Other people’s songs: Canadee-I-O

By Aaron Galbraith in USA, and Tony Attwood in UK

Details of other articles in this series are given at the end.

Aaron: Canadee-I-O is a traditional English folk ballad. It is believed to have been written before 1839.

Tony: … although Wiki does one of its regular tricks in confirming that date but also in the same article claiming it was written before 1700.   But of course these songs circulated throughout the British Isles for hundreds of years being passed on through performance and never written down.  The composers in the classical-romantic tradition considered them primitive and unworthy of reference, and it is only in the last 100 years that their true worth and merit has been understood – at least in England (I’m sorry, I’m not well informed about American folk music and its recognition, so I can’t comment there).

When her lover goes to sea, a lady dresses as a sailor and joins (his or another’s) ship’s crew. When she is discovered, the crew decide to drown her as having a woman on a ship is considered bad luck.  The captain saves her and they marry.

Aaron: Perhaps the most popular/well-known version is by Nic Jones– appearing on his fantastic 1980 album Penguin Eggs – voted the second best folk album of all time, second only to Liege & Lief.

Tony: This is one of those annoying videos that is available in different parts of the world at different URLs.   Hopefully one of these two videos will work in your location.  If not enter “Canadee I O Nic Jones” into your search engine and with luck you’ll find one.

Tony: There is something so utterly exquisite about this performance that it is hard to describe it.  Every guitar note, every word sung, is perfection.  And it sounds so natural – including the way he occasionally delays the start of the line.  It is, for me, an utterly overwhelming performance.   What an astounding talent.  Please listen all the way through to the end,  even if this is not normally your taste in music.

Aaron: Dylan’s version appears on Good As I Been To You, borrowing the arrangement from Jones… uncredited on the album sleeve notes.

Tony: Bob can’t compete with Nic Jones for the simple reason that no one can.  The guitar accompaniment does not have the utter perfection of Nic’s version, again simply because no one else can  create and play accompaniments like this for this type of music.   That’s not to say Bob’s version isn’t a good performance, but it is being compared with perfection.

Bob simply suffers from the fact that his singing doesn’t reach the standard of Nic’s – which is not Bob’s fault, since we can all do more than sing with the voice we have been given – although professional tuition can help.

I think the point is also that Nic’s version is irresistible through to the end, whereas Bob’s diction doesn’t help unless you already know the lyrics by heart, so he doesn’t carry the story through.

And above all, the song still holds its own.  Which is pretty amazing for a folk song.

Aaron: Here are a couple of other recent versions that came out after Dylan’s take

American alternative rock band 10,000 Maniacs released their version on 2015 album Twice Told Tales:

Tony:  I think this majestic song deserves a better musical introduction than we get here – and worse than we have it repeated between the verses.  It is so simplistic and obvious, and this song deserves so much more than this.  Maybe I just hear the music differently but that simple rise and fall of notes at the start of each verse is just trivial, and it destroys everything.   Take that out and it would be a very reasonable performance.  Worse, however, with the instrumental break, they try to make something out of nothing.  Not a good idea in my view.

Aaron: Shirley Collins – Another folk legend, over the years she has worked with Ewan MacColl, Alan Lomax, Davey Graham, Richard Thompson and others… as well as being married to Ashley Hutchings.

This version is from her 2020 album Heart’s Ease

Tony: As I understand it, if one takes out the accompaniment this is pretty much as the song would have sounded in the mid-19th century, and the accompaniment here is very acceptable, leaving the melody and lyrics to take centre stage.

A piece to choose Aaron.  Thanks for this one.

Footnote:Aside from this blog, Untold Dylan also has a very active (and excellently moderated) Facebook page.  If you don’t know it just go to your search engine and type in Facebook Untold Dylan.

Previously in this series…




  1. The name ‘Canada’ is likely native ‘Indian’ in origin ….
    If you look at a map up toward Hudson Bay, you’ll find that it’s a large country north of the USA.

  2. I can only hope that Tony’s given up on his ambitious idea of driving his Cadillac car on the flats of Hudson Bay.

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