Kingsport Town: Dylan in 1962 looking back to the traditions of the travelling singer

By Tony Attwood

It is quite clear that during 1962 Dylan was exploring the various types of folk genre just to see what he could do with them, and included in the range of songs he experimented with he found a particular link with the personal tales of woe and moving on – something that became a theme he loved to explore throughout his songwriting career – from “One too many mornings” through to “Tell Ol Bill” and onwards.

Looking back we should not be surprised about this since Dylan has never lost his desire to be the modern day troubadour.  And indeed I think it never goes amiss to remind ourselves of the origins of the troubadour – the travelling minstrels of southern France (and parts of Italy) in the 12th and 13th century, singing of chivalry and love, although they could also be vulgar.

The Never Ending Tour is indeed Dylan harking back to a tradition that is 800 years old, and I believe we are forever in his debt that he stood up against the new 20th/21st century approach which sees the artist stuck within the recording studio for most of his career, hardly venturing forth, and most certainly not re-writing the songs day after day.

Indeed I personally despair when I heard criticisms of moments such as “Rock em dead” and I once knew a man.   Yes of course there is a place for the well-rehearsed and ultimately artificial studio recording, where we get the music after the engineers have spent their hours removing every scratch as the guitarist moves across the strings.  But let us not forgot how all this started.

Back with Kingsport Town, this type of folk song has long been popular with travelling singers because it gives the singer a certain cachet – the singer portrays himself as having been around the world and suffered all sorts of hardships and problems, and he (or she but generally he) has washed up here, in this bar, and tells his tale.

Of course this is the antithesis of the troubadours who described the lives of the great nobles and ladies in their castles, but the function is similar. In both cases the singer is saying that he has seen the world and is returned to tell stories of it.  It is just that in one case the world is the world of the lords and ladies, and in the other it is the world of the lonesome traveller, betrayed in love.

It is an approach that in England goes back to the Middle Ages, during which time villages were totally isolated from the rest of the country and mostly from each other.  “Born here and die here” was exactly what it was like for everyone and nothing changed the endless monotony of life other than the changing seasons, the religious festivals, and the occasional visitor.

Since at that time a small town 20 miles away was as remote as the then unknown China, the tales were fanciful, but the singer gave himself some credence by placing himself within the adventures of which he told.  If he had had great fortune, then his ragged clothes and asking for free food and drink in return for the singing would be hard to explain.  So the songs of being misled, let down and cheated came into fashion.

Of course the style has changed across the years, but Dylan still taps into this tradition, even though he is now sitting in a New York folk club or coffee bar, and so strong is the tradition his lyrics can be accepted even though palpably untrue…

The winter wind is a blowing strong
My hands have got no gloves

In fact Dylan never lost his love of the genre – just think of

The river whispers in my ear
I’ve hardly a penny to my name

Not only is the theme the same so is the scansion of the lines.  Indeed if you took the lines

I wish to my soul that I could see
The girl I’m a-thinking of

and were told it was a rejected verse from Tell Ol Bill you might well believe it.

The story continues

Don’t you remember me babe
I remember you quite well
You caused me to leave old Kingsport Town
With a high sheriff on my trail

and its only problem is that now, when we pay attention to the lyrics and the melody, we know that over time, and with the same sort of theme, Dylan was able to do so much more. In effect the song sounds like a try out for the music he was later to produce.

But it is quite extraordinary – if you can hear the melody of Tell Ol Bill you can easily sing the verses of this song within that.

Who’s a-gonna walk you side by side
And tell you everything’s alright
Who’s a-gonna sing to you all day long
And not just in the night

The origins of the song, as others have pointed out, is “Who’s gonna shoe your pretty little feet” and further back, “Lass of Loch Royal.”   Incidentally if you are not familiar with the Scottish origins of this type of song, and have a couple of spare minutes do listen to this superb rendition of Loch Royal by the incomparable Maddy Prior.  While of course it is not for me to tell you what to do, may I suggest you do nothing else, stop looking at the computer screen, and just listen to the music?  Just this once.  Just for a couple of minutes.

So I’ll leave now these windows and likewise this hall
And it’s deep in the sea I will find my downfall

It is in lyrics like this that this whole type of music developed so that Dylan, centuries later could write Kingsport Town as part of a long-running tradition.

I’m going to add something else that turned up while I was doing the usual background work on Kingsport Town, which is is “Hard Times of Old England”.  I’ve had a copy of the Steeleye Span album which has this song on it since, I guess, the 1970s, but never before heard this version.  If you are interested in what can happen to this type of music, do give it try.

The Discussion Group

We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase in, on your Facebook page or go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/254617038225146/  It is also a simple way of staying in touch with the latest reviews on this site and day to day news about Dylan.

The Chronology Files

There are reviews of Dylan’s compositions from all parts of his life, up to the most recent writings, but of late I have been trying to put these into chronological order, and fill in the gaps as I work.

All the songs reviewed on this site are also listed on the home page in alphabetical order – just scroll down a bit once you get there

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1 Response to Kingsport Town: Dylan in 1962 looking back to the traditions of the travelling singer

  1. Larry fyffe says:

    The history of wandering troubadours and their folk songs dove-tails nicely with the biblical stories of the wandering Jew in the Scriptures, the somewhat hedonistc writings of the vagabond poets of Romantic transcendentists, and the seemingly amoral poems of big-city Existentialists.

    Dylan is able to create new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition by mixing these genres together:

    “….where beauty goes unrecognizd /
    All I feel is heat and flame/
    And all I see are dark eyes”
    (Bob Dylan: Dark Eyes)

    The Sheriff of Nottingham still chasing down Robin Hood for taking up a King sport.

    “High Sheriff on my trail/
    And because I’m falling for/
    A curly-haired dark-eyed girl”
    (Bob Dylan: Kingsport Town)

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