Other people’s songs: Sarah Jane and the rhythmic changes


By Aaron Galbraith and Tony Attwood

In this series (of which there is a full index at the end) Aaron selects a song that Dylan has recorded but which he did not write, and looks at the Dylan version and other artists’ versions of the song.   Tony (on the other side of the Atlantic) then adds his comments.

Aaron: “Sarah Jane” is inspired by “Rock about my Saro Jane”, written sometime around the turn of the 20th century and most notably performed by Uncle Dave Macon in 1927.

Tony: Not a song that I know and I’m immediately struck by the very curious rhythm around “Oh there’s nothing to do but sit down and sing.”  The previous line Oh Saro Jane! only has three beat in it, and every other bar is the standard four beats to the bar.   It gives a very interesting effect, and not one that happens very often in folk music.   It makes me suspect (and I fully confess I am not in any way, shape or form anything remotely like an expert on American traditional folk music) that this was an unaccompanied song originally where the solo singer could slip in that unexpected change and not have to worry about the band knowing what was going on, while at the same time giving the audience the feeling that there’s something a little different about this song.

But I would add it is a great, fun song with a lovely swing, and very memorable chorus melody too.

This all makes me curious – have those who have come later kept this unusual change to the beat, or have they cast it aside for the sake of making something more acceptable to contemporary hearing, where far too often, things are simplified for the sake of keeping the audience’s attention.

Aaron:  “Rockabout My Saro Jane” appeared on The Kingston Trio’s first album, the million-selling, “The Kingston Trio,” which was released June 1, 1958

Tony: Yep that beat change has gone, and we have a solid four beats to the bar, with the only quirk being that in the line “Oh Saro Jane” the first beat of the bar – the one that normally has the strongest accent, has no melody at all.   “Oh” comes on beat two, beat three is “Sar” and beat four is “o” leaving Jane to have a bar on its own.  It works fine, but something is lost, I feel.

Aaron: Odetta recorded a version in 1968

Tony: And she does retain the oddity of the beat in the verse with the “Oh Saro Jane” line.  I suspect that the Kingston Trio were doing what they often did and simplifying the music for white audiences – which then helped give the impression that traditional folk songs from the black communities were simple – which they often were not.  But let me stress, this is not a subject on which I can speak with any authority (I know a certain amount about traditional English folk music, but not American) – so it is just a conclusion I’m reaching from hearing these recordings for the first time.   There could be some other explanation.

Aaron: Bob’s version appeared on his 1973 studio album, Dylan.

Tony: Bob does something curious.  He omits the change involving the move to a bar with only three beats, but instead he extends the lyrics so we have verses that are 14 bars long – which itself is very unusual (normally verses are eight or 16 bars long to give a feeling of symmetry).

It would be wonderful to find out how this happened.  Did Bob just feel that the song always had a rhythmic oddity so deliberately added one of his own, or did it simply happen during rehearsals.   Certainly for anyone who has played in a rock or folk rock band, it feels slightly odd.  That doesn’t mean it’s hard to play or there is anything wrong, it’s just a little twist that one has to be conscious of in performance.

Aaron: Subsequently the song became a staple for bluegrass banjo bands . I quite like this version by Dan Zanes & Friends from the Kids album Putumayo Kids Presents American Playground

Tony: Rhythmically we have now lost the oddity completely, and what really comes to the fore is the slightly unusual chord sequence, with the song opening with a minor chord but alternating with the major chord that is the foundation of the song.   Obviously, I know nothing of the decisions made by each artist, but each person or ensemble recording the song appears to have taken one of the unusual elements since the piece and brought it to the fore.

This version is in E, and the opening instrumental verse clearly starts in E, and brings in the chords of A, C# minor, B and then back to E.   But as soon as the vocal verse starts we start on C# minor, which is what gives the piece its slightly unexpected feel.    It really does seem that everyone wants to have an unusual twist somewhere in the music, but over time it has moved on from being that rhythmic change to an unexpected chord sequence.

Aaron: The album also includes this rather pleasant version of Forever Young by Randy Kaplan

Tony: Here’s an irony – this version adds three extra chord changes that Dylan didn’t write in the original. I guess the arrangers felt that they needed something else to keep up interest with the sort of accompaniment they have devised.  I’m not sure it helps, but it has been fun listening to how this song has been treated.  I really do wonder how much of it was conscious and how much was simply “feel”.

