who’s gonna buy you ribbons when i’m gone?

a Bob Dylan song
…sort of

This melody originated long ago, as the folk song Who’s Gonna Buy You(r) Chickens When I’m Gone?  It was then adapted for the Appalachian dulcimer by folk singer Paul Clayton for his version, Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons When I’m Gone?  Clayton taught the melody to Bob Dylan, and two years later Dylan recorded Don’t Think Twice.  In addition to the melody, “Ain’t no use to sit and wonder why…” and “I’m wandering down that long and lonesome road…” both came directly from Clayton’s song.

I love Dylan’s work, he was a master, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with playing and recording old songs.  That’s how folk works; you share it.  Except… Somehow these attributions always seemed to slip his mind.  He didn’t so much claim the folk songs were his creations; but he didn’t go out of his way to correct the misconception either. As a result of that calculated silence, he profited — personally, privately, and immensely.  And I mean, immensely.

That is NOT how folk works.

For a more egregious example, take House of the Rising Sun.  Leadbelly himself always told people it wasn’t his, but a tune taught him by his uncles.  Dylan learned it from Dave Van Ronk, who had learned it by ear off an old record, and was playing it live in the Village.  When he asked Van Ronk (whose couch he had been sleeping on) if he could record and sell it, Van Ronk (who hadn’t recorded it yet) said, “Are you serious? No, that isn’t okay.”  Dylan shrugged bashfully and said, “Well, I already did.”

Now the famous Eric Burdon and The Animals version is a “Bob Dylan cover.”

Hold on, this is me spitting.

Imagine:

A nobody poet, looking to get a leg up, stands before a room full of people in a world where Yeats never became famous, and recites an altered version of The Second Coming — to THUNDEROUS applause.  That night the poet gets laid by a newly smitten fan, the next day he scores a book deal from a publisher in the audience, and then his own original work launches him from there to fame.

Many years later, someone asks the poet privately, “Hey, I was reading some old poetry last night and I found The Second Coming in a volume by this guy William Butler Yeats.  You’ve been performing it for years, but I’ve never heard of him. What’s that about?”  The poet replies, “Well, yeah, but…”

But nothing.

There is no worse thing you could steal from an artist.

Nothing.

Paul Clayton and Bob Dylan remained friends, despite litigation over the song, but Clayton’s life fell into a downward spiral in his 30s.  Between substance abuse, closeted homosexuality, manic-depression, and uncertainty about his career, things began to fall apart around him.  Eventually he would take a space heater with him into the bath tub.

What Dylan did with the melody may be a better, more interesting song.  I would certainly say so.  But in the context of Paul Clayton’s personal tragedy, there’s something extra sad, and extra beautiful, in the strumming of that Appalachian dulcimer.

“It ain’t no use to sit and sigh now, darling…” 

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