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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Ye canny spend a dollar when ye’re deid

In 1962, Folkways Records, founded and run by Moses Asch, released a rather unlikely recording entitled “Ding Dong Dollar: Anti-Polaris and Scottish Republican Songs.”  Each Folkways recording has a story behind it, and this recording is no exception.  The physical document of the album and notes to Folkways 5444 do not shed much light on that story, but an examination of the correspondence in the Moses and Frances Asch Collection  clarify the interesting background of this recording.

I was led to investigate “Ding Dong Dollar” in our archives because of its connections to my graduate research in folk music at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Scottish Studies under the guidance of the late Hamish Henderson (1919-2002).  Henderson is considered by many to be the “father" of the Scottish folk revival.  Based at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Scottish Studies for much of his working life, his influence as a poet, writer, folklorist, collector, singer, songwriter, and activist is monumental, both in Scotland and beyond. 

I spoke to many singers who came up through the folk revival in Glasgow in the 1950s and 1960s.  Many interviews and conversations helped me piece together an anecdotal history of the Ding Dong Dollar songs, which had their roots in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament or C.N.D. which was founded in 1958.

The key figure in the coordination and organization of the singers at rallies and demonstrations was the late Morris Blythman (1919-1981): a schoolteacher, poet, political songwriter and sloganmaker, internationalist, anti-royalist, and Scottish nationalist.  Blythman became very involved with the C.N.D. as the American military presence in Scotland increased toward the end of the 1950s, and the American submarine Proteus arrived in the Holy Loch in 1961.  This stimulated Blythman and others to write new political protest songs in what Blythman called a workshop fashion, and to gather groups of young folksingers to sing at protest rallies and demonstrations.

Scottish folk singers protest the presence of Polaris missiles in the Holy Loch while on board 
a ferry between Dunoon and Gourock, September 1961.  Josh MacRae is on the left playing 
the banjo, Morris Blythman is adjacent at center, and Nigel Denver is bottom center right.

The anti nuclear songs in Scotland owed much to the American songs of protest and performers who had been touring there such as Pete Seeger, a fact freely acknowledged by Blythman, Henderson and others involved with the song movement.  With conscious irony, some American tunes were used to carry the anti Polaris songs. "Ban Polaris Hallelujah!" was set to "John Brown's Body",  "Paper Hankies" was set to "Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and the eponymous song “Ding Dong Dollar,” originally called “Dollaris,” was set to “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain.”  The words were mostly in Scots, the indigenous language of Lowland Scotland.  Here’s the catchy refrain in the song “Ding Dong Dollar”: “Singin Ding Dong Dollar, everybody holler, Ye canny spend a dollar when ye’re deid.”  (You can’t spend a dollar when you’re dead.)

The anti Polaris songs were published in several
editions as a booklet entitled Ding Dong Dollar by the Glasgow Song Guild, which was, in fact, Morris Blythman and his singers. The booklets were sold for 6 pence and were widely distributed at demonstrations and rallies where the songs were sung.


Moses Asch first wrote to Blythman in November, 1961 to ask about the possibility of putting out a recording of the Ding Dong Dollar songs.  It was through the interest and suggestion of Pete Seeger, who had heard and liked the songs in his Scottish travels, that Asch put forth the query.  Thus began several months of collaboration between Morris Blythman and Hamish Henderson to prepare the content for the Folkways recording.


In January 1962, Henderson wrote to Moses Asch, saying that some new recordings of the songs were en route to Folkways, and he comments: “The more we read of the present political and cultural set-up in the USA, the more admiration we feel for your willingness to publish a DING DONG DOLLAR disc.”





In early March, 1962, Blythman wrote to Asch summarizing the various materials provided by himself and Henderson for the recording. The recording came out in April, 1962.

One of the hallmarks of the recording is the anonymity of the credits.  Both Blythman and Henderson wanted it that way because of the popular, group-created nature of the songs.  Henderson wrote the liner notes, and one of his now best known songs, "The Freedom Come All Ye",  was recorded for the first time on the Ding Dong Dollar album, with no attribution to him. 

Over the years, I have run into other people who were involved with the Ding Dong Dollar songs, and are very proud of the role the songs played in the anti-nuclear/ pro-peace movement.  The songs are bitingly funny, and though they are cultural artifacts of the early 1960s protest movement in Scotland, they still resonate today.


Stephanie Smith, Visual Materials Archivist
Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections



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