"Peter Emberley" -- the source of Dylan's "The Ballad of Donald White"

Bonnie Dobson (Wolfgang Glandt)

(condensed version of posts to hwy61-6/rec.music.dylan)
© Manfred Helfert, Apr 1996.

--- In memoriam Edith Fowke ---

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Following the death of Canadian folksong collector Edith Fowke, I decided to elaborate a little bit on Dylan's "Ballad of Donald White" and its source, the Canadian folksong "Peter Emberley."

Dylan's song can be found on three tapes, the Cynthia Gooding tape of Feb/Mar 1962 (which, unfortunately, I haven't heard yet), the May 1962 Broadside Show on WBAI, and the 2nd McKenzie's tape from either Sep/Oct 1962 (HEYLIN, Stolen Moments, p. 26) or Apr 1963 (KROGSGAARD, Master of the Tracks, No. 40, p. 38).

In view of the set-list of this last tape (and comparing it, for example, to that of the Apr 12, 1963 Town Hall concert), I tend to second Heylin's dating of the latter tape rather than Krogsgaard's.

The May 1962 Broadside Show version of the song is the most readily available, appearing on the 1972 Folkways release "BROADSIDE REUNION" (FOLKWAYS FR 5315), sung by "Blind Boy Grunt."

The complete show is available on tape and contains the following songs (Corrections more than welcome):

Benny 'Kid' Paret (GIL TURNER) / Ballad Of Donald White (BOB DYLAN) (*) / I Can See A New Day (PETE SEEGER) / Billy Sol (?) (FRAGMENT) (PETE SEEGER) / The Shelter Song (?) (GIL TURNER) /The Death Of Emmett Till (BOB DYLAN) (*) / I Want To Go To Andorra (?) (PETE SEEGER) / Blowin' In The Wind (BOB DYLAN w/PETE SEEGER, GIL TURNER, & AGNES "SIS" CUNNINGHAM, backing vcls)

In his article "Bob Dylan -- a new voice singing new songs" from "Sing Out!" (Oct/Nov 1962), reprinted in "The Dylan Companion", edited by Elizabeth Thomson & David Gutman (London: Papermac, 1991), Gil Turner paraphrases Dylan's statements from the WBAI-FM Broadside show:

While Bob is a noteworthy folk performer with a bright future, I believe his most significant and lasting contribution will be in the songs he writes. Dylan avoids the terms "write" or "compose" in connection with his songs.
"The songs are there. They exist all by themselves, just waiting for someone to write them down. I just put them down on paper. If I didn't do it, somebody else would."
His method of writing places the emphasis on the words, the tune almost always being borrowed or adapted from one he has heard somewhere, usually a traditional one. I remember the first night he heard the tune he used for the "Ballad of Donald White." It was in Bonnie Dobson's version of the "Ballad of Peter Amberly." He heard the tune, liked it, made a mental record of it and a few days later "Donald White" was complete. About this song, Dylan says:
"I'd seen Donald White's name in a Seattle paper in about 1959. It said he was a killer. The next time I saw him was on a television set. My gal Sue said I'd be interested in him so we went and watched... Donald White was sent home from prisons and institutions 'cause they had no room. He asked to be sent back 'cause he couldn't find no room in life. He murdered someone 'cause he couldn't find no room in life. Now they killed him 'cause he couldn't find no room in life. They killed him and when they did I lost some of my room in life. When are some people gonna wake up and see that sometimes people aren't really their enemies but their victims?"

(THOMSON, p. 65.)

The folksong source of Dylan's "Ballad of Donald White", "Peter Emberley", can be found as No. 27 in the late Edith Fowke's "Penguin Book of Canadian Folk Songs" (1973), pp. 72-73, and in Digital Tradition (filename PTRMBRLY; tune: play.exe PTRMBRLY).

Edith Fowke:
This tale of the young man from Prince Edward Island who was fatally injured in the Miramichi woods when a log rolled on him is the favourite ballad of New Brunswick. John Calhoun, one of the men who drove the injured lad down to his employer's home, described his fate in these verses, and a local singer, Abraham Munn, set them to and old Irish tune that has served for many songs both in Ireland and North America... The song is well known along the east coast... and it has also spread to Ontario.

(p. 200.)

Not only Dylan seems to have been inspired by this song (most notably by its third verse "There's danger..."). Gil Turner, in his song "Benny 'Kid' Paret" (also included on the complete May 1962 WBAI Broadside show tape) quotes and paraphrases the very same stanza:

There's danger on the ocean where the waves roll mountain high
There's danger on the battlefield where angry bullets fly.
There's danger in the boxing ring for death is waiting there
Watching for a killing through the hot and smoky air.

(BROADSIDE No. 4, Mid-April 1962, reprinted in liner-notes for "Broadside", BR 301, 1963.)

The topic of the song (the death of Cuban boxer Benny 'Kid' Paret) is obviously related to that of Dylan's "Who Killed Davey Moore?" (Apr 1963; Heylin, "Stolen Moments") and Gil Turner's imagery and choice of words in another stanza is, in my opinion, rather close to that of Dylan's "Long Ago, Far Away" (copyrighted Dec 4, 1962; Heylin, "Stolen Moments"):

You've heard about our Romans, long many years ago
Crowding big arenas just to see the slaves' blood flower
There's been lots of changes since those days and now we're civilized
Our gladiators kill with gloves instead of swords and knives.


The television show which inspired Bob Dylan to write "The Ballad of Donald White" (rather than his somewhat doubtful claim of having read about Donald White as early as 1959 in a Seattle newspaper) is identified in Scaduto's Bob Dylan biography:

Sue Zuckerman, who occasionally slept over in the apartment on Fourth Street with Suze and Bob, recalls watching television with them one night (February 12, 1962). The program was about crime and capital punishment -- a film called "A Volcano Named White." A 24-year-old black man was sitting in his prison cell in Texas talking about his life, its oppression, his cries for help that were ignored, until he finally killed somebody and was now waiting to be executed. "Bobby just got up at one point," Miss Zuckerman says, "and he went off in the corner and started to write. He just started to write, while the show was still on, and the next thing I knew he had this song written, Donald White."

Suze Rotolo:

"Donald White was only partly a journalistic approach. Dylan was perceptive. He felt. He didn't read or clip the papers and refer to it later, as you would write a story, or as other songwriters might do it. With Dylan it was not that conscious journalistic approach. It was more poetical. It was all intuitive, on an emotional level. Not as a newspaper rewriteman, although it may have on occasion seemed that way. It was more than just writing, it was more like something flowing out of him."

(Scaduto, Bob Dylan, p. 116 of the Apr 1973 British Abacus edition.)

Further printed references to "Ballad of Donald White":

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