Why does Dylan like “Dark as a Dungeon”

Editorial note:

One of the wonderful things about Untold Dylan is that readers are so active in joining in with suggestions.  So when Russell Pottinger suggested another entry for our “Why Does Dylan Like” series, we jumped at the idea.

Great idea, and a song that we have missed.  So here we are…


By Tony Attwood and Aaron Galbraith

Dark as a Dungeon is a song written by singer-songwriter Merle Travis (1917-1983).  Merle was a C&W singer who particularly wrote about the life of, and exploitation, of the coal miners.  His most famous song, which we guess everyone with an interest in the history of popular music must know, was “Sixteen Tons” – his 1947 recording of the song became a gold record, and it has subsequently been recorded by a vast number of singers.

Merle Travis also invented “Travis picking” – a form of guitar fingerpicking, which really is quite tough to learn – much harder than it sounds in fact.

In his early live performances, Elvis Presley sang the song, although he didn’t record it.  Here is the composer performing the song…

“Dark as a Dungeon” itself, like “Sixteen Tons” takes issue with the danger and drudgery of being a coal miner, and it has often been used as a rallying cry by miners seeking improved working conditions.  Again, here’s the composer…


As soon as I (Tony) heard this song I found myself thinking “I know that melody”, and after a few seconds of asking Aaron what it was, it came to me: there is a distinct relationship between “Dark as a Dungeon” and “Farewell Angelina.”

It is possible that Dylan recognised the similarity in the melody and so didn’t use the song himself.  He still has still never performed “Farewell Angelina”, since writing it the song in 1964.  But he has sung “Dark as a Dungeon”.

So back to “Dark as a Dungeon,” the song reached a particular level of fame when Johnny Cash included it in his Folsom Prison concert.

And interestingly Joan Baez has sung it as a solo…

as well as performing it on the Rolling Thunder Revue with Bob Dylan in 1975.  In the 1990 European part of the Never Ending Tour and again in 1998 in Melbourne, Australia, Bob performed it live on stage.


Here are the lyrics

Oh come all you young fellers so young and so fine
Seek not your fortune in a dark dreary mine
It'll form as a habit and seep in your soul
Until the stream of your blood runs as black as the coal

Where it's dark as a dungeon, damp as the dew
Danger is double pleasures are few
Where the rain never falls, the sun never shines
It's a dark as a dungeon way down in the mine

Well it's many a man that I've seen in my day
Who lived just to labor his whole life away
Like a friend with his dope and a drunkard with his wine
A man will have lust for the lure of the mine

And pray when I'm dead and my ages shall roll
That my body would blacken and turn into coal
Then I'll look from the door of my heavenly home 
and pity the miner digging my bones

Where it's dark as a dungeon, damp as the dew
Danger is double pleasures are few
Where the rain never falls, the sun never shines
It's a dark as a dungeon way down in the mine

The midnight, the morning, or the middle of day,
Is the same to the miner who labors away.
Where the demons of death often come by surprise,
One fall of the slate and you're buried alive.

The final verse, although included in the original song, is often omitted by performers.  Here’s one more famous version…

It’s as dark as a dungeon way down in the mine…

Here are some of the other recent “Why does Dylan like” articles.  A full list of the series is to be found on the Why does Dylan like index page.

  1. Why does Dylan like “Somebody Touched Me”
  2. Why does Dylan like “The End of Innocence”
  3. Why does Dylan like “The Golden Vanity”
  4. Why does Dylan like “Bony Moronie”?
  5. Why does Dylan like Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt & Wilco
  6. Why does Dylan like “Somebody Touched Me”
  7. Why does Dylan like “The End of Innocence”
  8. Why does Dylan like “The Golden Vanity”
  9. Why does Dylan like “Bony Moronie”?
  10. Why does Dylan like Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt & Wilco

What else is on the site

You’ll find some notes about our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

The index to all the 595 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found on the A to Z page.

We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with over 2000 active members.  (Try imagining a place where it is always safe and warm).  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

If you are interested in Dylan’s work from a particular year or era, your best place to start is Bob Dylan year by year.

On the other hand if you would like to write for this website, please do drop me a line with details of your idea, or if you prefer, a whole article.  Email Tony@schools.co.uk

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, links back to our reviews






  1. The lyrical themes in the songs below are very similar:

    Bonnie Dobson:

    There’s danger in the old north wood
    For death lurks silent there
    (Peter Amberley)

    Merle Travis:

    Where the demons of death often come by surprise
    One fall of the slate, and you’re buried alive
    (Dark As A Dungeon)

  2. The tune is similar to “Farewell to Tarwaithie”, written in the 1850s by George Scroggie about a farm in Scotland. It’s a beautiful tune and probably has been used over and over. Judy Collins sang a good version of it.

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