For the latest edition of Cover Story, I invited Dave Chamberlain, who presents a folk show Acoustic Routes on Dapper FM in South Wales, to suggest a candidate. His instant response was to ask whether the series had already looked at The Bells of Rhymney. It had not.
We start, again at Dave's suggestion, with the original words by Idris Davies, a Welsh miner who turned to poetry and teaching.
His verses were adapted by Pete Seeger but later covers have included those by the Byrds, Cher, John Denver, Judy Collins and Oysterband. While simultaneously listening to the Collins version, I watched a remarkable "virtual movie" of Davies reciting his poem; this was produced by Jim Clark, who posted it at YouTube with poetryreincarnations as his username, and I hope Jim will regard its reproduction here, properly credited to him, as "fair use".
A lot has been made of the mispronunciation in most versions - maybe all - of Rhymney. It should be spoken or sung as Rumni. Davies probably helped to inspire Seeger and others in this respect by coupling "what will you give me" with "the Bells of Rhymney", though Jim's film unsurprisingly shows him correctly pronouncing the name of what was his own home town.
Recited or sung, this is a work of great dignity and socio-political potency. It first appeared in 1938 as Part XV of Davies's earliest published volume, Gwalia Deserta (Wasteland of Wales), drawing on the failure of the 1926 General Strike, the Marine Colliery disaster at Cym, near Ebbw Vale, nearly a year later (52 men died; fairness demands mention of the mine manager, Edward Gay, who saved many more lives by ordering the slowing of a ventilation fan that would otherwise have much worsened the flames from the coal dust and gas explosion) and the plight of mining communities more generally.
And now to the song.
I like the simplicity of Seeger, though my excitement at discovering a live Carnegie Hall version with the wonderful bluesman Sonny Terry was short-lived; on locating a clip, I found the guitar accompaniment unexceptional and even jarring at one point. I have chosen instead Seeger's performance at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival.
Among the others I sampled, I enjoyed Collins's interpretation but detested Cher's. Even in the interests of research, I could not bring myself to look up John Denver (apologies to my friend Mike Amos and other Denver fans).
Oysterband went very close to winning my vote. In my experience, the band gets very little wrong and whoever was responsible for the accompanying montage at YouTube deserves credit.
But I found myself drawn back to the Byrds, a band I loved in the 1960s and can listen to still. If they reduced Mr Tambourine Man to a slice of shallow if pleasant pop, this is a wholly respectful version of Davies's poem/Seeger's song. And Jim McGuinn's guitar break is superb.
But something tells me I will be taken to task on my choice ...