Other people’s songs: “Days of 49”

by Arron Galbraith and Tony Attwood

In this series, we look back at songs recorded by, but not written by, Bob Dylan, with a glance at their origins, Bob’s version, and the recordings of one or two others.   Aaron selects the songs, Tony adds his thoughts as they play.


Aaron:Days Of 49″ is an old-time ballad from the California Gold Rush days. Some scholars have suggested that it was written by minstrel singer Charles Bensell or vaudevillian Charley Rhoades. The first recording and indeed the first release was by Jules Allen “The Singing Cowboy” in 1928.

Tony: It is interesting that this rhythm is never used these days – it almost seems funny and maybe rather childish.  I often wonder about how things fade in and out of favour – there is after all nothing inherently odd about this rhythm – but I suppose it reminds people of children jigging up and down.   And it is hard to do much with the rhythm – it doesn’t lend itself to much variation without destroying the whole rhythm itself.  Having selected the rhythm, the perform is stuck with it.

Aaron: Dylan’s version came from 1970s Self Portrait

Tony: Bob has put it in a minor key (I don’t know enough about the song’s history to know if this was a Dylan-innovation or whether lots of other performers had done it before.  Certainly from the one copy I’ve got stored on computer the song mutated very early indeed.  This Logan English version comes from 1957 and has the song utterly transformed – so by the time Bob got to the piece it really had moved on from its origins.

Bob may have taken his version from elsewhere (and if you know where, please write it – usually when I write about things I don’t know it turns out that everyone else in the Bobbyverse knows the answer, and I am the only one who doesn’t).

Aaron:  Fairport Convention recorded a live version in  1973, “A Tree With Roots – Fairport Convention And The Songs Of Bob Dylan”

Tony: This is indeed very much Bob’s version – or perhaps I should say the version Bob used, which he may have got from somewhere else.  The difference is that the accompaniment is more sparse; I do like the use of the piano in the Dylan edition.  But the sparce use of the lead guitar really seems to work to me.  And I do like the harmonies in the chorus.

I think the point here is that there is an assumption that most listeners will know the song at least to some degree, so the performers are deliberately going out of their way to add more to the song, without destroying its essence.  And believe me it takes talent to do that – it is much harder than one might think.  It also helps if one has an arranger in the band, who works out how the arrangement is going to go, rather than let everyone do their own thing.  Just listen to the instrumental verse – they really got this sorted.

Aaron: Lastly we have Phil Trigwell – originally from the U.K. where he was a member of a skiffle group in the 1950s. In 1971 he moved to Sweden and was active in the rockabilly revival there.

Tony: Coming to each song in turn and writing my commentary as I go, at the first hearing of each song (or at least the first hearing in a while) I bring in my own prejudices.  Everyone does – it is impossible to hear a piece of music with an open mind if music has always been part of your life.

And for some reason or other, genenerally I don’t enjoy songs in which the vocal part is spoken by a man with a bass voice.  Basso profundo I think it is called – but here it really works because of the speed and the way it fits with the accompaniment and the vocal harmonies.  It is also funny to hear that voice say “jolly saucy crew”.   But the point is that after each declaimed verse one is waiting to hear the harmonies again.  And increasing the drama in the declamation when the fight scene occurs really works too.

Of course what happens is the monotone is abandoned later on – he’s still declaiming but with variation, and that keeps our attention.  We really want to know what he is going to do in each subsequent verse – and that roaring verse with its slight venture into humour is again unexpected (given that I know the song, but not all the lyrics).

And it works also because in the end he is left in his misery, being pointed out by passers by – which the music somewhat suggests, but not totally.

Certainly by the end I am hooked and want to play it again.  A great find Aaron – for by no means the first time I’m thoroughly obliged to you for what you’ve presented.   Terrific fun for me.  I hope you (my reader) enjoyed it too.


  1. See: untold “Who’s Gonna Throw That Minstel Boy A Coin” (Fyffe), with ’49’ the source poem by Joaquin Miller.

  2. Shouldn’t we include Spider John Koerner’s version that appeared on one of the “Nod to Bob” Dylan Tribute records? After all, he was a good friend and former collaborator. Koerner also recorded a version on one of his earlier records, too, I believe.

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