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The Days of ’49

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Bob Dylan

A Popular Song of Pioneer Times in California.
From the Album Selfportrait, Columbia, 1970


Self Portrait is a lovely album to share a bottle of wine over, to stare at the moon by. It tiptoes through the genres, dipping equally into such realms as American folk, 20th Century American showtune, and covers of such Dylan contemporaries as Paul Simon and Gordon Lightfoot respectively (“The Boxer” and “In the Early Morning Rain”). Several cuts from the Basement Tapes are unearthed, and several new Dylan songs are here. This is not an album that bears much scrutiny, and this is not an album that asks to be de-coded.

But that is precisely why it is a great Dylan record.

Did anyone really care what all that Blonde on Blonde music was about? Dylan gavehis audience heaps of mystery and drama for sure, but mostly he brought a spirit of invention to the floor. He rarely repeated himself and he rarely got boring.

Self Portrait may be mellow, but it’s a respite from the sturm and drang of previous efforts. And ifyou really enjoy Dylan for the indecipherable clues, then Self Portrait can be enjoyed as a sky full of constellations that Dylan sails under, as all the influences both past and present that light up his path.

Well, “The days of 49″one does sound like a classic Dylan song … even though it’s a cover. Dylan, utilizing his good old wheezy-vocals, gives it a great song that sounds confident and bold. Also, it is entertaining! (You can’t forget about that!) Good melody, performing, and everything. This is a strong case against people who think Bob Dylan was washed-up at this point of his career.

According to Professor William L. Alderson of Reed College [ Days of ’49, Reprise,” Northwest Folklore I (1965): 5—101, the first appearance of this song in print was in The Great New Popular Songster (San Francisco, 1872) where it was described as “sung with great success by [Billy] Emerson’s Minstrels at the Alhambra Theatre in San Francisco.” Professor Alderson says, “In the Lomax edited anthology Folk Song U.S.A., that work employs a tune collected by Frank Warner from Yankee John Galusha, but of that text only a ‘portion,’ determinably rather small, came from that source” [Galusha].

Alderson (who happens to be wrong in his assumption, since Yankee John sang us five verses and the chorus)* was arguing against the song’s being a folk song since he had found it only in fragmentary texts, or in printed texts similar to that printed in the book noted above. Yankee John’s version, however, like all his songs, he had learned through oral transmission.

Of course he could have learned it from someone who had a printed source. Professor Alderson says the original song probably was written by banjo artist Charles Bensell (stage name: Charley Rhoades) who died in June 1877. It is “certainly a minstrel song par excellence.” It was published in many songsters of the seventies and eighties, including, we are sure, “Old Put’s Golden Songster” in its later editions. “The Days of Forty-Nine” was one of many songs that came out of the Gold Rush days when on Long Island, for instance, not a boat was left that was capable of sailing to Panama or around the Horn. Though it began as a stage song, we think it was kept alive by communities that saw their sons strike out for the West to seek their fortunes, and then saw them come home, often, broke and broken.

Old Tom Moore is an example of the returning forty-niner, the disillusioned seeker of that elusive pot of gold. That we found this version of the song in upper New York State shows that the composer told a tale that was real to his hearers. Folk Songs of the Catskills (Cazden II) has a similar and longer version of the song given to the editors by George Edwards. Cazden’s notes further explore the song’s history and transmission.

Traditional lyrics, John A. Lomax, Cowboy Songs, 1916 :

We are gazing now on old Tom Moore,
A relic of bygone days;
‘Tis a bummer, too, they call me now,
But what cares I for praise?
‘It’s oft, says I, for the days gone by,
It’s oft do I repine
For the days of old when we dug out the gold
In those days of Forty-Nine.
For the days of old when we dug out the gold
In those days of Forty-Nine.

My comrades they all loved me well,
The jolly, saucy crew;
A few hard cases, I will admit,
Though they were brave and true.

Whatever the pinch, they ne’er would flinch;
They never would fret nor whine,
Like good old bricks they stood the kicks
In the days of Forty-Nine.

There’s old “Aunt Jess,” that hard old cuss,
Who never would repent;
He never missed a single meal, Nor never paid a cent.
But old ” Aunt Jess,” like all the rest,
At death he did resign,
And in his bloom went up the flume
In the days of Forty-Nine.

