Dink’s Song

Ain’t it always the way, the girls write the great songs…and the boy’s steal em, and take all the limelight. It is a pet peeve of mine that Shake Sugaree, Freight Train and Baby It Ain’t No Lie are known as Grateful Dead songs, when in fact they belong to the late great Elizabeth Cotten, a woman so talented at finger picking in her upside down, back to front left-handed playing of her right handed guitar, that she sounds like Jimi Hendrix’s grandmother, and musically, she is. Joni Mitchell is never put on the same level as Leonard Cohen, who Bob Dylan once infamously described as the Number One songwriter, whilst putting himself at Zero, above and apart from Leonard, yet she deserves that place in singer-songwriter history. Joni is at least number two, surely, my girl at least deserves to be ranked!

I’ve been listening to Dave Van Ronk today, and rediscovered his cover of the folk standard Dink’s Song. If you don’t know it, Dink’s song is the most beautiful plaintive ode to lost love and deep longing. It is a song that hits you somewhere deep inside, and it is a woman’s song, one more song stolen from a black woman by white men, pillaged and incorporated into the folk tradition. In fact the first mention and recording of Dink’s song was by John Lomax in 1909, who recorded it and later published it in American Ballads and Folk Songs, published by Macmillian in 1934. He noted it was sung by an African American woman called Dink, who sang it while Lomax recorded her as she washed her husband’s clothes on the bank of the Brazos River in Texas. My heart breaks that we know no more about her, or her song and the credit was reduced to a name.

So here’s to Dink and love and her art and her song. I can’t find many recordings of it by women, in fact the words are changed by Dylan et al to reflect a heterosexual male love for a woman, so thought I might add my own recording to the list of folk devotees, and hope that Dink might not mind a white woman who loved and lost trying to tell what little we have of her story. Here is Dink’s song, by Dink, whose name we have lost, but whose beauty lives on in the words and music.

4 Comments

  1. Ron Pavellas

    My high school chum Carl Dukatz spent much of his young life learning to play guitar from recordings of Huddie Ledbetter (“Leadbelly”) and Elizabeth Cotton. This was in the early 1950s, Berkeley. He played occasionally at “The Blind Lemon” on San Pablo Avenue, named after Blind Lemon Jefferson, whose recordings he also listened to. He was a teenager then. It is rumored he later played a few sets with the Grateful Dead. I listened to Elizabeth Cotton with Carl and remember the plaintive sound of her voice.

    1. The Paltry Sum

      Carl sounds like a real cool cat, I would have loved to have met him and played some guitar with him. Sounds like he had all the best records, friends like that are good to find! How amazing to have played with the Dead. I am quite fond of Jerry and the boys. Elizabeth Cotten has a beautiful voice and writes such amazing songs, but it is the sheer quality of her guitarwork that wows me every time.

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