by C. P. Lee




A couple of weeks ago an interesting glimpse into one of the song writing mechanisms of Mr Dylan emerged when he revealed that the melody of The Times They Are A Changin’ was built around a tune known as The Highland Division’s Farewell To Sicily. Time then for a little history, both personal and general. 

We’re all aware of what is called ‘the Folk process’, whereby adaption, oral transmission and various other factors are brought into play when writing (and discussing the origins of) a tune or a song. It’s certainly no secret that Mr Dylan, like countless other musicians, uses these creative tools in the construction of numbers. We can look at the utilisation of the melody of No More Auction Block for a melodic framework on which to base Blowin’ In The Wind. Also, The Two Sisters or Wind & The Rain as it’s sometimes known, for Percy’s Song. In a sense, it’s a time honoured tradition of the songwriter’s craft, and it often provides great fun hunting down root derivatives and sources, but I never, I repeat – never – would have linked TTTAAC with Farewell To Sicily

One of my reasons for this is that I’ve actually known the song longer than I’ve known Bob Dylan, if you understand what I mean. My father used to sing it occasionally when the mood took him and he was presumably in some way, thinking back to the war, or to Sicily. He usually sang it, more often hummed it, when he was doing something around the house. When I was older, during the ‘Folk Boom’, I asked him where he’d got it from and he told me that he first heard it in Naples in 1944, and then increasingly as they moved up northwards towards Rome and then eventually Venice. He heard it from the Scottish soldiers and the song he knew was much shorter than the ‘proper’, complete version I was to discover in a copy of Sing Out that I bought in 1966. This one came with a full set of lyrics and an explanation of how it came to be – 

The song was written by Scottish Folklorist, Hamish Henderson, who at the time he composed it was serving in Military Intelligence. He built the words around a pipe tune Farewell To The Creeks that had been composed by a friend of his, Pipe-Major James Robertson. Henderson doesn’t say how the tune got disseminated, but says he was pleasantly surprised when he heard that it had caught on with the Highland troops in Italy (my dad was actually in the Navy, but that’s another story). In his short introduction to the song, Henderson goes on to discuss the way a song can cross over into the public domain, as it were, and become regarded as a ‘Folk song’, that is, a song with no known point of origin, and he tells a great story about almost getting punched out by an irate partygoer who insisted that another of his songs (The Taxi Driver’s Cap) was an authentically orally transmitted Folk song with no known author. He says in Sing Out – “I soon learned that the biggest honour I could pay my songs was to realise that they no longer belonged to me.” 

In my ‘world’ as a performer, Sicily has had its place in my repertoire for forty years; it was natural for me to sing it way back when, and sing it I did. I even sang it two years ago in New York, much to the delight of the Italian-American organiser who said “Nobody ever sings songs about Sicily! Have a beer!” If he could have understood the words to the third verse (difficult for a non Scot, I’d wager) he might not have been quite so forthcoming – “Then fare weel, y dives o’ Sicily/Fare ye weel, ye sheilas an ha’s/We’ll all a’mind shebeens an’bothies/Whaur Jock made a date we his dearie ~” Mind you, considering it’s referring to illegal drinking dens and illicit sexual activities with ‘ladies of the night’, maybe he wouldn’t have offered me that beer. 

More history ~ Mimi and Dick Farina recorded it as an instrumental in 1965 under the title Hamish, presumably an oblique reference to Henderson, though this didn’t stop Farina claiming the song writing credit for it! I had that album and I bought the Vanguard Records re-issue when it came out on CD, and guess what? I never once connected it to Times

I look now at a copy of Todd Harvey’s scholarly The Formative Dylan – Transmission and Stylistic Influences, 1961-1963. Writing in 2001, Doctor Harvey traces a melodic link with a tune called Deliverance Will Come. Dylan first suggested in the notes to Biograph that it stemmed in a loose way from Scottish and Irish ballads, “Come All Ye Bold Highway Men, Come All Ye Miners, Come All Ye Tender Hearted Ladies.” It’s true that they all share the ‘gather round and I’ll tell you a tale’ vibe, but not the melody. Despite Doctor Harvey’s assertion that Times, One Too Many Mornings and “to some degree”, When The Ship Comes In, share much the same melody, Times varies in as much as – “… the A phrase rises from the 1st to the 3rd scale degrees, while the B phrase begins on the 5th scale degree ands descends to the 2nd. Dylan creates a C phrase comprised only of the 5th scale degree, while his final phrase descends to the tonic.” 

Now that’s easy enough for him to say, but it doesn’t explain why I never saw the connection! I know that Dylan is reported to have suggested that Times is ‘probably’ from Farewell, note the use of the word ‘probably’ and ‘suggested’, because it came from a BBC website and was also on Karl Erik’s wonderful, but I’m sat here now with a CD of Hamish’s song on one side and a Dylan songbook on the other and I’m trying to make them fit. They must fit because Bob says they do, but I can’t get an exact match. Actually, I can’t get even the vaguest match. Maybe, in a bagpipe droney way there’s a suggestion of an harmonic connection, but I find myself in the rather bizarre position of not being convinced by Mr Dylan’s assertion. Then I look back and take comfort in his use of the words ‘suggested’ and ‘probably’ – Phew! – That’s better. Just Bob winding us up again then.