Sunday, September 04, 2016

Idris Davies' "The Bells of Rhymney" by Pete Seeger and by the Byrds

Idris Davies (1905-1953) was the son of a Welsh coal miner who followed his father into the mines after leaving school at fourteen. He lost a finger in an accident, and participated in the General Strike of 1926, which led to a long period of unemployment during which he educated himself and then took courses to qualify as a teacher. While working as a teacher he wrote three volumes of poetry, the first of which, Gwalia Deserta (1938), included "The Bells of Rhymney", a poem inspired by his experience in the General Strike.

In 1958 the American folk singer Pete Seeger set the words of The Bells of Rhymney to music. In the clip below he performs it live in concert, on a twelve string guitar, which gives the impression of pealing bells, rather than the six string shown in the still photo that accompanies the clip.



The best known version of the song is not the one performed by Seeger, but that by the Byrds on their 1965 debut album Mr. Tambourine Man. Jim (later a.k.a. Roger) McGuinn's jangling Rickenbacker electric guitar gives a chiming quality similar to that of Seeger's twelve string.



There's an odd thing about the Byrds' rendition: it changes one repeated word from Davies' poem. Instead of "Who robbed the miner?" it asks "Who killed the miner?" Davies was inspired to write "The Bells of Rhymney" by his experience as a participant in the 1926 strike. The liner notes to the Byrds' album say it was about a "mine disaster." I can only speculate that someone--perhaps the album's producer, Terry Melcher (son of my first childhood celebrity crush, Doris Day), or more likely someone higher up at Columbia Records (although Columbia released the earlier Seeger version)--decided that a song about a strike, accusing mine owners of robbing miners, was just a little too Bolshie for the American mass market.

Happy Labor Day!

Photo: Welshnot.