Cover Story: (21) The Bells of Rhymney. Pete Seeger, the Byrds or Oysterband. Or indeed John Denver
August 01, 2022
Aug 2022: responses from readers when this item first appeared in 2017 led me to investigate an unexpected treasure: John Denver's version of the song in question, The Bells of Rhymney. I have never been a fan of the late Denver but his performance of the song made me think again. You can read about my conversion at this link. I have added a clip here, too ...For a further update. with other versions I had not heard before, please see https://www.salutlive.com/2022/08/cover-story-21-the-bells-of-rhymney-a-dylan-judy-collins-and-enter-the-fray.html
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 pleasant pop I once considered shallow but now find myself enjoying all over again, this is a wholly respectful version of Davies's poem/Seeger's song. And Roger (then known as Jim) McGuinn's guitar break is superb.
But something tells me I will be taken to task on my choice ...
*** Here is John Denver singing the song with the Mitchell Trio. Read my piece about warming to his version at this link
I too was raised on The Byrds version. My older brother had the album it appeared on (Mr. Tambourine Man) and I played it endlessly. There are a lot of great Byrds classics on that album. I knew it was a cover of a Pete Seeger song (because it said so on the liner notes) but there was no way in the 60s to compare alternative versions - without actually searching for and buying them, which at 13 I had neither the time nor the money to do.
So I still love the Byrds version - for the harmonies and their unique guitar sound, although the Oysterband version (a new one on me) is also interestingly good.
Posted by: Mick Goulding | September 26, 2017 at 01:30 PM
For once, you won't be taken to task by me! Yes, the Byrds, hands down. It's a version I think Idris Davies would have approved of. Do you remember, by the way, seeing one of the later incarnations of the Byrds at Newcastle City Hall with Alan Sims and me? Rita Coolidge opened for them.
I've never been very keen on Pete Seeger; I always felt there was something too self-consciously simplistic about his performing.
Okay, I WILL take you to task, after all... I HATE Oysterband's rendition!
Posted by: Bill Taylor | September 26, 2017 at 03:06 PM
I shared news of this series with subscribers to a Facebook group, I Love Folk Music. The comments that immediately follow are taken from responses there ...
Posted by: Colin Randall | September 28, 2017 at 08:08 AM
Absolutely think the Byrds version is the best. It has haunted me since the album first came out, and still makes the hairs on my arms rise
Posted by: Glenn Spivack | September 28, 2017 at 08:09 AM
I remembered this song when some months ago I reconnected with it through this Pete Seeger version from Australia 1964 . THIS is the definitive version ....the Byrds version I remembered (and since listened to again ) seems more trivial or less weighty in comparison . The originator here spitting out the words and the descending baseline on the 12 string underlining and giving even more weight and import to each word of the Welsh poem . Then in the instrumental break , slashing and punishing the strings to put over the fury at the story . The strings "Ring" out . It is great you chose this song . When I came across it again about 4 months ago in this, as I believe, it's most definitive version , it has become for the present my favorite song . https://youtube.com/watch?v=vK_eVaLeiQ0
(Pete Seeger - The Bells Of Rhymney - Live in Australia 1964)
Posted by: Stan Wilson | September 28, 2017 at 08:11 AM
What about Judy Collins?
Posted by: Martin Saperstein | September 28, 2017 at 08:12 AM
Look above and you'll see that I mention her in the piece and t hat I like her version, though not as much as the Byrds or Oysterband. Seeger had to be in there because of his role in turning poem into song. In the end, it's down to personal opinion and all iItry to do is encourage people to think (and occasionally to discover music they didn't know about)
Posted by: Colin | September 28, 2017 at 08:13 AM
Of course "it's down to personal opinion" everything in your musical taste is opinion. I find it just wrong to say that Seegar HAD to be there because of his role in turning this into a song . He wrote the tune AND performs it commandingly . Again, opinion as you say , but for a cover version to surpass the original it needs to add something to the original or do a unique take on it . Uniqueness may not itself improve on the original creation . The Byrds version which I liked way back when doesn't add to the original or do something unique with it . It became more fodder, turning the song into another piece adjusted into the band's patented jangle -y "folk-rock " guitar sound . I like it but it is a mild shadow of the way the original version DELIVERS the song in all its nuance . I have seen Seeger live a few times and he was sweat and presence. The Byrds were a good rock band (especially later when they were a true rock band i.e. "Eight Miles High " ). Here they are a mild , modulated combo . At the time , we have learned only MacGuin played his own instrument . The rest of the players were session men . This is produced pop rock produced in studios and air conditioned rooms . It is canned . The original version IS folk music ...live and sweaty without overdubs played by the musician you see . The Byrds version is fine but it is not unique and does not add to the original , it diminishes from the original . The Byrds flatly deliver a mellowed take on the song , the Seeger original has all the nuance and power their version lacks .
