BLOG Allyn Thomas

NWR Issue 105

Bob Dylan and the Bells of Rhymney

This month has seen the release of The Basement Tapes Complete, which is volume eleven and the latest instalment of the Bob Dylan Bootleg Series. And, despite being a chapter of Dylan Thomas’ life work that is critically acclaimed (in his review for American Songwriter, Jim Beviglia wrote, ‘Music fans having access to the complete archives of The Basement Tapes is somewhat akin to historians being presented with the tapes of the meetings of the Continental Congress or art buffs who receive a videotape of Da Vinci’s entire process of painting “The Last Supper”’), and despite lasting 139 songs and 6 discs, it’s principally the presence of the protest poem ‘Bells of Rhymney’ which makes this addition to the troubadour’s cannon extra special for Welsh fans.

First published in 1938, ‘Bells of Rhymney’ (which begins, ‘O what can you give me? / Say the sad bells of Rhymney. / Is there hope for the future? / Cry the brown bells of Merthyr. / Who made the mineowner? / Say the black bells of Rhondda. / And who robbed the miner? / Cry the grim bells of Blaina’) was penned by the Valleys-born poet Idris Davies as a response to the exploitation of south Wales miners. The Welshman himself had worked underground at Maerdy Pit in the Rhondda and McLaren Colliery in Abertysswg from the age of fourteen, but after the General Strike and losing a finger at the coalface Davies became unemployed and began what he called, ‘the long and lonely self-tuition game’ which comprised him writing poetry, training to become a teacher, and eventually leaving for London where he befriended both Dylan Thomas and TS Eliot.

And it was Eliot who published Davies’ first collection of poetry, Gwalia Deserta (Wasteland of Wales) which included ‘Bells of Rhymney’ under its original title, ‘XV’.

Idris Davies was what American’s call a blue collar intellectual. And preferring substance over style, he said, ‘I am a socialist. That is why I want as much beauty as possible in our everyday lives, and so I am an enemy of pseudo-poetry and pseudo-art of all kinds. Too many “poets of the Left”, as they call themselves, are badly in need of instruction as to the difference between poetry and propaganda... These people should read William Blake on Imagination until they show signs of understanding him. Then the air will be clear again, and the land be, if not full of, fit for song.’

Sadly, Davies died in 1953 from stomach cancer, aged only forty-eight. But one year after his death, a series of Dylan Thomas essays was published in America which incorporated a reprint, under the new name ‘Gwalia Deserta XV’, of what would become ‘Bells of Rhymney’. And this is how Davies’ words were first put to music by the folksinger Pete Seeger and then by The Byrds, amongst others.

The Basement Tapes Complete are mythical-like recordings Bob Dylan made, with whom would become The Band, at his Woodstock home in 1967 after recuperating from an almost fatal motorcycle accident. The singer-songwriter’s cut of ‘Bells of Rhymney’ (in which his pronunciation of Welsh place names is – bar Rhymney which he, like Seeger, pronounces more as ‘Rimney’ – fantastically faithful) is a minimalist gem whose simple yet powerful words are sung defiantly by Dylan.

Dylan Thomas famously had a great influence on a fledging Bob Dylan, as exemplified by a song like ‘Let Me Die in My Footsteps’ (with lines line, ‘I will not go down under the ground, / ’Cause somebody tells me that death’s comin’ ’round. / An’ I will not carry myself down to die. / When I go to my grave my head will be high’) which sits as a sister piece to ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’. So it’s fitting that in the centenary of the barfly and overblown romanticist’s birth that another Welshman’s work has been brought back to life by Bob Dylan’s latest release.

Allyn Thomas writes about the arts and culture.


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