Other people’s songs: Lone Pilgrim (and more Crooked Still)

By Aaron Galbraith and Tony Attwood

Aaron: Lone Pilgrim is a traditional song dating back to the early 1800’s. The authorship is unknown but it is often partially credited to Elder John Ellis in 1838. Others credit the song to singer/preacher B.F. White.

The earliest recording is by Doc Watson in 1963

Tony: In terms of timing this is one of the weirdest recordings of folk music I’ve ever heard.  I think what is happening is that one, two, two and a half or three beats are sometimes added at the end of each verse, and occasionally elsewhere.   How the instrumentalists manage to know when and where is beyond me.

What makes this even odder is that the Doc Watson I know (and I am thinking it is the same guitarist) was a sublime performer with not a hint of any variation of timing – everything came from his superb ability.  (Aaron, have I got the wrong person here?) Just listen to this

But it is when he sings that he plays about with the timing, especially between the lines.  Take this for example

Sorry about this diversion – and sorry Aaron particularly for meandering off course, but I just find that original of The Lone Pilgrim really odd.  Anyway, I’ll get back to the plot…

Aaron: Bob’s version appears on World Gone Wrong

Tony: Bob takes away all the odd rhythmic meanderings and sings it soft and straight with a lot of veneration which the lyrics demand.

But in case my comments above lead to a feeling that Arthel “Doc” Watson was some kind of oddity, I must add that he won seven Grammy awards as well as a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award with particular note of his fingerpicking style and his championing of traditional American music.   He is highly venerated by those who maintain the traditions of American folk, so it is not surprising that Bob picked one of his songs.

Aaron: Subsequent versions include this one by Tom Jones from 2013.

Tony: We’ve hit another one of these videos that is available to Aaron in the US but not to me in the UK so I’ve put up a second copy below.

Tony: A very respectful rendering by Mr Jones, but to me it relies completely on the emotion of the lyrics, rather than combining the music and the lyrics as one.  But that’s probably just me being a bit finiky.

Aaron: Crooked Still – their version appears on the album Shaken By A Low Sound, the same album which included their version of Little Sadie, which is a favorite of the Untold Dylan site.

Tony: Well, Crooked Still is a favourite of mine, and yes I raved over them last time they turned up with Little Sadie earlier in this series.  If you missed that article, no need to read my ramblings but do skim down to the foot of the article and play their version of that song.

And here of course they do a beautiful and original version of “Lone Pilgrim.” The point about Crooked Still is that they seem to have an instinctive feel of how novel instrumentations can work with each different song.  Here the banjo plays the simplest of accompaniments but because of what elegance of the double bass and cello play, it doesn’t feel just like a banjo being plinked.  It is staggering in its simplicity and perfect as an accompaniment.  Are there any other bands who would even consider, let alone perfectly execute an accompaniment of double bass, cello and banjo?

And since I write my commentary to Aaron’s selections and then press the “publish” button (which means Aaron doesn’t get a veto over my ramblings) I am going totally off-piste by putting in another Crooked Still song which has nothing to do with Dylan.  So if your interest is simply Dylan and nothing more, stop here.  Otherwise, I think you really might enjoy this – please do play all five minutes – it is so worth it.

Previously in this series…

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