By Tony Attwood
When I first heard Dylan’s song “Farewell” I couldn’t believe that he had seriously presented it as a song of his own composition, and certainly I couldn’t believe that, as many sources suggest, considered putting it on an album under his own name as composer. It just was so very obviously “The Leaving of Liverpool” a song that anyone with even a half interest in folk music in England, will know.
But then I got to thinking, just because it is so fundamental to the folk song tradition of England, that doesn’t mean either that Bob understood just how well known this song was in England and Ireland, nor should that popularity mean that at that time the good people of America would also have heard it.
After all he took Nottamun Town and made that his own, and in that case only the real enthusiasts of folk music in England would have known the origins of “Masters of War”.
But it is not just the music that links Dylan’s “Farewell” back to “Leaving of Liverpool” it is also the lyrics. The version everyone who has ever visited folk clubs in my country will know is
Farewell to you, my own true love;I am going far away.
I am bound for Californ-i-a,
And I know that I’ll return someday.
So fare thee well, my own true love,And when I return, united we will be.
It’s not the leavin’ of Liverpool that grieves me,
But, my darling, when I think of thee.
Leaving aside all the similarities of the tune, the opening lyrics in Dylan’s song is so similar that it is getting awfully close to copying:
Oh it’s fare-thee-well, my darlin’ true,I’m a-leavin’ in the first hour of the morn.
I’m bound off for the Bay of Mexico,
Or maybe the coast of Cal-i-forn.
So it’s fare-thee-well, my own true love,We’ll meet an-other day, an-other time;
It’s not the leavin’ that’s a-grievin’ me,
But my darlin’ who’s bound to stay behind
But of course this is just my opinion, as always, and as such it doesn’t count for too much. Bob recorded the song as one of the Witmark demo recordings in March 1963 and there are several sources that say he had it marked down as a possible song for “Times they are a changing”. In the end he gave us Restless Farewell which was also adapted from a folk song. In this case the origin was “The Parting Glass”, but here the adaptation moves a distance away from the original – easily enough distance to my ears to make the song perfectly legitimate as a Bob Dylan original. (Incidentally if you have never heard the live version of Restless sung to Bob Dylan, do listen to that. It is included in the article linked to above.)
Here’s the sort of singing of Leaving of Liverpool that I heard repeatedly, in my youth.
Of course it was not really to my taste since I’m a Londoner, and us Londoners don’t always get on too well with the Liverpudlian musical tradition which to some southern ears always seems to put Liverpool at the centre of the universe (whereas we know that of course that positioning is of course and obviously London’s.)
Back to Bob’s version. It was also recorded for Broadside, played on a radio session and recorded for Times, but the song was fairly quickly dropped from Dylan’s on stage appearances. However it has remained popular, and was used in the movie “Inside Llewyn Davis” made by the Coen brothers a few years back.
Of course Dylan did make some changes as the song moves along, but the essence of the piece is very close to its folk origins to my ears. But clearly not to everyone – or at least not so much that it mattered. Judy Collins, who knew a thing or two about recording Dylan songs put it on her third album, and Anita and Helen Carter of the Carter Family also recorded it. And I’d always have to bow to their judgement. Tim Buckley then working with The Modern Folk Quartet also recorded it, and well, with a list like that I’ll just crawl back and hide in my corner. Take no notice of anything I say.
Thus I guess overall, if such great luminaries of music thought the song was fine to record as a Dylan song, then really, you have to take note of them, and not me.
In fact looking at the list of people who recorded the piece, it is quite extraordinary what an attraction this song has had. Lonnie Donegan – not a name that may resonant elsewhere in the world, but who was incredibly important in English popular music via the skiffle era, recorded it, as did Dion DiMucci of Dion and the Belmonts, and perhaps most surprisingly (given that he would 100% know the original) Liam Clancy. So quite clearly this is just me getting uppity about origins. Best to take no notice.
Here’s Bob’s version…
What else is on the site
1: Over 460 reviews of Dylan songs. There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.
2: The Chronology. We’ve taken 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 produced 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.
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