Other people’s songs: Pretty Boy Floyd


By Aaron Galbraith and Tony Attwood

Aaron: Pretty Boy Floyd tells the story of the famous outlaw Pretty Boy Floyd, an American bank robber who was pursued and killed by a group led by FBI Agent, Melvin Purvis.

Tony: Just out of interest, not knowing much American history, I looked up Melvin Purvis, and there is an interesting Wiki account of his life and work here.   You don’t need to know it to enjoy the song, but if you want  the background, it does add a bit more.

Aaron: This song was written in March 1939, five years after Floyd’s death. Guthrie shows Floyd as a misunderstood Robin Hood who was adored by the people. “But a many a starvin’ farmer the same old story told How the outlaw paid their mortgage and saved their little homes.”

It was recorded during the “Dust Bowl Ballads” session in April 1940, but it wasn’t included on the original release of those sessions.


Tony:  Many of these traditional American folks songs (or at least if not “traditional” in the true sense then at least written before I was born) are unknown to me before we get to discuss them here, but this is one that even I, in England, have come across – although I certainly couldn’t have recounted the whole story before today.

The musical format is incredibly simple: just two lines of music, repeated enough times to tell the whole story.    The idea of holding onto one word across three beats in the first bar of most verses now seems rather artificial in the version above, but I guess when many songs of the era had the same format or style, it separated this one out from the rest.

And of course it has that old concept that these guys might be outlaws but they were good at heart.  It goes back, I suppose, to the Robin Hood legend (which dates from the 14th century) of stealing from the rich to give to the poor.    (And just in case you are interested, I now live about 50 miles from Sherwood Forest, and do pop along occasionally to get a revision course in English legends, so I have a certain feeling for the history of my country in the middle ages).

But back to the plot…

Aaron: Joan Baez from 1962’s Joan Baez in Concert

Tony: Sorry I can’t get that this performance (and indeed several others in today’s piece) to show up in a normal youtube link, but clicking on the individual link above should work.

The problem with the song for contemporary audiences is that it is so repetitive musically it is harder for a listener who is used to change within the song, to keep a focus.  Joan gets around this by taking it at quite a speed, having the occasional guitar break and varying the guitar part occasionally as she goes, with even a bar or two of strumming rather than finger picking.   She also varies her voice somewhat and, put together, these very slight changes generate a superb excitement in the song, despite the repetitive nature of the music.   As indeed you can hear from the applause.

Aaron: The Byrds from the album Sweetheart of the Rodeo released in 1968


Tony: For me this is ok, and something I can listen to quite happily, but it doesn’t have the power and drive that Joan Baez generates.  And yet it ought to, because they have a variety of instruments to bring to the fray.   Maybe it is double bass that puts me off – it plods along making up its own little counter melodies in a way that seems so ordinary.

So not for me that one, but as I was typing the song ended and the next track came on – “My back pages” and it struck me that what the Byrds did was take Dylan songs and traditional songs and play them with a full array of jingling and jangling but somehow at the same time they sucked the life out of the song.  It is as if it is a performance and just that – there’s no depth, no emotion, in fact no life, in the way that there is for example in the Joan Baez version.

I find it hard to explain that view more coherently, but I think we used to call performances of this nature “plastic” meaning there was no heart or soul in the music.  And listening to this for the first time in many, many years, that really comes across to me now.

Aaron: Bob’s version comes from the essential 1988 album Folkways: A Vision Shared – A Tribute to Woody Guthrie & Leadbelly.


Tony: So Bob has taken the notion of holding onto the note in the first complete bar but instead of giving the note the three beats, he cuts this down to two, and then adds a second, longer, held note in the penultimate line.    Except being Bob, it is not consistent.  “Oaklahoma” is held for much longer than any other word.

And of course he can do this easily because it is just Bob playing in accompaniment to himself.   It works, because it takes us by surprise, and adds an extra variation to a song that many of us will know from other versions.   I wouldn’t call it one of the great moments of Bob’s career, but it is a pleasing version to listen to, and it gives a sense of a real understanding of the roots from which the song arose, which the Byrds version most certainly doesn’t do for me.

Here are the previous editions…

  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
  63. Other people’s songs: Sarah Jane and the rhythmic changes
  64. Other people’s songs: Spanish is the loving tongue. Author drawn to tears
  65. Other people’s songs: The ballad of Ira Hayes
  66. Other people’s songs: The usual
  67. Other people’s songs: Blackjack Davey
  68. Other people’s songs: You’re gonna quit me
  69. Other people’s songs: You belong to me
  70. Other people’s songs: Stardust
  71. Other people’s songs: Diamond Joe
  72. Other people’s songs: The Cuckoo
  73. Other people’s songs: Come Rain or Come Shine
  74. Other people’s songs: Two soldiers and an amazing discovery

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