The Ballad of Donald White: the worrying implications of Bob Dylan’s early composition

By Tony Attwood

Bob is known to have performed this song twice in 1962, and then left it behind, presumably both because he did not compose the music, and because his talent was evolving at such a rate that the song was quickly surpassed by other more impressive songs.

But also, as I hope to show in this little piece, because the message he offered was one that was even more troubling to record executives of the day than “Masters of War” and “With God on our side”.

At this time Dylan was not writing much music that was original.  If we look back to Man on the Street we can see both the basis of the lyrics and the musical construction have been purloined from early folk songs.  Rambling Gambling Willie for example was clearly related to Brennan on the Moor (although do be careful if going back to listen to this one as there are so many versions of this Irish song that many appear to have no relationship with Dylan’s subsequent work).

But what is interesting is that I am not sure there were any immediate antecedents to Ballad for a friend and it struck me recently that maybe “Ballad” was immediately dropped because it was too original. In short, Dylan had more interest in relating his work to the folk music of the past, rather than creating anything new in these early days.   After all the folk club were full of people singing versions of traditional songs, not people singing new music.

But things were moving very very quickly and whatever views Dylan held one week were likely to be transformed the next.  Here’s the chronology for 1962, as far as I can tell…

  1. Ballad for a friend
  2. Rambling Gambling Willie
  3. Standing on the highway
  4. Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues
  5. Ballad of Donald White
  6. Let me die in my footsteps
  7. Blowing in the wind 

The immediate antecedents of the music come from The Ballad of Peter Amberly by John Calhoun in 1880 or thereabouts.

The death and disaster tradition of songs telling of appalling accidents at work was very popular in the 19th century, and those who have studied this branch of social science will undoubtedly have theories as to why.  But it has always struck me that writing such songs was a way to make sense of the world in which we find ourselves.  They are an attempt to make sense of the fact that the rich not only have all the luxury but also don’t get killed in industrial disasters.

It is reported in several places that Bob had heard Bonnie Dobson sing the song and indeed in this first recording of the song below Dylan’s brief comment appear to credit Bonnie Dobson, possibly as composer.

But the quality on this recording is poor – and I have only included it for this very brief commentary – there is a better version of the song’s performance in a moment.  Stay with me…

The composer of the original version John Calhoun (1845-1939, and not to be confused with the 7th vice president of the United States of the same name!) wrote what is referred to as “the best loved of Miramichi woods ballads”. (Miramichi being part of New Brunswick).

Calhoun lived at Gordon Vale, where he farmed and worked in the woods in the winter and according to the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, “Calhoun was one of those who helped take the young man out to the settlement by horse and sled, and he heard him speak fitfully along the way of his Island home, his stern father, and his loving mother.”

But Calhoun was himself only the author of the words, not the composer of the music, which in fact comes from the Irish tradition and can be traced back at least 100 year further through that tradition.

Also we should note that the last verse of Peter Emberley was not actually written by Calhoun, but was added later by performers who felt that a religious sentiment was needed – again presumably to make sense of a world that so often doesn’t make any sense at all.  Here is the added verse, which some publishers of the lyrics place in parenthesis to indicate its different origins.

And now before I pass away there is one more thing I crave,
That some good holy father will bless my mouldering grave.
Near by the city of Boiestown where my mouldering bones do lay.
A-waiting for my saviour’s call on that great Judgement Day.

Calhoun had three sons and two daughters living in 1939, and thus I guess his descendents are still with us, and hopefully fully aware of their great grandfather’s contribution to the folk music tradition.

By the 1960s the song was very much part of the repertoire of folk singers, and Dylan composed his lyrics after (or in some tellings, while) sitting in his apartment on 4th Street, watching “A volcano named White” – a TV programme about capital punishment in which Donald White was filmed on Death Row.

In subsequent conversations Bob reported that he had heard about White several years earlier – he was a man who was deeply troubled psychologically, and who, in his own testimony, resorted to murder simply to get the help he personally felt he desperately needed.

Overall I think that we can see this song as part of Dylan’s development as a song writer, and that he himself fully appreciated this.  The song was not put forward by Bob as a one that should be recorded for an album, and was quickly forgotten.

Dylan’s song opens with

My name is Donald White, you see
I stand before you all
I was judged by you a murderer
And the hangman’s knot must fall
I will die upon the gallows pole
When the moon is shining clear
And these are my final words
That you will ever hear

I have very little knowledge of how Donald White would have been put to death, or indeed if we was put to death from his crime of murder, but I was a little surprised to see, on returning to this song, that Dylan uses language that I associate with capital punishment in England, where hanging was the chosen method until 1965 when all capital punishment was abolished.