Posted by: Stan Wilson | September 28, 2017 at 08:57 AM
This is a great reply, Stan, which i shall add as i did your first one at the Salut! Live post (to be removed if you object of course, which also applies to the others commenting). I did not intend 'had to be there' pejoratively but in direct response to Martin's question about Judy Collins. The series works better in my view when I restrict the choice for headline purposes and clips to two or three, so Judy's was mentioned but not featured. I, too, admired Seeger. I never saw him live though we did once speak on the phone when I was writing about folk for The Daily Telegraph. I did not enjoy the Carnegie Hall live clip with Sonny Terry as much as other versions, including yours from Oz and mine from the 1959 Newport Folk Festival. We disagree on the Byrds; they did diminish Mr Tambourine Man in my opinion, but their arrangement (OK only of them able to play if you're right! did seem to me to add a unique dimension to a special song.
Posted by: Colin | September 28, 2017 at 08:57 AM
Love the piece and the attention given the song . We do disagree . The info about the personnel playing on the Byrds track is true .I have seen interviews where McGuinn admits this and Crosby and Gene Clark saying they were upset that their producers insisted they were not up to delivering the " Byrds sound" that the session men could . I have seen work-in-progress clips of a film not released yet called "Session Men" . There are interviews with some of the replaced musicians ,with McGuinn and with Micky Dolenz . Dolenz says that it was known in the business that the Byrds and other popular bands were not playing on their hit records . This includes the Beach Boys , Mama's and the Papas,the Association and many more . Dolenz says the story broke back then that the Monkees records were recorded exclusively by session men except for Michael Nesmith other groups stayed quiet letting the Monkees take the heat when they knew they were in the exact same situation . Again, I say the Byrds track is not organic folk music it is artificial construction by committee.It is fine for what it is but it is not the superior creation .We are talking about folk music. It should not be a canned construct. . LOVED that you were able to get the poet himself (with help) reciting the piece . I liked the Oysterband's take on the song .It has presence and seems almost like a live take . Kind of a punk vocal . Love the assault of sound with the battlefield sounding drums washing over it . . I came into possession of a 12 string guitar from a flea market for a song and have managed to work out most of Pete's guitar work. It is beautiful and playable . Thanks again for the pleasure of your piece .
Posted by: Stan Wilson | September 28, 2017 at 11:09 AM
Ironically, it is Jim McGuinn playing 12 string guitar on the Judy Collins version. I listened to the Byrds & Oysterband, but cannot concur. The repetitious rock track on the Byrds recording is annoying and distracting. The Byrds overly sweet harmony is cloying. The rock arrangement on Oysterband is too loud. What counts are the vocal & the lyrics. Seeger & Collins express those two components best.
Posted by: Martin Saperstein | September 28, 2017 at 04:19 PM
I wonder whether what you are calling the John Denver version is actually the Mitchell Trio version. If so, I'd urge you to get over your distaste for Denver and have a listen. In my opinion (not, I admit, shared by many), Denver did his best work during his years with the Trio. It's at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rdte5jAok-Y
Posted by: Gerry Myerson | October 11, 2017 at 03:27 AM
That is a challenge I shall take up, Gerry. Thanks. Maybe it will mellow me.
Posted by: Colin Randall | October 12, 2017 at 07:40 AM
Seem to have forgotten arguably the best version of all, Robyn Hitchcock!!! :- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vpufc-4kffo
Posted by: John Murkin | April 05, 2021 at 02:03 PM
I was introduced to the song in 1984 via the Robyn Hitchcock version, which ultimately must be considered a cover of the Byrds' version with all the jangle, chime, and propulsive bass. Later I discovered Robyn Hitchcock had previously recorded a very similar version of Bells of Rhymney with his first band The Soft Boys. I think their 1981 version, though still a take on the Byrds, has the raw ringing energy you want with this song, and is my favorite of all versions. And while I'm neither a champion nor an "avoidist" of John Denver, his live performances of Rhymney are powerful and beautiful and feel, more so than all the others, most directly informed by Pete Seeger's original song.
Posted by: Shawn Wolfe | April 25, 2022 at 08:06 PM
It is worth noting that Ralph McKellen does a more than passable version on his "The Journey" compilation.
Posted by: Dave Sutherland | August 01, 2022 at 01:22 PM
That reminds me . Happy birthday, Dave
Posted by: Colin Randall | August 01, 2022 at 03:36 PM
It's unfortunate that since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, John Denver's spine-tingling rendition of the song at a concert in Russia seems to have been taken down from Spotify etc.
But I offer this as a very worthy version, done by Jakob Dylan and Beck from the 2018 movie "Echo in the Canyon," hosted by Dylan and examining the sometimes amazing music that emerged from the Laurel Canyon neighbourhood of Los Angeles in the '60s:
If you haven't seen the film, it's well worth seeking out. It gave me a new respect for Dylan the Younger.
Posted by: Bill Taylor | August 01, 2022 at 03:57 PM