Stone Pine Tunnel, Pineto, Abruzzo, Italy, 2016, by Michael Kenna
Sometimes I hear a new song and for some days, or weeks, I keep listening to it, even a few times in a row: it’s my inner seventeen-year-old that manages the music (both inside my head and out) and she can be quite obsessed with songs at times. The songs that have this effect on me aren’t usually by the artists I listen to most of the time.
For about a month now I have been listening to Black Jack Davey at least once a day; it is a Scottish ballad from the 18th century (I think). I heard it in Bob Dylan’s version (from Good as I been to you) and most of the times I listen to that.
I love traditional British ballads, their way of telling a story in a few stanzas and of leaving you immersed in their mood, wondering about what is left unsaid: in She moved thorugh the fair, you know that a young couple talked about marriage at the fair, and she went away as it grew dark:
And she went her way homeward
With one star awake
As the swans in the evening
Move over the lake
Some versions add
And she smiled as she passed me
With her goods and her gear
And that was the last
That I saw of my dear.
But often we have no warning of the tragedy that happens; in the next stanza we are told that she went to him at night, but “her feet made no din“: she was dead, we are not told how she died, or if he died ,too, as the ghost annunced to him
It will not be long love /Till our wedding day.
Back to Black Jack Davey.
The ballad opens with a pacey finger-picking, starting with a grave note that establishes tension, even pathos, before we know what will happen.
Black Jack Davey come a-ridin’ on back
A-whistling loud and merry
Made the woods around him ring
And he charmed the heart of a lady
Charmed the heart of a lady
The ballad’s namesake is cheerful and charming. And dangerous.
“How old are you, my pretty little miss
How old are you, my honey”
She answered to him with a lovin’ smile
“I’ll be sixteen come Sunday
Be sixteen come Sunday.”
One must try to imagine the suffocating, tedious days of the young woman, living in the small community of one household. The sudden excitement of a brief flirtation.
“Come and go with me, my pretty little miss
Come and go with me, my honey
Take you where the grass grows green
You never will want for money
You never will want for money
So she took off her high heel shoes, made of Spanish leather, she got on his horse and they “both rode off together”.
It is only at the fourth stanza that we learn that the lovely young woman is a nobleman’ wife: at night the “boss” (it must have been the lord originally) enquiring about his lady…the servant spoke before she thought ‘She’s been out with Black Jack Davey’
The lord orders to saddle his fastest horse and rides off in hot pursuit, only to see his wife “wrapped up with Black Jack Davey” on the bank of a “river raging“. When he walks up to her and begs her to go home with him we learn more: the sixteen-year-old is a mother.
Will you forsake your house and home, will you forsake your baby?
She will: she must have felt trapped like a bird in a cage in her life as young lady, for her answer is merciless:
“Last night I slept in a feather bed
Between my husband and baby
Tonight I lay on the river banks
In the arms of Black Jack Davey
Love my Black Jack Davey.”
Whatever happened to her next we’ll never now: we remember her, the nameless runaway, as she defiantly offers her hand to shake to her husband. Probably heading towards disaster, or maybe not; much depends on the true nature of Black jack Davey: is he a liberator? Someone who offers the young woman a choice between the safety and comfort of a rich home (and a loving husband it would seem) on one hand, and passion and freedom or the other? Or is he the Shadow, the destroyer of lives, who will discard her after having ruined her? The mystery makes the song close to the realm of fairy tales.The first note of the guitar riff hints towards tears.
Anyway, a couple of times a day I am there in the woods and watch this brief tale unwind. It may go on like this for a while.
This is not Dylan’s version, it is not avilable on youtube, but it is the closest in atmosphere and rhythm. It has a piano note to mark the start of the guitar riff which isn’t in Dylan’s version.