The Never Ending Tour, the Absolute Highlights: Botony Bay

by Tony Attwood

As Mike Johnson pointed out in his article NET 1993 Part 5 – A series of dreams “In November 1992 Dylan released an album of traditional songs and covers. These were recorded in his own garage with only his producer and sound engineer present. Apparently, he undertook the album because of a contract, not because he wanted to do it. Once he got started, however, the project developed a life of its own as Dylan returned to his folk roots.

“The resulting album, Good as I Been to You, was well received and it was natural that Dylan would air these songs in the following year – 1993. On the album Dylan plays solo acoustic, and on stage he keeps the acoustic feel while bringing in some subtle backing.”

Mike also mentions the particular recording that I am focussing on below and notes that “by taking a bit more time, Dylan can build the song up in a way that didn’t happen on the album.”

And that really is a key point here.  This is, in my view, a terrific interpretation of a song over 150 years old, the performance of which can still be incredibly moving and meaningful.

The live recording is not perfect but it is well worth preserving and hearing again in my view, and this version does add to the notion that Mike put forward that as the project developed Bob realised there was more to it than he had originally thought.

There are a number of Botony Bay songs and the one that Dylan performed in 1993 was “Jim Jones at Botany Bay”.  It appears in The Roud Folk Song Index, an extraordinary  database of around a quarter of a million references to 25,000 songs from the English oral tradition, collected from across the world.   For people interested in where much of the English language’s popular music comes from it is invaluable, and many songs are now known by their “Roud number”.   This is Roud 5478.

The song dates from Australia in the early 19th-century and tells of Jim Jones being found guilty of poaching and transported to New South Wales (an Australian state of particular interest to me in that I have a daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter living there).

In the tale the singer suggests he would sooner have joined the pirates or be drowned rather than going to Botany Bay, and he hopes to join the bushrangers (those convicts who escape) and take revenge on the guards.  It is dated from around 1830, with the oldest version coming from a collection in 1907 – which is how we come to have the song now, and how Dylan was able to sing it.

The music for many of these songs however was not original, and melodies were used and re-used in many different contexts.  Thus the re-writing of the melody and accompaniment is very much part of the tradition of the piece.

In this recording, I really do love the way the accompaniment (including the bass which is played with a real delicacy and understanding of the piece in my view) flows behind the singing without ever intruding but while still giving a sense of the never changing life of those transported to the colony.

There are many different versions of the lyrics, and Dylan seems to use a set of lyrics that come from different sources, but most agree on the first verse…

Come gather round and listen lads, and hear me tell m' tale,
How across the sea from England I was condemned to sail.
The jury found me guilty, and then says the judge, says he,
Oh for life, Jim Jones, I'm sending you across the stormy sea.
But take a tip before you ship to join the iron gang,
Don't get too gay in Botany Bay, or else you'll surely hang.
"Or else you'll surely hang", he says, and after that, Jim Jones,
Way up high upon yon gallows tree, the crows will pick your bones.

The instrumental verse is also beautifully executed in my view containing that mix of the horror of what is being sung and does set us up for the final verse.

Day and night in irons clad we like poor galley slaves
Will toil and toil our lives away to fill dishonored graves
But by and by I'll slip m' chains and to the bush I'll go
And I'll join the brave bushrangers there, Jack Donahue and Co.
And some dark night when everything is quiet in the town,
I'll get the bastards one and all, I'll gun the floggers down.
I'll give them all a little treat, remember what I say
And they'll yet regret they sent Jim Jones in chains to Botany Bay.

The Absolute Highlights series

One comment

  1. Bob might have heard the Bushwackers version of this song. Also it is sung in Tarantino’s film The Hateful Eight where the 130 year old $400,000 guitar used is accidentally destroyed. It’s worth a look on Youtube even if just for the actress’s reaction.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *