By Tony Attwood
The composition Jack O’Diamonds has been reported as being composed by Bob Dylan and Ben Carruthers, and it has a very interesting origin and evolution. Whether this is a “real” Bob Dylan composition, I’ll leave you to decide – but it has been mentioned in dispatches – my thanks to Aaron G for his comment which led me into this.
According to Second Hand Songs “Carruthers took it upon himself to create a song based upon some poetry/prose that Dylan had penned for the sleevenotes of his ‘Another Side Of Bob Dylan’ album. Carruthers (as well as being an actor) had worked as a secretary for Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman and it’s believed this connection made the whole thing possible.”
The story starts with Blind Lemon Jefferson – or possibly with earlier folk singers, I regret my knowledge of the early blues/folk genre although ok at times doesn’t tell me exactly where this song first came from.
Alan Lomax who knows far more about this music than I ever will says in “Our singing country” (1941) that it was a Texas gambling song that was popularized by Blind Lemon Jefferson (which is good enough for me). It was apparently sung by railroad men who had lost money playing conquian (a game known in England as rummy) and the song comes from a family of similar songs originating in Britain.
If you are interested in the way these songs mutated across the years and across the centuries here is The Waggoners Lad which, different though it now sounds actually does come from the same original source. (However this is a diversion, added because I particularly like this version)
But back to Jack O Diamonds and our main theme here…
Here are the opening lyrics sung by Blind Lemon Jefferson
Jack O’ Di, Jack O’ Diamond
Jack O’ Diamond’s a hard card to play
Jack O’ Diamonds once in time
He did rob a friend of mine
Jack O’ Diamonds is a hard card to play
Bet the Jack against the Queen
It’s gonna turn your money green
Jack O’ Diamonds is a hard card to play
Dylan did not record the song, as far as I know, but the sleeve notes to Another Side of Bob Dylan contain this (to make it easier to read I am combining the lines which on the sleeve notes are mostly two or three words long – and I am only giving the opening lines).
This is just the opening extract from Dylan’s poem on the sleeve notes…
jack o’diamonds / jack o’diamonds / one-eyed knave / on the move hits the street / sneaks. leaps / between pillars of chips / springs on them like samson thumps thumps / strikes / is on the prowl / you’ll only lose / shouldn’t stay jack o’diamonds / is a hard card t’ play
That is the first verse.
Finally here are the lyrics from the Fairport Convention song
Jack O’Diamonds, one-eyed knave
On the move, hits the street
Bumps his head, on the ground
Well, he’s a scout, you’re born to lose
Jack O’Diamonds is a hard card to play
Jack O’Diamonds, yeah Jack O’Diamonds
This one-eyed prince, wears a single glove
Oh sure, he’s not that lovely
Jack O’Diamonds broke my hand
Left me here to stand
So, bits of an old blues, a fraction of Dylan’s sleeve notes, and a new melody. I am not sure if this really warrants Bob being credited with the lyrics. Certainly Bob has never returned to the song – which is hardly a definitive comment about its authorship, but I think it helps lead us in the right direction. To my mind there is some Bob here, but not that much.
Fairport Convention recorded Jack o’ Diamonds, with the wonderful Judy Dyble singing, for their first album released in 1968, and a second version with Sandy Denny singing was released in their Live at the BBC set.
Here is the original Ben Carruthers version
And the original Fairport version…
So a Dylan song? Well, up to a point maybe, but I am not sure it is mainstream.
On the other hand the finer points of who wrote what has never been part of Bob’s concern, so I guess we needn’t get too hung up about it here. I’m now including the song in my list of Bob’s songs with a note about the input from others. Maybe the correct authorship should state:
Traditional blues with added material by Dylan and Carruthers.
Judy very kindly forwarded me a video of her singing “Faded Elvis” which I’d like to share
And as it has given me a chance to mention Judy Dyble – if you don’t know her work and you have a spare 45 minutes you could try Judy’s latest album is Earth is sleeping, which is on Spotify.
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