“The Ballad of the Gliding Swan” Bob Dylan’s lost song, found.

Preface by Tony Attwood

I have received information from James Dring which updates the original article on this song published here in 2008.  I’m adding this today (1 May 2023) prior to the original article so that if you are referring to the original article below (which has been left intact) you can see the update, and my original thoughts (which were based on such data as I could find at the time I wrote them).

I’m doing it this way just in case you do see someone quoting the original article, so that you can (hopefully fairly easily) put together the whole story.   My apologies to everyone for my misleading original.

Letter from James Dring

Dear Mr Attwood

I write concerning a piece on your wonderful Untold Dylan site dated 24 Aug 2018 about Dylan’s “lost” song The Ballad of the Gliding Swan. First, you provide a link to the minute-long fragment of the song that exists followed by a transcription – but the transcription is substantially different from the audio. In case it’s of use, here is a correct transcription of the fragment’s five verses:

Tenderly William kissed his wife
Then he opened her head with a butcher knife
And the swan on the river goes gliding by
The swan on the river goes gliding by

Lady Margaret's pillow was wet with tears
Nobody's been on it for twenty years
And the swan on the river goes gliding by 
The swan on the river goes gliding by

"I've got a sad surprise," the doctor said
"A twenty-pound baby without any head"
And the swan on the river went looking by
The swan on the river goes gliding by

Well, the preacher was a-yellin' and sellin' his hope
The price was too high so I said "Nope"
And the swan on the river went laughing by
The swan on the river went gliding by

When will the swan begin to sing?
We’re so weary of everything
And the swan on the river goes gliding by
The swan on the river goes gliding by

Jim Dring


Jim then sent me a second note which resolved the whole issue concerning the origins of the song.

“Yesterday I watched the BBC doc Dylan in the Madhouse with close attention, which satisfactorily answers the question of who wrote the song. It was written by the play’s author, Evan Jones (who reads his original lyric to camera), but then substantially re-written (though hardly improved) by Bob.”


Below is my original article published on 24 August 2018.  If you read it through, please do note the corrections above.

“The Ballad of the Gliding Swan” Bob Dylan’s lost song, found.

By Tony Attwood

In the early 1960s the BBC produced a series of short Sunday night plays. It was an era when the country only had two TV channels to choose from – the more upmarket and sometimes innovative BBC funded by the state, and the more downmarket, commercially funded, ITV.

The restriction on what was available meant both a conservative approach to what could be broadcast but also a certain amount of experimentation in drama.  The Corporation needed to have an audience to justify its existence, but it was not tied to ratings all the time as ITV was.  And many of its actors, writers, producers and directors had come to the Corporation out of London’s theatreland – and thus there was a desire to see how far the boundaries of television could be pushed.

So the BBC was the more likely channel to produce a play in which “A man mysteriously locks himself in a room in a boarding house leaving only a note saying he has decided to retire from the world. His worried sister and the other boarders then try to discover why.”

The play was written by Evan Jones and it is said in some quarters that he wrote the lyrics of the song that Bob Dylan sang for  the show.  I’m not sure – but I am including the song on this site, because there is at least some doubt.  It could have been Dylan – at least in part if nothing else.  The play also contained the first recorded version of “Blowing in the Wind”


Here are the lyrics – and if one goes back and listens to the songs that Dylan wrote at this time such as Ramblin Gamblin Willie  I think there is a real connection in terms of style within the lyrics as well as in the music.  So there is a chance that a lot of the lyrics are Bob’s.  (There is a list of all of Bob’s songs from the era, with a review of each in the 1960s section of the site).

Tenderly William kissed his wife
Then he opened her head with a butcher knife
And the swan on the river goes gliding by
The swan on the river goes gliding by
Lady Margaret’s pillow was wet with tears
Nobody’s been on it for 20 years
And the swan on the river goes gliding by
The swan on the river goes gliding by
Little billy brown will shake with fright
He’s got a new daddy and mommy every night
And the swan on the river goes gliding by
The swan on the river goes gliding by
“I’ve got a sad surprise” the doctor said
“A 20 pound baby without any head”
And the swan on the river went lookin’….

Dylan was of course completely unknown in England (and almost everywhere else) at the time and was playing in New York.  The Director of the TV play, Philip Saville, is said to have seen Dylan performing and thought he could play the central character who escapes from the world.

Although Dylan was flown to England and offered 500 guineas (£525) to play the mysterious figure who locks himself away from the world, the story is that no one actually clarified beforehand whether Bob was willing to act.

So when he was given his lines in London, he refused and said he was just a singer, not an actor.

The Director, Mr Saville was tracked down a few years ago by The Independent on Sunday newspaper and said in an interview, “He just struck me as someone who had a few things to say about the world and I loved the way he put over his songs. I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful to match this wonderful play with someone with equally extraordinary potential. I managed to convince the BBC to bring him over. When it came to reading through the play – and this character had a lot of lines, he was very anarchic – he said, ‘I can’t say this, I’m not an actor. All I can do is sing songs.’ I thought, ‘oh great, now is the time to tell me’.”

Apparently the play was then rewritten to separate the singing parts from the spoken parts and David Warner, who had recently joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, was quickly drafted in.

The other songs performed in the production were “The Cuckoo” and “Hang Me Oh Hang Me”.

At the time there was no thought about the BBC archiving its films for posterity or indeed even for repeats but a partial copy did turn up many years later – hence we have  this recording.

Wikipedia adds the note that “The play was planned to be recorded in one session on 30 December 1962, but it overran and the Technical Operating Manager told cast and crew to go home, even though they were willing to complete the filming. London was in the grip of a major blizzard and it was not possible to arrange a further session until 4 January 1963, when the play was completed, and it was transmitted on 13 January 1963.”

Evan Jones went on to a magnificent career as a screenwriter writing scripts for Modest Blaise, and Funeral in Berlin.  He died aged 85 in 2012.


What else is on the site?

You’ll find an index to our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

The index to the 500+ songs reviewed is now on a new page of its own.  You will find it here.  It contains reviews of every Dylan composition that we can find a recording of – if you know of anything we have missed please do write in.

We also now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.


  1. Man I Love this site! New stuff I’ve never heard pops up all the time!

    I never want to be “that guy” but here is a list of tracks that I think might be missing (it’s possible that you already decided not to include much of these…)

    1. Jack O’ Diamonds – Dylan/Ben Carruthers…first released by Ben Carruthers and later by Fairport Convention on their first album


    2. The Love That Faded – Dylan/Hank Williams. Dylan finished off the lost Williams track for the album The Lost Notebooks Of Hank Williams


    3. Sweet Amarillo – Dylan/ old crow medicine show – from the Remedy album. They finished off another Pat Garrett era track…it’s great!


    4. Street Rock – Dylan/ Kurtis Blow. Dylan does the opening rap and then several times throughout the track…I assume Dylan wrote his section…he also mentions it in Chronicles so it must have meant something to him!!


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