There’s an index to our current series and the latest article in each case, on the home page.

Other people’s songs: the series

  1. Other people’s songs. How Dylan covers the work of other composers
  2. Other People’s songs: Bob and others perform “Froggie went a courtin”
  3. Other people’s songs: They killed him
  4. Other people’s songs: Frankie & Albert
  5. Other people’s songs: Tomorrow Night where the music is always everything
  6. Other people’s songs: from Stack a Lee to Stagger Lee and Hugh Laurie
  7. Other people’s songs: Love Henry
  8. Other people’s songs: Rank Stranger To Me
  9. Other people’s songs: Man of Constant Sorrow
  10. Other people’s songs: Satisfied Mind
  11. Other people’s songs: See that my grave is kept clean
  12. Other people’s songs: Precious moments and some extras
  13. Other people’s songs: You go to my head
  14. Other people’s songs: What’ll I do?
  15. Other people’s songs: Copper Kettle
  16. Other people’s songs: Belle Isle
  17. Other people’s songs: Fixing to Die
  18. Other people’s songs: When did you leave heaven?
  19. Other people’s songs: Sally Sue Brown
  20. Other people’s songs: Ninety miles an hour down a dead end street
  21. Other people’s songs: Step it up and Go
  22. Other people’s songs: Canadee-I-O
  23. Other people’s songs: Arthur McBride
  24. Other people’s songs: Little Sadie
  25. Other people’s songs: Blue Moon, and North London Forever
  26. Other people’s songs: Hard times come again no more
  27. Other people’s songs: You’re no good
  28. Other people’s songs: Lone Pilgrim (and more Crooked Still)
  29. Other people’s songs: Blood in my eyes
  30. Other people’s songs: I forgot more than you’ll ever know
  31.  Other people’s songs: Let’s stick (or maybe work) together.
  32. Other people’s songs: Highway 51
  33. Other people’s songs: Jim Jones
  34. Other people’s songs: Let’s stick (or maybe work) together.
  35. Other people’s songs: Jim Jones
  36. Other people’s songs: Highway 51 Blues
  37. Other people’s songs: Freight Train Blues
  38. Other People’s Songs: The Little Drummer Boy
  39. Other People’s Songs: Must be Santa
  40. Other People’s songs: The Christmas Song
  41. Other People’s songs: Corina Corina
  42. Other People’s Songs: Mr Bojangles
  43. Other People’s Songs: It hurts me too
  44. Other people’s songs: Take a message to Mary
  45. Other people’s songs: House of the Rising Sun
  46. Other people’s songs: “Days of 49”
  47. Other people’s songs: In my time of dying
  48. Other people’s songs: Pretty Peggy O
  49. Other people’s songs: Baby Let me Follow You Down
  50. Other people’s songs: Gospel Plow
  51. Other People’s Songs: Melancholy Mood
  52. Other people’s songs: The Boxer and Big Yellow Taxi
  53. Other people’s songs: Early morning rain
  54. Other people’s Songs: Gotta Travel On
  55. Other people’s songs: “Can’t help falling in love”
  56. Other people’s songs: Lily of the West
  57. Other people’s songs: Alberta
  58. Other people’s songs: Little Maggie
  59. Other people’s songs: Sitting on top of the world
  60. Dylan’s take on “Let it be me”
  61. Other people’s songs: From “Take me as I am” all the way to “Baker Street”
  62. Other people’s songs: A fool such as I



  1. Yes indeed, but need one be exiled, censored like Ovid, to some Turkish or Greek island simply because one points out that a Tarantula bites Dylan whereby he envisions America a kin to mythological Polyphemus, the one eyed Cyclopes, the man-eating son of Nero’s Neptune:

    He looks so truthful, is this how he feels ….
    If he needs a third eye, he just grows it
    (Can You Please Crawl Out You Window)

  2. It was an Abyssinian maid
    And on her dulcimer she played
    Singing of Mount Abora
    (Samuel Coleridge: Kuala Khan)

Leave a Reply

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