By Tony Attwood
Jochen has forwarded me the text of an interview with Bob Dylan that appeared in 1968 in “Sing Out” in which John Cohen asked a series of questions about Dylan’s attitude towards the Beatles.
At one point dylan said apropos the Beatles, “they work much more with the studio equipment, they take advantage of the new sound inventions of the past year or two. Whereas I don’t know anything about it. I just do the songs, and sing them and that’s all.” I mention that because it suggests Bob was in a serious mood, willing to take on the questions and give straight answers.
The follow up question then takes us to the element that interests me, for the interviewer says, again of the Beatles, “Do you think they are more British or International?”
Bob replies, “They’re British, I suppose, but you can’t say they’ve carried on with their poetic legacy, whereas the Incredible String Band who wrote this “October Song”…that was quite good.”
(And as an aside, this is not “October Song as recorded by Amy Winehouse, that is a totally different affair.)
The interviewer then asked what both Jochen and I find an incomprehensible question, saying, “As a finished thing — or did it reach you?” Maybe if you speak 1968 English you can explain that to us, but Bob replied, “As a finished song it’s quite good.”
“Quite good” of course is not a wholehearted recommendation, but on the other hand the album from which the song came, named “Incredible String Band”, was released two years earlier, and although popular did not reach the heights.
The Incredible String Band album won the title of “Folk Album of the Year” in the magazine “Melody Maker” which by this time had dropped its original stance of covering jazz and was now covering the music of what was then called the Underground.
In its article on the album Wikipedia says, “… and in a 1968 Sing Out! magazine interview Bob Dylan praised Williamson’s “October Song” as one of his favorite songs of that period.”
So maybe Bob said a little more than we have found or maybe Wiki just expanded on reality. “Quite good” for me doesn’t equate to “one of his favourite songs of that period.” But it was the song Bob picked, so it is worth a look in our “Why does Dylan like” series.
But for me there is a further connection. Being only a few years younger than Bob Dylan, I was a student in Brighton (on the south coast of the UK) at the time the album came out and I was utterly knocked out by it, and it is this song that I still remember. Indeed I think there are only three “Incredibles” songs across all the albums that have stayed with me through my life – this plus “Back in the 1960s”, “The first girl ever I loved”, from their second album. I think “The first girl” also written by Williamson gives quite an insight into the musician and his music.
Here are the lyrics…
I’ll sing you this October song
Oh, there is no song before it
The words and tune are none of my own
For my joys and sorrows bore it
Beside the sea
The brambly briars in the still of evening
Birds fly out behind the sun
And with them I’ll be leavng
The fallen leaves that jewel the ground
They know the art of dying
And leave with joy their glad gold hearts
In the scarlet shadows lying
When hunger calls my footsteps home
The morning follows after
I swim the seas within my mind
And the pine-trees laugh green laughter
I used to search for happiness
And I used to follow pleasure
But I found a door behind my mind
And that’s the greatest treasure
For rulers like to lay down laws
And rebels like to break them
And the poor priests like to walk in chains
And God likes to forsake them
So why did Bob pick this song?
First, it was unlike anything else being produced at the time – and indeed there are few other songs that compare to it, other than those by Williamson himself.
Second, I think he wanted to point out to the interviewer that British music was not just the Beatles, but there were many other insteresting explorations going on at the time.
And third I suspect he loved the way the the lyrics evolve. Dylan does not write lines like those opening the second verse, just as he never writes melodies like this, but I think he can admire that sort of writing.
The opening four lines of the second verse are, for me, unparalleled in popular and folk music, and as I’ve said that final quartet of lines takes us onto a new dimension.
I do recall the impact that final verse made on me. This was 1968 and I was not into the drugs scene at all (I was however trying to become either a rock musician or writer), and I loved not just the “door behind my mind” but also the final four lines, because they reflected my own views on authority, both of the state and the church. And those lines – indeed all the lines in the song, are far more than “quite good”. I am not sure if anyone can find any antecedents but I can’t.
Many people have recorded it, and indeed still do record it. Here are just four songs – you can find many more on the internet. And the variety of approaches show just how much there is within the lyrics and the melody, which as the first example below shows, is very closely related to the English folk tradition of hundreds of years before.
It is a song that has been part of my life since those late teenage years, and I think my life has been a little richer by having it with me through the years. I do hope you will also go on and try the other versions below.
The Beatles it ain’t, and I think Bob Dylan was clearly saying, “yes that’s one way of going, but really, there are other people who are doing phenomonal ground breaking work. You should listen.”
When Bob said, “quite good” I like to think he meant, “yes the Beatles sum up and exemplify all that has gone before, but if you want to find somewhere new to travel, try this.”
Maybe I’m taking it all to far, but that’s how I like to read that remark. After all, a song that stays with you, all the way through your adult life, has to be more than “quite good”.
Lauri Watson takes a different route, changing the chord structure beneath the lyrics…
Tom Gillfellon keeps the struture but gives us an interwoven complex accompaniment, which perhaps on first hearing overpowers the melody and lyrics, but give it several plays and there appears a sound that does indeed deliver October.
The late Maggie Boyle also recorded the song, which can be found here. It is a simple and delicate version that delivers the feeling of the Scottish countryside which I think was very much part of the original.
And finally, back to the composer, Robin Williamson. He of course wrote other songs. Here is one I particularly like… “The first girl ever I loved”
My thanks to Jochen for giving me a chance to write about, and perhaps introduce you to, an extraordinary band from the 1960s and a beautiful song that truly does need to be remembered.
And of course for showing me another reason why I love the music of Bob Dylan. We both enjoyed the Incredible String Band.
An index to the songs in this series can be found here.
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