Farewell to the Creeks, Bob Dylan and P/M James Robertson, Banff

We have always been sceptical about the claim that P/M James Robertson’s 6/8 march Farewell to the Creeks was the source for the melody for Bob Dylan’s song ‘The Times They are a Changin’ as often quoted in the national press. In this investigation the writer debunks the claim further. P/M Robertson is pictured above in his Army days and shortly before his death in 1961.

By Dr Stuart Eydmann

I enjoyed the posts about P/M Robertson and ‘Farewell to the Creeks’ on your blog. I am glad to note that you, like me, are not convinced by the suggestion that Hamish Henderson’s ‘Farewell to Sicily’, which draws on the pipe tune, was the basis for Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They are a Changin’.

Folklorist and writer Hamish Henderson was an intelligence officer in WW2 and involved in the allied landings in Sicily in July 1943. He came upon the pipes and drums of the 51st Highland Division playing P/M Robertson’s tune and used it for his now famous song (words below).

The idea that Dylan appropriated the melody from Scottish song (not necessarily the ‘Creeks’ melody) was first promoted some years ago by singer Rab Noakes I think, and makes some sense as a number of Scottish folksingers such as Jean Redpath (and Americans interested in Scottish song) were around the Greenwich Village scene in New York at the time before its composition.

Who made the link to Robertson’s tune we don’t know but the idea was picked up by the international press and has since become fixed in our popular culture. I was never convinced in musical terms and spent some time wondering which Scottish song might better fit the bill.

I drew a blank until I heard Gaelic singer Kenna Campbell give a talk at the then RSAMD in Glasgow on Songs of the Jacobite Rebellions where she sang, from the printed page, Alexander MacDonald’s ‘Tearlach mac Sheumais/Charles son of James’. The collection of 1751 notes it was set to the very old tune ‘Black Jock’, known in England as ‘Black Joke’.

Here is a quick recording of me playing the Dylan air (as best as I can remember it) and ‘Black Jock’ as a dance tune – there are lots of versions, some quite classical others very folksy: 

Bob Dylan’s melody for his song ‘The Times They are a Changin’ and what is possibly the source tune, ‘Black Jock’

From checking a few books it seems that ‘Black Jock’ was already very well known as a dance tune and song air in colonial America when it was variously recorded as Scottish, English or Irish.

I already knew the tune as an up-tempo fiddle/dance air and had previously heard it sung in a lively manner as the basis for Burn’s bawdy song ‘My girl she is airy’ (there is a Sheena Wellington version on the web). However Kenna’s slower delivery immediately suggested to me that it could be the missing link, particularly in the similarity of the opening strain and the somewhat rambling character of the melody.

The biography of the great writer and folklorist Hamish Henderson by Timothy Neat

I suspect it would have been the Burn’s song that Dylan encountered – Arthur Argo, one if the Scottish singers in New York, specialised in bawdy Scots song so might he have been the source? I am not aware of any piping version of the tune. I wonder what others think.

Back to P/M Robertson and Hamish Henderson. Two years ago, while travelling in Sicily, we booked in for bed and breakfast in this grand, walled farmhouse on the outskirts of Zafferana. It was from this town on the slopes of Etna that Hamish Henderson drove to Linguaglossa the day he heard Farewell to the Creeks.

The house usd by Allied officers during the invasion of Sicily

The owner of the house, which had been his parents’, proudly told us that the building had been the HQ of ‘the Scottish Officers’ and I immediately asked about Henderson although he said knew nothing about him. He immediately started checking him out on the internet and was very pleased for the knowledge.

I was excited to think Henderson may been in residence but on checking Tim Neat’s biography of him on our return (Vol. 1 p.112), I read that Hamish had taken ‘a nice suite of rooms’ by the town’s main piazza. It is highly probable that he was in the house at some point however.

The 51st Highland Division’s Farewell to Sicily

By James Robertson & Hamish Henderson

Pipers should note that the song uses only the first, second and fourth parts of the tune. Here it is played on the smallpipes by the Editor:

The pipie is dozy the pipie is fey
He wullnae come roon for his vino the day
The sky o’er Messina is unco and grey
And a’ the bricht chaulmers are eerie

Fareweel ye banks o’ Sicily
Fare ye weel ye valley and shaw
There’s nae Jock will mourn the kyles o’ ye
Puir bluidy squaddies are wearie

Fareweel ye banks o’ Sicily
Fare ye weel ye valley and shaw
There’s nae hame can smoor the wiles o’ ye
Puir bluidy squaddies are wearie

Then doon the stair and line the waterside
Wait your turn the ferry’s awa
Then doon the stair and line the waterside
A’ the bricht chaulmers are eerie

The drummie is polisht, the drummie is braw
He cannae be seen for his webbin awa
He’s beezed himsel’ up for a photy and a’
Tae leave wi’ his Lola his dearie

Fare ye weel ye dives o’ Sicily
Fare ye weel ye shieling and ha’
We’ll a’ mind shebeens and bothies
Whaur kind signoritas were cheerie

Fare ye weel ye banks o’ Sicily
Fare ye weel ye shieling and ha’
We’ll a’ mind shebeens and bothies
Whaur Jock made a date wi’ his dearie

1 thought on “Farewell to the Creeks, Bob Dylan and P/M James Robertson, Banff

  1. Interesting article regarding Farewell to the Creeks, Bob Dylan and Hamish Henderson.
    I was amused to hear the tune Black Jock; this is disturbingly similar to The Sprig of Shillelagh which was used as their regimental march by the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the Ulster Defence Regiment amongst others. I may say that it was never my favourite 6/8 march!

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