There is Ragshag Jim, the roaring man,
Who could out-roar a buffalo, you bet,
He roared all day and he roared all night,
And I guess he is roaring yet.

One night Jim fell in a prospect hole,
— It was a roaring bad design,
— And in that hole Jim roared out his soul
In the days of Forty-Nine.

There is Wylie Bill, the funny man,
Who was full of funny tricks,
And when he was in a poker game
He was always hard as bricks.

He would ante you a stud, he would play you a draw,
He’d go you a hatful blind,
— In a struggle with death Bill lost his breath
In the days of Forty-Nine.

There was New York Jake, the butcher boy,
Who was fond of getting tight.
And every time he got on a spree He was spoiling for a fight.

One night Jake rampaged against a knife
In the hands of old Bob Sine,
And over Jake they held a wake
In the days of Forty-Nine.

There was Monte Pete, I’ll ne’er forget
The luck he always had,
He would deal for you both day and night
Or as long as he had a scad.

It was a pistol shot that lay Pete out,
It was his last resign,
And it caught Pete dead sure in the door
In the days of Forty-Nine.

Of all the comrades that I’ve had
There’s none that’s left to boast,
And I am left alone in my misery
Like some poor wandering ghost.

And as I pass from town to town,
They call me the rambling sign,
Since the days of old and the days of gold.
And the days of Forty-Nine.

Here the version of Bob Dylan:

I’m old Tom Moore from the bummer’s shore in that good old golden days
They call me a bummer and a ginsot too, but what cares I for praise ?
I wander around from town to town just like a roving sign
And all the people say, “There goes Tom Moore, in the days of ’49”
In the days of old, in the days of gold
How oft’times I repine for the days of old
When we dug up the gold, in the days of ’49.

My comrades they all loved me well, a jolly saucy crew
A few hard cases I will recall though they all were brave and true
Whatever the pitch they never would flinch, they never would fret or whine
Like good old bricks they stood the kicks in the days of ’49
In the days of old, in the days of gold
How oft’times I repine for the days of old
When we dug up the gold, in the days of ’49.

There was New York Jake, the butcher boy, he was always getting tight
And every time that he’d get full he was spoiling for a fight
But Jake rampaged against a knife in the hands of old Bob Stein
And over Jake they held a wake in the days of ’49
In the days of old, in the days of gold
How oft’times I repine for the days of old
When we dug up the gold, in the days of ’49.

There was Poker Bill, one of the boys who was always in a game
Whether he lost or whether he won, to him it was always the same
He would ante up and draw his cards and he would you go a hatful blind
In the game with death Bill lost his breath, in the days of ’49
In the days of old, in the days of gold
How oft’times I repine for the days of old
When we dug up the gold, in the days of ’49.

There was Ragshag Bill from Buffalo, I never will forget
He would roar all day and he’d roar all night and I guess he’s roaring yet
One day he fell in a prospect hole, in a roaring bad design
And in that hole he roared out his soul, in the days of ’49
In the days of old, in the days of gold
How oft’times I repine for the days of old
When we dug up the gold, in the days of ’49.

Of the comrades all that I’ve had, there’s none that’s left to boast
And I’m left alone in my misery like some poor wandering ghost
And I pass by from town to town, they call me a rambling sign
“There goes Tom Moore, a bummer shore in the days of ’49 “
In the days of old, in the days of gold
How oft’times I repine for the days of old
When we dug up the gold, in the days of ’49.

The other songs from the album:
Selfportrait, Columbia, 1970

1. All the Tired Horses
2. Alberta #1
3. I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know
4. Days of ’49
5. Early Morning Rain
6. In Search of Little Sadie
7. Let It Be Me
8. Little Sadie
9. Woogie Boogie
10. Belle Isle
11. Living the Blues
12. Like a Rolling Stone
13. Copper Kettle (The Pale Moonlight)
14. Gotta Travel On
15. Blue Moon
16. The Boxer
17. The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo)
18. Take Me as I Am (Or Let Me Go)
19. Take a Message to Mary
20. It Hurts Me Too
21. Minstrel Boy
22. She Belongs to Me
23. Wigwam
24. Alberta #2

Source photograph: Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:California_Clipper_500.jpg
This photographic reproduction is  considered to be in the public domain.