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  • Polly Wilde

Black Songs Matter - Dink's song

A huge and oft-neglected part of my work is in song research, my memory for facts and dates is rubbish so I have to get all the info I need written down and at my disposal for when I teach. Teaching folk song means that the research is often convoluted and I often end up on a different continent, in a different time period to the one I started at. I did not expect what I found this time.


The song I have chosen for my weekend's workshop in the woods is Grey Funnel Line. A song that seems old as the hills and steeped in British sensibility. The song was written in 1959 by Cyril Tawney, which is lucky since we have Cyrils actual words about the song, and an exact date, telling us it was part of the folk revival, rather than a ye olde folk song like for eg The Cuckoo.


Cyril had a lot to say but one thing stuck out for me:

"The words of verse two had actually been written as far back as 1953. I was on the aircraft carrierIndefatigableand I'd bought a book of American folk songs collected by the Lomaxes. I particularly liked a short N*g£o (my adjustment) lament called simply Dink's Song, after the woman who sang it. Her words began ‘If I had wings like Norah's dove, I'd fly up the river to the man I love, fare thee well, oh honey, fare thee well’. I started to sing it on the Indefat. but I adapted it to ‘If I had wings like Noah's dove, I'd fly up harbour to the girl I love, fare thee well, oh honey, fare thee well" (From Cyrils now defunct website, gosh I'm glad someone saved these words!).


So...Dink's song hey?...never satisfied, I had to know more about Dink's song, who was Dinks? Well, she was a Black woman, who, according to sources, at the time of Lomax recording this song was washing her husbands' clothes in a workers tent camp near Texas...the song importantly tells the story of a woman who's lover has deserted her when she needed him the most...as in shes preggers and he's done a runner.


So this song does have deeper, further back history after all, all be it one line.


So I thought, I wonder if anyone has recorded this song, Dink's song...beyond Lomax, a white man, who wrote it down in approximated African American Vernacular English. Well yes... quite a few other white men have recorded it, made money off it (more likely the producers, not the musicians). And Dink's... it's very unlikely she got more than a thank you for her song, which she could well have written.


This is first class cultural appropriation, a black woman sings a song, which is recorded and written down as an approximation by a white man and then passed to another white man, who takes the line, pops it in his song which becomes a classic British 'folk' song.


Phewph, it's a lot to digest and Grey Funnel Line is still an excellent song, but Dink's song deserves some of that credit, Dink's deserves some of that credit. She deserved a lot more, but she's not here now, so as we sing this Sunday we will learn about and honour Dink's beautiful words laid in amongst Cyrils. Here is Dink's song alongside Grey Funnel line.


Dink's song

If I had wings like Noah's dove,

I'd fly up da river to the man I love.

Fare thee well, O Honey, fare thee well.

(note that this says Noah, and the above says Norah...I'd have to get the book to confirm)


Ise got a man, an' he's long and tall,

Moves his body like a cannonball.

Fare thee well, O Honey, fare thee well.


One o' dese days, an' it won't be long,

Call my name an' I'll be gone.

Fare thee well, O Honey, fare thee well.


'Member one night, a-drizzlin' rain,

Roun' my heart I felt a pain.

Fare thee well, O Honey, fare thee well.


When I wo' my ap'ons low,

Couldn't keep you from my do'.

Fare thee well, O Honey, fare thee well.


Now I wears my ap'ons high,

Sca'cely ever see you passin' by.

Fare thee well, O Honey, fare thee well.


Now my ap'ons up to my chin,

You pass my do' an' you won' come in,

Fare thee well, O Honey, fare thee well.


Ef I had listened to whut my mama said,

I'd be at home in my mama's bed.

Fare thee well, O Honey, fare thee well.


Grey Funnel Line

Don't mind the rain or the rolling sea, The weary night never worries me. But the hardest time in sailor's day Is to watch the sun as it dies away.     It's one more day on the Grey Funnel Line.


The finest ship that sailed the sea Is still a prison for the likes of me. But give me wings like Noah's dove, I'd fly up harbour to the girl I love.     It's one more day on the Grey Funnel Line.


There was a time my heart was free Like a floating spar on the open sea. But now the spar is washed ashore, It comes to rest at my real love's door.     It's one more day on the Grey Funnel Line.


Every time I gaze behind the screws Makes me long for old Peter's shoes. I'd walk right down that silver lane And take my love in my arms again.     It's one more day on the Grey Funnel Line.


Oh Lord, if dreams were only real I'd have my hands on that wooden wheel. And with all my heart I'd turn her round And tell the boys that we're homeward bound.     It's one more day on the Grey Funnel Line.


I'll pass the time like some machine Until blue water turns to green. Then I'll dance on down that walk ashore And sail the Grey Funnel Line no more.     And sail the Grey Funnel Line no more.


© Cyril Tawney 1959


This is first-class cultural appropriation, a black woman sings a song, which is recorded and written down as an approximation by a white man and then passed to another white man, who takes the line, pops it in his song which becomes a classic British 'folk' song.

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