At The Crossroads

Crossroad 13: Days of 49


Days of 49

Bob Dylan

In 1970 Bob Dylan releases Self Portrait. The opening sentence of the review by Greil Marcus in Rolling Stone read:

“What is this shit?”

I remember seeing the cover and a similar question arose. I read somewhere (years later) that Dylan had an old canvas square, some oils and 5 minutes later he handed over the painting for the cover.

A canvas, some oils, and 5 minutes and … voila! Album cover.

We were all confused …

It was strange enough dealing with Nashville Skyline – his musical shift to country the year earlier. But this issue from Dylan, according to many, spelled his end. Dylan himself has disparaged it. In Chronicles Volume One:

I released one album (a double one) where I just threw everything I could think of at the wall and whatever stuck, real eased it, and then went back an scooped up everything that didn’t stick and released that, too.

He didn’t name the album but it sure fits Self Portrait. Perhaps the most telling judgement of Self Portrait came when he was asked why it was a double album and he allegedly replied:

Well, it wouldn’t have held up as a single album – then it really would have been bad, you know. I mean, if you’re gonna put a lot of crap on it, you might as well load it up.

Back to the song – Days of 49 – the 4th track on the 1st of Self Portrait’s 4 sides of vinyl. I’d never really thought about who wrote the song – it just seems to fit with Dylan the Storyteller. In fact, to me it sounds more Dylan than all the Dylan-composed tracks on Self Portrait.

But it’s not. It was written around 1874 by Charles Bensell – a banjo player who also used the stage name Charlie Rhoades. It has also been attributed to Joaquin Miller – though his lyric is quite different.

Old Tom Moore was a 49-er, went looking for gold and, like so many, found disillusion instead. He also found himself a “jolly saucy crew”. In Dylan’s version they were,

New York Jake, the butcher’s boy – killed by old Bob Stein; Poker Bill – who lost his breath in a game of death; and Ragshag Bill from Buffalo who fell in a prospect hole.

In other versions you’ll find: Monte Pete; Hackensack Jim; North Carolina Jess, poor lame Ches, Big Reuben, Kentuck Jim and, if you search, you’ll probably find plenty of others.

How does Days of 49 link with Santy Anno?

Well it could be the “Spider” John Koerner-Bob Dylan link. Spider John also recorded Days of 49 for his 1996 album – Stargeezer. (I couldn’t find “Spider” John’s version online, unfortunately.)

What cause me to to think of Days of 49 while listening to Santy Anno was the verse:

Well, back in the days of forty-nine.
Heave away, Santy Anno.
Oh those were the days of the good old times.
All on the plains of Mexico.


(October 2014: Damnation! It looks the honchos at Sony have got put the blocks on this. Unfortunately, I have been able to find another.)

Other Stuff You Might Enjoy.

* Days of 49 – sung by Jules Verne Allen (1883-1945).

* The infamous review of Self Portrait from Greil Marcus

* Every Bob Dylan Song – a blog, as the title suggests, giving the blogger’s opinion of every Dylan song. This link takes you to his review of Days of 49.

And the next road takes us to?

North:  Oh! Susanah by Neil Young & Crazy Horse
East:     Rambling, Gambling Willy by Bob Dylan. (Yes, I know)
South:  Santy Anno – has sailed away.
West:   Nashville Blues by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and others.

What's your vote: