Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Melancholy Parting: Dylan's "Fare Thee Well" And "The Leaving Of Liverpool"

Bob Dylan has attained such an iconic status in the world of American folk and popular music that it's hard to remember (or even conceive) that he was barely twenty years old when he arrived in New York and began a serious attempt to make a living in music. He was a scruffy, shifty, erratic kid about whom there are plenty of less than savory tales told about his behavior, his veracity about himself and his prior life, and his treatment of people around him. Some of those tales are undoubtedly apocryphal and born of jealousy or spite; others have the kind of persistent reincarnation that suggest at least a grounding in truth. At his best, our young genius-to-be seems to have given a fair number of previews of his explosive talent for writing memorable, high-impact songs; at his worst - well, we were all twenty once, and I'd venture to guess that most of us could look back at that time in our own lives and recall some of the things that we ourselves did that we hope will be buried with us.

A window into that time in Dylan's earliest career is provided by Martin Scorsese in his (typical for him overlong and in need of editing) documentary No Direction Home. Many in the Greenwich Village crowd didn't quite know what to make of him, befriend him though they did. Dave Van Ronk, Spider John Koerner, and John Cohen all expressed in the film a kind of bemusement at Dylan's persona and shenanigans - and Liam Clancy found him eager but occasionally annoying. What becomes clear in the film is how much Dylan derived - and how many songs he appropriated - from each of those (and other) older, more established stars of the pre-KT small and largely unknown Village folk community.

I was surprised to see in No Direction Home how many times Liam Clancy was interviewed and how often he and his brothers and Tommy Makem were cited as major influences on Dylan - and I really shouldn't have been, given the number of songs on Dylan's earliest albums that are direct derivations of numbers from the Clancys' repertoire: "Pretty Peggy-O" is a slight re-working of the Brothers' version of the Scots "Bonnie Maid Of Fife" from their first album; "Restless Farewell" is an adaptation of Liam's classic solo on "The Parting Glass"; "Rambling, Gambling Willie" is failed attempt to create an American outlaw song of the same tenor as the vastly better traditional "Brennan On The Moor" with which the Clancys opened most of their concerts; and as most people know, "With God On Our Side" simply substitutes a generic set of anti-war protest lyrics for the more particular, pointed, and effective ones from Dominc Behan's "The Patriot Game." (Behan's objections to Dylan's purloining of his tune were quickly silenced when it became more widely known that Behan himself had filched much of the tune for "Patriot Game" from a really obscure Appalachian folk song. Thus goes the "folk process.")

Recognizing as he clearly did that the power of the CB&TM's performances derived in equal measure from their "leave it all on the stage" attitude and the wide and deep mine of source material of Irish traditional music, Dylan went back to the well at least once more for the melody of his "Fare Thee Well." The Clancys had been singing the old Anglo-Irish waterfront drinking song "The Leaving Of Liverpool" all around the Village for a year or two (Liam once said that they stole it from Luke Kelly and Ronnie Drew, who would become the heart of The Dubliners); Bobby D. changed the tune ever so slightly, retained the basic sense of the lyrics (as he did with "Restless Farewell"), and uncorked "Fare Thee Well My Own True Love."

I had never heard Dylan sing this until fairly recently, except in bootlegs from live performances, but the times they are a changin' and YouTube now has what amounts to a demo from BD of his rewrite in 1963:

I first became aware of the song on this version here - The Kingston Trio from 1964's Nick, Bob and John album. The audio here is from the re-engineered, cleaned up version released recently that attempted to compensate for the many faults of the original Decca recording, which sounded flat and two-dimensional without the recording magic of Capitol Records producer Voyle Gilmore and engineer Pete Abbot:

I'm not sure how much influence (if any besides preventing orchestration and adding a bass) that Gilmore had on the actual arrangements of the KT, but I like to think he might have suggested that they slow down a bit on this one.

At about the same time, the song was also recorded by Dion and the Wanderers, the "Dion" being the same Dion DiMucci who had been a teen heartthrob as the front man for the Belmonts and as a soloist as well. The more mature Dion of 1965, still three years away from his signature hit song of "Abraham, Martin and John", recorded a folk-rock album that included several Dylan songs, including "Fare Thee Well":

For something dramatically different, Ken and Jane Brooks present a classic bluegrass reading of the tune:

Ken Brooks is blistering those strings - that is outstanding bluegrass flatpicking.

The first version of the composition I heard was of course was the root song "Leaving of Liverpool" by the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, a much superior song in its simple and honest melancholy. Here is that legendary group - Clancy brothers Liam, Paddy, and Bobby with the pride of Armagh, Tommy Makem. This is the band's original studio recording from 1963.

For something a tad more Irish in its sound but still polished - Johnny McEvoy does a great job:

Here is a tape of Ronnie Drew, Barney McKenna and more - a sort of proto-Dubliners group - from an early 60s TV show. This one is the rough edged, sort of pre-KT folk sound:

And the best for last - a TV special featuring the great Tommy Makem, quite possibly the best of all soloist Irish folk singers:

The Dylan song is pleasant enough - but for me the original is infinitely superior. Though it's a sailor's song - he is after all coming back, according to the lyric - I've often wondered how often this might have been sung the night before weighing anchor by some of the five million souls who between 1840 and 1910 left Liverpool, never to return, for their own New Worlds.......

Appendix - 7/11/09

And a live performance by a later incarnation of the legendary Dubliners:

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