The three versions extract different pains, different moods. The song, among the earliest written by Dylan, and initially covered by Peter, Paul and Mary, seems to bridge the energy of country from the mountains (Southern Appalachian, thinking of Mother Maybelle and Carter Family songs) with the individuality of rock that was emerging during the 1960s.
When the rooster crows at the break of dawn, look out your window and I will be gone…
He wrote this song (and Blowin’ in the Wind, and Girl from the North Country) when he was about 20 years old – freshly arrived to New York City from Minnesota – with a “farm boy” allure still present but already a poet capable of churning out those haunting sentences that we saw printed on the wall of a beautiful cafe in Oxford, those supremely lyrical melodies – balanced up to some point by his unruly voice and tuning. He used the name of a famous poet when he chose his own artistic name (Dylan Thomas -> Bob Dylan).
It ain’t no use turning on your light babe, the light I never knowed, and it ain’t no use turning on your light babe, I’m on the dark side of the road…
Of the three versions I at present feel closest to the “rawest one”: Dylan, his seemingly untrained voice and his guitar (no harmonica yet, apparently, at that point), and no production, so to speak. Of course, I can see how the beautiful rendering by PP&M, with its carefully inflected voice, its balanced production, the harmonic blending of the three voices, the stresses coming from careful use of head-singing at crucial points, was a boost to the song, for audiences that apparently were not quite ready for Dylan’s own highly idiosyncratic way of singing. Then, of course, the freewheeling version – the best known today perhaps, the first I heard, with Dylan himself, now with his harmonica, with more polished and balanced use of voice of guitar. Every version I hear I love, but of the three at this point I am preferring the rawest, the least produced, the most “brouillon-like”.
Don’t think twice, it’s alright. So long, honey babe … where I’m bound, I can’t tell. Goodbye is too good a word, babe, so I just say fare thee well…
Of course, different sadnesses, of different kinds – different departures (in a way, we are always saying those words, even when we “stay”: we are constantly “on the dark side of the road” with respect to something, to someone, to oneself, to one’s former versions). I can’t really say, can’t really imagine how many times I have had to say a version of those words to myself, to my infant self, to my young self, to my friends, to countries (to Belgium, to Israel, to Finland on a boat heading for Stockholm in the dark night of winter).
Even mathematically (or mostly mathematically) this is something that (painfully) happens more often that we would like.
How could someone at age 20 know all that?