m pleased that hans altena mentioned ‘Ain’t Talkin’, which is another underrated song and one that also carries with it a sense of loss (the gardener has gone indeed).
    I could go on but time presses….

    Note: Waltzing Matilda was written in 1895 at Dagworth Station in outback Queensland, not long after the famous shearer’s strike that led to the formation of the Australian Labor Party. The poem is seen as anti-authoritarian.

      1. An excellently wrought cover. It is very wise to mine these now almost forgotten troves of outstanding lyrics, moods, and history. There is valuable treasure to be unearthed in these now almost buried works. Reviving this song is worthy in itself, but this first known cover is quite skillfully done and quickly puts us in touch again with a great piece of writing, and mood setting by the master.

  4. Quote: “Swept through the land of the rich and the free (Dylan has since said that USA is a land built on slavery, this line probably conveys the same sentiment)”

    Well. the fundamental point of the Civil War was to end slavery. The Enlightenment ideas, the ideas the Declaration of Independece was based upon, were the very ideas that ended slavery. Slavery had existed everywhere before then, but these ideas made slavery go away (but of course, it took some time, it did no happen overnight).

    1. No. Slavery ended with the ratification of the 13th amendment, which happened in December of 1865. Not one Union soldier had to die for this amendment to pass. The United States could have passed this amendment in 1861 – but they would have had to want to end slavery to do this. Saying that the war was about slavery just exposes your very shallow knowledge of history.

  5. What is the significance of the tombstone in the video that has Dylan’s birthday?

    Captain C.A. jeter born May 25, 1834

      1. I have spent a considerable amount of time doing genealogical work and that includes walking through many older cemeteries inspecting many old grave stones. Looking at this one in the video, the font all seems right to indicate that we are looking at an unaltered gravestone from the Civil War era.

        So the significance of the date on the grave stone is that it simply marks the birthdate of Capt William Ryland Jeter (May 25, 1834 – Oct. 26, 1862) .

        Jeter first enlisted as a private in the 5th Virginia Cavalry in May, 1861 and then took an officer’s commission with the 13th Virginia Cavalry in 1862.

        He was wounded on October 23, 1862 at the battle of Culpeper Courthouse and died of his wounds three days later. The sad tale of his death is recounted in some detail here: http://tinyurl.com/ztgzc73

        The story of his death fits well with the melancholy mood and theme of the video when heaven was blazin’ in Dylan’s head and he dreamed a monstrous dream. When “Somethin’ came out of the sea, swept through the land of the rich and the free.”

        Doug Fox

  6. I think that “The foe has crossed over from the other side” in verse 3 is also a clear reference to the battle of Fredericksburg.
    Also “They never dreamed of surrenderin’, they fell where they stood” is about the Confederate Army, which fought until the bitter end.
    “Swept through the land of the rich and the free”. I think this is more about the Confederacy in general and not about slavery. There is the war, the civil war that sweeps over it – so there were many riches to gain there and also many rich people, aristocracy… and for the people living there this war was about their own freedom from the north, their right to control themselves as free states and not to be controlled by a noncooperative central government.
    Clearly great parts if the song are about Stonewall Jackson, which also shows it pro-southerness.

  7. The total art in this is nothing short of a Masterpiece. It’s a completely painted picture of war and more specifically the Civil War with music as the perfect canvas and words for paint. Every time I listen I get the picture in my head. It’s perfect in every way.

  8. One of the interesting things about this song is the way the drums are very similar to drum taps for funeral processions

  9. As any disc jockey will tell you ‘This sad song is not a hit, won’t sell, audiences can’t relate to it.” Others recognize the work of a master craftsman (or thief) who really knows how to use tricks and tools. Might have written it in an hour or less but he put a lot of years into every second. To me, as well as this was constructed, and it is epic, the performance, the singing, is better.

  10. Yes, favorite song! But make it sound like Dylan went to the library and thumbed through book after book, looking for snippets of lines he could use to cobble together a song that sounded old. No, this guy has been absorbing and reflecting this sound and feel of Americana for 60 years by this point, he sat down and wrote it in a day. This song is consistent with the entire arc of his musical and lyrical output (save the three drug rock albums, that would have made a nice career for any band from the sixties.) He is CONNECTED!

    1. I love the song, and I find it impressive however he wrote it. To me it speaks to the heart more than the brain, it makes me teary-eyed every time I hear it.

      Thanks for the feedback.

  11. Thanks for the analysis. The extent of my previous understanding was the reference to Stonewall Jackson in v6.

    Also, I didn’t see if anyone had discussed the similarity between Jackson’s last words to the title and first lines of v1:

    “Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.”

