Bob Dylan and Paul Clayton

One of Bob Dylan’s greatest songs is “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” (1962). Apparently, Dylan learned the tune from Paul Clayton’s song “Who’s Goin’ to Buy You Ribbons When I’m Gone?” (1960). And Clayton seems to have gotten at least the lyrical idea for his song from an older song called “Who’s Gonna Buy Your Chickens When I’m Gone.”

Here’s a passage from Spitz’s biography of Dylan:

A more delicate wrinkle arose of the authorship of “Don’t Think Twice.” No one complained about the lyric; it was so damn original that folksingers admitted losing sleep over it. But the melody had a familiar ring to it. Word began to spread that Bob had lifted it almost note for note from Paul Clayton’s ballad, “Who’s Gonna Buy Your Ribbon Saw.” That in itself wasn’t a contemptible offense. By definition, folk music encouraged an element of borrowing from sources to preserve its traditional flavor. But Bob not only ignored his debt to Clayton’s composition; he copyrighted the tune in  his own name without acknowledging its origins or, as was custom, listen the melody as “traditional.”

Several folksingers complained that Bob had done Paul an injustice. There wasn’t any question of Clayton’s contribution, nor was Bob able to wriggle out of it by feigning ignorance. Some time before the song appeared, he ran into Clayton, Van Ronk, and Barry Kornfeld, another Village folksinger, at which time he said, “Hey, man—I really dig ‘Who’s Gonna Buy Your Ribbon Saw.’ I’m gonna use that.” No one gave it a second thought. Clayton himself had copied it from an old music-hall number called “Who’s Gonna Buy Your Chickens When I’m Gone.’ The guys figured, “Fair enough—Bob’ll probably do a nifty variation on a theme.” Unfortunately, “Don’t Think Twice is a dead ringer for “Ribbon Saw.”    (Bob Spitz, Dylan: A Biography, Norton 1989, pgs. 200-201)

According to Stephen Wilson, Paul Clayton “had taken two different ideas. I know this from Clayton’s own lips. He slightly changed the tune to ‘Call Me Old Black Dog.’ The words were a song he’d picked up a sheet copy of in the University of Virginia library, called ‘Who’s Gonna Buy You Chickens When I’m Gone.’ He liked the idea of it.”  (Quoted from pg. 132 of Paul Clayton and the Folksong Revival by Bob Coltman, 2008).

I went looking for that older song to find, in a sense, the grandfather (grandmother?) of my favorite Dylan song. It wasn’t available anywhere online. So I was able to get a copy of this 1923 book Eight Negro Songs  from Virginia. And it’s now available on this blog.

You can read much more about the Dylan/Clayton connection at these websites:

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