Dylan gives us a brief resume of White’s troubles…

Although I’d a-traveled many miles
I never made a friend
For I could never get along in life
With people that I met

And we hear the result

If I had some education
To give me a decent start
I might have been a doctor or
A master in the arts
But I used my hands for stealing
When I was very young
And they locked me down in jailhouse cells
That’s how my life begun

And the failure of the state in neither providing education nor psychological help nor even sufficient prison space adds to the problems.

Oh, the inmates and the prisoners
I found they were my kind
And it was there inside the bars
I found my peace of mind
But the jails they were too crowded
Institutions overflowed
So they turned me loose to walk upon
Life’s hurried tangled road

And there is a touch of the Dylan that we soon come to know and love

And there’s danger on the ocean
Where the salt sea waves split high
And there’s danger on the battlefield
Where the shells of bullets fly
And there’s danger in this open world
Where men strive to be free
And for me the greatest danger
Was in society

Thus the troubled young man asks to be returned to prison, but he is told the prisons are too overcrowded, resulting in White’s killing of a man in 1959 and offering himself up to the authorities, anxious to die, and knowing that society will be glad to be rid of him.

And then we have the moral…

But there’s just one question
Before they kill me dead
I’m wondering just how much
To you I really said
Concerning all the boys that come
Down a road like me
Are they enemies or victims
Of your society?

It’s not eloquent poetry, but it does put forward the issue that societies in general find impossible to tackle – the notion that the very social structures and institutions themselves can be as responsible for the behaviour of an individual as an individual.  It is the view of anarchism: society is to blame for the ills of mankind.

So fundamental is the question that it is a question that cannot even be debated, for even to acknowledge that it is a valid question, pulls down all the structures of the society.  The individual must be held responsible, for if not, then the teachers, the legislators, the parents, the food processors, the politicians, could all be held guilty.

Before you know what was happening, everyone would be guilty, and we can’t have that.

What’s on the site

1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order below on this page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.





  1. Side one, track 6: Ballad Of Donald White, Blind Boy Grunt, vinyl bootleg 1972, Trade Mark of Quality label…. sounds like it was recorded yesterday…crystal clear, no hiss.

  2. There is yet another and older source than The Ballad of Peter Amberly: scottish ballad Come All Ye Tramps And Hawkers. And it also could be heard in opening line of I Pity the Poor Immigrant…

  3. I doubt that the message of the song–that society is to blame–would have deterred the record label. It wasn’t really a daring idea at the time–it was more a liberal commonplace than an anarchist tenet. Just the year before, for example, a popular movie, The Young Savages, with Burt Lancaster, had dealt with a very similar theme. (It’s a movie Dylan very likely saw, though I’m not suggesting it as a source.)

    I believe Donald White was executed, and it would indeed have been by hanging–the state of Washington carried out its last hanging in 1994, but still keeps a gallows handy, just in case any prisoners would prefer it over lethal injection. Very thoughtful folks out there.

  4. Now, people, you need to study up on your geography (lol). Boiestown, named after a lumber-mill owner, is a tiny community on the Southwest Miramichi River, NB, upriver and under 150 miles from where I reside. It’s home to the Woodsmen’s Museum.

    It’s ‘city’ reference in Peter Amberley – a touch of humour.

  5. In ‘Rambler Gambler’, Dylan sings:

    “Oh, there’s changes in the ocean
    There’s changes in the sea”

    Peter Emberley:

    There’s danger in the ocean
    Where the waves roll mountains high

  6. “Before you know what was happening, everyone would be guilty, and we can’t have that.”
    How come?
    I believe it is exactly the question in the song.
    The responsibility of the community for each crime : lack of children education, lack of rehabilitation in prison, lack of help after the prison time…
    In what is it an Anarchist statement?
    It is a social statement , universal and so much in our time.
    In my opinion, no one is born a criminal but … a Baby.
    I didn’t know the story was a real story

  7. I’m really glad to know that there are some people out there that appreciate that song as much as me! I think it is one of his greatest songs despite the fact that it wasn’t on an album. It is amazing how many great songs he has written. Thank you sincerely for your brilliant article, I really loved reading it.

  8. Don White was not executed; eventually he gained clemency after mass protests which were heard here in Seattle. Both a Democratic and Republican Gvoernor supported his release. After his release, White received psychiatric therapy, and went on with a normal life and became a human rights activist.

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