Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Nottingham Town inspires Bob Dylan

The Ritchie family of Kentucky hail from all over England, Scotland and Ireland. When they arrived in the US, in 1768, they brought with them their songs and, to keep their heritage alive, continued to sing them through the generations.

As a child, Jean Ritchie would sit with her sisters on their Kentucky porch and sing a song called ‘Nottamun Town’ unsure of its meaning or origin. Jean Ritchie would later become a singer-songwriter and she adapted the song’s traditional lyrics, gaining the copyright to 'Fair Nottamun Town' in 1964.

The Ritchie family believed that the song was ”sure to be about Nottingham in Old England” so, in the early 1950s, Jean Ritchie researched the Nottingham connection and concluded that it was most likely the 'magic song'  used in early Nottingham Mummrs' Plays.

These folk plays were performed by amateur actors, traditionally all male, and featured several different stock characters including Tom Fool and Dame Jane. The plays were taken door to door and performed in exchange for money or gifts, with threats of destruction if the audience didn’t pay up. This adult version of today’s trick or treating saw the actors hide their true identities with blackened faces and inside-out clothing as they sang and performed. The original version of ‘Nottamun Town’ is likely to have included explicitly sexual references later censored out as the words evolved.

Jean Ritchie singing ‘Nottamun Town’ (lyrics below)
In Nottamun Town, not a soul would look up
Not a soul would look up
Not a soul would look down
Not a soul would look up
Not a soul would look down
To show me the way to fair Nottamun Town

When the king and the queen and the company mourn
Come a-walking behind
And riding before
Come a stark naked drummer
A-beating the drum
With his hands on his bosom come marching along

Sat down on a hard, hard cold frozen stone
Ten thousand around me
Yet I was alone
Took my hat in my hands
For to keep my head warm
Ten thousand got drownded that never was born

In Nottamun Town, not a soul would look up
Not a soul would look up
Not a soul would look down
Not a soul would look up
Not a soul would look down
To show me the way to fair Nottamun Town

It has also been suggested that the lyrics were originally inspired by The English Civil Wars (1642-51), and it was in Nottingham that Charles raised his royal standard. Alternative titles include’ Fair Nottamun Town’ and ‘Nottamun Fair’, perhaps linking the song’s origins with Goose Fair. Nottingham probably became ‘Nottamun’ in the Appalachian Mountains. It could simply be that the pronunciation of Nottingham that crossed the Atlantic was closer to the Nottamun of the song. Much like the pronunciation of the city’s name - as ‘Nottnum’ - is today.  

As for the song’s meaning, don’t look too deeply into that; it’s said that the song is cursed, and that whoever uncovers its meaning will lose all of their luck. Is this the 'magic' Ritchie mentions?

And the connection with Dylan?

Let me take you back to 1963, to Greenwich Village, New York. Jean Ritchie is watching a ‘young, scruffy, nervous, unprepared and mumbling’ singer up on stage. His name is Bob Dylan. He performs a ‘new song’ that sounds familiar to Ritchie. Dylan was singing ‘Masters of War’ which uses the melody from the traditional ballad.

So how did Dylan end up using the tune to Nottamun Town?

Jackie Washington had sung a version of the song in 1962, and Dylan loved it. Dylan would go to Gerde's Folk City (a music venue in Greenwich Village) every night Washington performed and repeatedly ask him to sing it, later demanding a copy of his record. The next time Washington heard the tune it had become ‘Masters of War.’

Masters of War

Owning the copyright, Ritchie has earned healthy royalties from Dylan’s Masters of War, money that has made its way to Kentucky charities.

Masters of War is a protest song, befitting of our history. Dylan said of it: "I've never written anything like (Masters of War) before. I don't sing songs which hope people will die, but I couldn't help it with this one. The song is a sort of striking out... a feeling of what can you do?"

Bob Dylan at the gate to Nottingham Castle, 1966 - photo by Barry Feinstein.

In 2005 Bob Dylan performed for the first time in Nottingham, kicking off the section of his tour that took in the UK and Ireland, in which he appeared in Manchester, Glasgow, Birmingham, London (x5) and Dublin (x2). He only once played Masters of War. It was here in Nottamun.

Listen to Jackie Washington’s version from 1962.

Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter claims that ‘Nottamun Town’ has inspired his own song writing approach.

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