    1. Thanks for the comment, I bet we are just starting to find all the references and hidden meanings in this great song

      – Hallgeir

  12. Verse 6:
    Close the eyes of our captain, peace may he know
    His long night is done, the great leader is laid low
    He was ready to fall, he was quick to defend
    Killed outright he was, by his own men

    This is a clear reference to the death of Stonewall Jackson which is a decisive turning point in the civil war. Your footnote 10 is precisely on point. This poem by Henry Lynden Flash entitled Stonewall Jackson has the same mood, the same ideas and even some of the same words as the song. Notice the sadness at the great tragedy of it all and yet it rises in the end in hope that this world is not all that there is. Or as Bob Dylan would put it: “Death is not the End.”

    NOT midst the lightning of the stormy fight,
    Nor in the rush upon the vandal foe,
    Did kingly Death, with his resistless might,
    Lay the great leader low.

    His warrior soul its earthly shackles broke 5
    In the full sunshine of a peaceful town;
    When all the storm was hushed, the trusty oak
    That propped our cause went down.

    Though his alone the blood that flecks the ground,
    Recalling all his grand heroic deeds, 10
    Freedom herself is writhing in the wound,
    And all the country bleeds.

    He entered not the nation’s Promised Land
    At the red belching of the cannon’s mouth,
    But broke the House of Bondage with his hand— 15
    The Moses of the South!

    O gracious God! not gainless is the loss:
    A glorious sunbeam gilds thy sternest frown;
    And while his country staggers ’neath the Cross,
    He rises with the Crown!

  13. I think it is his greatest work. It was his first published song after 9/11/2001 and many lines in the song, sometimes with a slight twist, from beginning to end can be heard as a song for that tragic day

  14. Though I cannot agree that the melody is copied from Sad Eyed Lady (look at the chords), this is the one song where as an exception Dylan returns to the thin wild mercury sound of Blonde on Blonde, and probably for a reason, because its scope is as dreamlike and far reaching as the main songs of that album, with a story told not linear but through images that connect on a higher level, but still are not surreal per se, as on Highway 61, more snippets of a truth vaguelly perceived but in itself overarching and pointing to a clear light in the darkness. To me this song has, though more modest in its images, the stature of songs like Visions of Johanna and Ain’t Talkin’, and yes, for me it also always conjures up Sad Eyed Lady. One could call this a love song to his country that in someway he sees as doomed.
    Thanks for the elucidating notes!

  15. great performance one of those songs where Dylan uses his aging vocal chords brilliantly

    1. I agree, I think he is able to do that quite often in the studio (I love his latest albums) and sometimes live. When he does, it is so fantastic!

      – Hallgeir

  16. Hi

    Yes it is a wonderful, emotive song. I’m surprised that no one has mentioned that it is sung to the tune of “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”. Sometimes as I “sing” it in my head I suddenly move on to Sad Eyed Lady!


  17. I agree that this is a highly underrated song. As your footnotes reference, there is a lot going on in this song. One key point is that this song was not written as “the soundtrack of Gods and Generals, a Civil War TV series.” Instead it was commissioned for a $56 Million dollar movie called Gods and Generals that was widely panned by the critics and was a financial boondoggle for Ted Turner who funded it. The movie was conceived of as a “prequel” to the critically acclaimed and wildly successful “Gettysburg” from ten years earlier in 1993. That movie became an all-time high seller on the VHS and DVD market, and garnered 23 million viewers, a record for cable TV at the time of its television premier.

    Many of the references in Bob Dylan’s’ great song require a sophisticated understanding of the civil war and the particular battles of Bull Run (1st Manassas), Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville which are depicted in movie as the lead up to the decisive battle of Gettysburg. I recommend reading the Wikipedia article on the Movie (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gods_and_Generals_(film) to get some of this background. For example the reference to “they tipped their caps” references what the Confederate the soldiers would do when they would rise to their feet as Lee rode by and remove their caps in silent salute to the general. Lee in turn would touch his hat. The reference to the stars falling over Alabama references the many generals that were lost in these battles including the greatest of them all: Stonewall Jackson at the battle of Chancellorsville.

    I hope to contribute more on this subject later as we tackle the meaning of this amazing song.


    1. Thank you, Doug!

      Always interesting comments and info. I will most certainly read the wikipedia article about the movie. The Reason I referred to it as a TV series must be that it was the way I saw it for the first time. It was released as an episodic mini series here in Norway on some cable station. I have since bought it on DVD and I knew that it was a movie of course.

      Thanks for insightful comments.

      – Hallgeir

      1. I can hear in the sound of the notes the intended meaning of the words.. I dont think Bob needed anyone to check the exact history to understand the full meaning of the song.
        Knowing the details doesn’t change the listening experience much. Of course the men tipped their caps. And I read that yes it was written specifically to please the movie director… I would like to know how many tries it took to get that earie austere otherworldly sound on the opening tones !!! Absolutely Spine tingling!

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