Why does Dylan like the Stanley Brothers’ “White Dove”?

By Tony Attwood

Bob Dylan performed “The White Dove” ten times in concert between 2 December 1997 and 3 April 2000.  An interesting statistic, as it shows this as a song that Bob not only really liked, but which obviously held a special meaning for him.

It was played six times in December 1977, it got three runs through in the spring and summer of 1998 and was then reprised for a final time in Cedar Rapids in 2000.

It is a Stanley Brothers song, and we’ve seen before just what affection Bob holds the Stanley Brothers in, and 1997 was a year in which Bob was really thinking about their music, for he also played “I’ll not be a stranger” and “Stone Walls and Steel Bars” by the Brothers, in that year.

I’ve confessed before, blue grass music is not my natural habitat, so I am far from being an expert, and indeed this performance by the Stanley Brothers sounds particularly strange to me.  The banjo part sounds almost lively, fun and bouncy, and completely out of kilter with the lines

White dove will mourn in sorrow
The willows will hang their heads
I’ll live my life in sorrow
Since mother and daddy are dead

So if you find my comments here lacking in a full understanding of the genre, I apologise.  If you’d like to volunteer an article to help those like me who were not brought up in this tradition of music, I’d be happy to publish it.

Here are the Stanley Brothers

The song was written by Carter Stanley while on the road on a concert tour.  In an interview a little before his death he said, “I have done the most songs that I have written at night. A lot of times travelling; you know, nobody saying much, your mind wanders, one thing to another. I guess you’d call it imagination.

“I remember very well when I wrote ‘The White Dove’. We was coming home from Ashville, North Carolina, to Bristol, Tennessee, and I had the light on because I wanted to write it down and Ralph was fussing at me for having the light on. He was driving and he said the light bothered him, but he hasn’t fussed any more about that.”

In an interview some ten years later Carter’s brother Ralph confirmed the story saying, “It was one of his first songs. He was in the back seat of the car writing that and by the time we got to the radio station near home we had a verse and chorus worked out. I don’t know what caused him to think of the white dove except that he was studying on it, how it could affect you.”

This was in 1949 and The White Dove was one of eight songs recorded in one session at Castle Studio, in Nashville, Tennessee.  It is unusual in the Stanley Brothers oeuvre in that it contains three voices, the third being Pee Wee Lambert singing high baritone alongside the two brothers.   The song was issued as a single (on 78rpm of course) on 4 April 1949.

The white dove itself is a symbol of love, kindness and peace in many religions and in many societies is often used to portray kindness, peace and forgiveness.  Releasing a white dove is symbolic in rituals and ceremonies celebrating peace, love, devotion etc, across the world.

The white dove is particularly symbolic in Christianity as the bird released by Noah from the ark in order to see if there was any land to be found.

Jeanie Stanley, Carter’s daughter  shared her thoughts about The White Dove in an interview noting it as her father’s “signature song” and describing it as a song that “tells of a mournful yearning for what becomes lost to some in their quest to find themselves…  It is basically autobiographical in nature.”

Since its creation the song has been recovered by numerous country singers right through to the present day.

This is therefore a classic of the genre – a genre that Bob clearly loves and admires and one that he would have known from childhood.  This is one of the key songs of classic bluegrass, and in performing it, Bob is, I think, paying tribute to all blue grass music.

In the deep rolling hills of old Virginia
There’s a place that I love so well
Where I spent many days of my childhood
In the cabin where we loved to dwellWhite dove will mourn in sorrow
The willows will hang their heads
I’ll live my life in sorrow
Since mother and daddy are deadWe were all so happy there together
In our peaceful little mountain home
But the Savior needs angels up in heaven
Now they sing around the great white throneAs the years roll by I often wonder
If we will all be together someday
And each night as I wander through the graveyard
Darkness finds me as I kneel to pray

An index to other articles in the “Why does Dylan like…” series can be found here.

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1 Response to Why does Dylan like the Stanley Brothers’ “White Dove”?

  1. Denise Konkal says:

    Tony,
    I really enjoyed your article and the story of song writing happening often in the night or at inopportune time. Writing songs and poems myself for years I can attest it is true. I cannot count the number of times songs have come to me in the night watches or in the twilight moments of waking when the music and/or words are already playing in my heart and mind.

    White dove also is the symbol of The Holy Spirit which you can find in Scripture predominately when Jesus goes to meet his cousin John the Baptist at the river Jordan to be baptized. John is at first reluctant to baptize Jesus because he knows that Jesus is in fact the Messiah and he feels unworthy. Jesus however knows this and kindly reassures him because he knows that it must be done in order to fulfill prophecy. Okay so when Jesus is being baptized a white dove descends from the heavens and lands on Jesus head for all to witness and after that the clouds of the sky part and a voice speaks to everyone there saying” This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased, listen to him” This would be repeated again later when Peter, James and John climb up a mountain where they see Jesus transfigured into the glory he had in heaven before emptying himself of all his glory to come in the flesh as a man. The same voice spoke there and former prophets Moses and Elijah appeared on the mountain too. Anyway there are many references even in Genesis in which the Holy Spirit hovered over the earth as a dove to bring life to creation.

    I would not be surprised if Bob hasn’t covered another traditional song of this vein: “On the wings of a dove”! Bob knows that there is a land of no more good-byes and no more parting forevermore.

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