Recently reading the words to Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” I was struck by the similarity to the English folk song “Nottamun Town”. Searching the Internet I found very few references to this connection (although plenty to the rather more obvious connection to “Masters of War”). This is surprising, because Dylan himself added a note to his hand written final lyrics for his song:
In the auction notes for this document, which sold for US$485,000, it says:
Clinton Heylin, after examining this draft provides some interpretation of Dylan’s notes:
“The reference to ‘Betsy – Cambridge’ is fairly straightforward, Betsy Siggins being the owner of the Club 47 in Cambridge, also referred to above in reference to Joan Baez’s recording of ‘Black Is The Colour’, from which Dylan evidently took one of the images in the final verse (‘black is the colour and none is the number’). Slightly more cryptic is the song-title – ‘Notamun Town’(sic) – Dylan has jotted down below the line, ‘I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken’….. Ten thousand stood round me but I was alone is the line from ‘Nottamun Town’ that Dylan has adapted in sentiment and tone, though why this should prompt him to highlight his debt in the manuscript is more of a mystery. It is certainly a first.”
But where did Dylan hear this song? Although probably of English origin, by the early 20th Century it had apparently been forgotten in it’s homeland, and had moved home to Kentucky, where it was adopted by the Ritchie family, including Jean Ritchie, who recorded a version of the song in 1950:
Jean Ritchie writes:
Dear Roger McGuinn,
This is Jean Ritchie here; I loved listening to your music on the web, and appreciate your interest in folk music. Your singing of ‘Fair Nottamun Town’ was especially fine and I felt I must write to give you my history with the song. The version you perform is the Ritchie Family (Kentucky) version. I have never heard JJ Niles sing it, nor has anyone else I know- I knew him quite well; he visited and got songs from the family in his early days, and
it was there he saw his first dulcimer, but to my knowledge he never performed, ‘Nottamun Town.’ The time you heard him must have been the only one, and he certainly learned it from the Ritchies. The song has been in our family back many generations, and was collected at the Hindman Settlement School in Knott County, KY by Cecil Sharp around 1917
from the singing of my sister Una who was a student there (Una was 4th in our family of 14; I’m ‘the baby one,’ and am 77 now). Our family ancestors came over from England, Scotland, Ireland, the earliest ones we know of arrived in 1768. Our family still cherishes and sings the songs they brought with them.
If you will check in Sharp’s book of Appalachian songs he collected, you will find the Ritchie version- the one you sing- as notated from the singing of Una and Sabrina Ritchie (Sabrina was our cousin). I added the ‘mule roany mare’ phrase, instead of ‘that was called a grey mare.’ Also, it always bothered me that one-half of one of the verses was missing- just filled in
with dots…. then the last two lines are the ones beginning, ‘I bought me a quart…’ For years, I sang, ‘la,la,la,’ for those missing lines, but finally just put in two of my own, ‘They laughed and they smiled, not a soul did look gay; they talked all the while, not a word did they say…’
In the sixties, when the Kingston Trio and others began performing and copywriting (as writers) our family songs, I applied for several copyrights for the family. A copyright for ‘Fair Nottamun Town’ was approved in 1964, based on the changes I had made in the lyrics. I have contributed much of
the royalties (from Bob Dylan and others) to Kentucky charities over the years.
Your suggestion that the song may have been inspired by the English Civil Wars of 1642-51 is most interesting. I had heard another suggestion of it’s possible origins, years ago, saying that it may have been composed during the Great Plague! When I did my Fulbright year, searching for sources of our family songs, in 1952, I spent time researching in Nottingham, and could find not a mention of it in the libraries, nor could any scholar tell me anything. Douglas Kennedy said that it was most likely the ‘magic song’ used in an early Nottingham mummrs’ play. This could not be confirmed, because I couldn’t find in any historical account any news of mummers’ plays in that city. Douglas said that even though it was not now remembered, that
of course there HAD been a mummers’ play, as every city had one… This seemed to me to be the most likely explanation, as the words do go along with the ‘topsy-turvy’ nature of the plays (clothing exchanged & turned inside out to hide identities, etc). One old mummer in Marshfield, when I asked him what the song might mean, said, ‘…why, lass, if the meaning’s found out- the magic is lost!’
Another interesting thing is that there is not another similar variant of ‘Nottamun Town’ in this country, or in England. An English group recorded it years ago, but they had learned it from me, at Newport I think. Can’t remember the group’s name, but it had Martin Carthy in it, and maybe Peter Bellamy. Many folk scholars have noticed and commended our family on our
unique preservation of several old and rare ballads- one is our, ‘Fair Annie of the Lochroyan,’ a mixing-up of the words, ‘The Lass of Roch Royal.’
All the best,
It is quite possible that Dylan learned of the song from Jean Ritchie, but the reference to Martin Carthy is interesting. Dylan made his first visit to England in 1963, where he performed in London folk clubs and met Carthy and others. English recordings of Nottamun Town from this era (and shortly after) include:
Davy Graham and Shirley Collins (1964):
Bert Jansch (1966)
Fairport Convention (1969)
So it is also quite possible that Dylan first heard Nottamun Town when in London in 1963, perhaps from Martin Carthy, who had learned it from Jean Ritchie, who had learned it from her family, who had brought it with them from the Midlands of England, hundreds of years before.
Do you think there was a big difference in Bob between ’62 and ’65 or was it just that the people around him were different?
Huge, huge, huge difference. His coming to England had an enormous impact on his music, and yet nobody’s ever said it properly. He came and he learned. When he sat in all those folk clubs in ’62, he was just soaking stuff up all the time. He heard Louis Killen, he heard Nigel Denver, he heard Bob Davenport, he heard me, he heard The Thameside Four, dozens of people. Anybody who came into The Troubadour, or came into The King & Oueen, or the Singers’ Club, and he listened and he just gobbled stuff up.