Ballad of Donald White

Things Twice
This is a comprehensive three-part post to
about the Ballad of Donald White, including the lyrics, how it come to be
written, the source of the tune and other background information.

Originally compiled: January 31, 1997

From: Man of Peace (
Subject: Ballad of Donald White
Date: Wed, 10 Apr 1996 08:06:10 GMT

Following the death of Canadian folksong collector Edith Fowke this month (further info in, I decided to elaborate a little bit on Dylan's "Ballad of Donald White" and its folksong source, the Canadian "Peter Emberly".

Dylan's song can be found on three tapes, the Cynthia Gooding tape of Feb/Mar 1962 (which, unfortunately, I haven't heard yet), the May 1962 Broadside Show on WBAI-FM, and the 2nd McKenzie's tape from either Sep/Oct 1962 (HEYLIN, Stolen Moments, p. 26) or Apr 1963 (KROGSGAARD, Master of the Tracks, No. 40, p. 38).

In view of the set-list of this last tape (and comparing it, for example, to that of the Apr 12, 1963 Town Hall concert), I tend to second Heylin's dating of this tape rather than Krogsgaard's.

The May 1962 Broadside Show version of the song is the most readily available, appearing on the 1972 Folkways release "BROADSIDE REUNION" (FOLKWAYS FR 5315), sung by "Blind Boy Grunt."

The complete show is available on tape and has the following songs (Corrections more than welcome):

Benny 'Kid' Paret (GIL TURNER) / Ballad Of Donald White (BOB DYLAN) (*) / I Can See A New Day (PETE SEEGER) / Billy Sol (?) (FRAGMENT) (PETE SEEGER) / The Shelter Song (?) (GIL TURNER) / The Death Of Emmett Till (BOB DYLAN)(*) / I Want To Go To Andorra (?) (PETE SEEGER) / Blowin' In The Wind (BOB DYLAN w/PETE SEEGER, GIL TURNER, & AGNES "SIS" CUNNINGHAM, backing vcls)


On the tape, the following dialogue is included:


I'd like to hear some of the songs that Bob Dylan's made up, because of all the people I heard in America, he seems to be the most prolific... Bob, do you make a song before breakfast every day, or before supper?

...I don't sit around and do... with the newspapers, like a lot of people do, spread newspapers all around and pick something out to write a song about it. It's usually right there in my head, before I start. That's the way I write. You know, it might be a bad approach... I don't even consider even writing songs. When I written it, I don't even consider that I wrote it when I got done.

Put it together?

Yeah, yeah... I just figure that I made it up, or I got it someplace... The song was there before me, before I came along. I just sorta came down and just sorta took it down with a pencil, but it was all there before I came around. That's the way I feel about it.

I feel about Bob Dylan's songs very often that Bob is actually a kind of folk mind that he represents to all the people around. And all the ideas current are just filtered down and come out in poetry. For example, one song he wrote about the fellow that asked to be put into an institution, what was his name -- White?

Oh yeah... Now, he's dead now.

He's dead now? For example, you put in one line, you say the institutions were overcrowded. And I just couldn't see that appearing in a traditional ballad stanza before you sang it. And it's actually the first song I could think of, a modern song, that uses the ideas of the 20th century Freudian psychology, the ideas of people being afraid of life, in actually a folk song.

Instead of talking about it, let's hear it.

That's what I was gonna say. Let him get tuned up while we're talking and we can let him give us an example of how these songs just sort of come to him and flow through him.

Well, I think this particular song is historical in the sense that it's the first psychological song of the modern generation I've heard.

I took this from Bonnie Dobson's tune, "Peter Amberly", I think the name of it is....

  (from "Highway 61 Interactive" lyrics database)
  (Words and Music by Bob Dylan)
  (c) 1962 Special Rider Music
  (c) Renewed 1990 Special Rider Music

  My name is Donald White, you see,
  I stand before you all.
  I was judged by you a murderer
  And the hangman's knot must fall.   
  I will die upon the gallows pole
  When the moon is shining clear,
  And these are my final words
  That you will ever hear.
  I left my home in Kansas
  When I was very young,
  I landed in the old Northwest,
  Seattle, Washington
  Although I'd a-traveled many miles,
  I never made a friend,
  For I could never get along in life
  With people that I met.
  If I had some education
  To give me a decent start,
  I might have been a doctor or
  A master in the arts.
  But I used my hands for stealing
  When I was very young,
  And they locked me down in jailhouse cells,
  That's how my life begun.
  Oh, the inmates and the prisoners,
  I found they were my kind,
  And it was there inside the bars
  I found my peace of mind.
  But the jails they were too crowded,
  Institutions overflowed,
  So they turned me loose to walk upon
  Life's hurried tangled road.
  And there's danger on the ocean
  Where the salt sea waves split high,
  And there's danger on the battlefield
  Where the shells of bullets fly,
  And there's danger in this open world
  Where men strive to be free,
  And for me the greatest danger
  Was in society.
  So I asked them to send me back
  To the institution home.
  But they said they were too crowded,
  For me they had no room.
  I got down on my knees and begged,
  "Oh, please put me away,"
  But they would not listen to my plea
  Or nothing I would say.
  And so it was on Christmas eve
  In the year of '59,
  It was on that night I killed a man,
  I did not try to hide,
  The jury found me guilty
  And I won't disagree,
  For I knew that it would happen
  If I wasn't put away.
  And I'm glad I've had no parents
  To care for me or cry,
  For now they will never know
  The horrible death I die.
  And I'm also glad I've had no friends
  To see me in disgrace,
  For they'll never see that hangman's hood
  Wrap around my face.
  Farewell unto the old north woods
  Of which I used to roam,
  Farewell unto the crowded bars
  Of which've been my home,
  Farewell to all you people
  Who think the worst of me,
  I guess you'll feel much better when
  I'm on that hanging tree.
  But there's just one question
  Before they kill me dead,
  I'm wondering just how much
  To you I really said
  Concerning all the boys that come
  Down a road like me,
  Are they enemies or victims
  Of your society?  

In his article "Bob Dylan -- a new voice singing new songs" from "Sing Out!" (Oct/Nov 1962), reprinted in "The Dylan Companion", edited by Elizabeth Thomson & David Gutman (London: Papermac, 1991), Gil Turner paraphrases Dylan's statements from the WBAI-FM Broadside show:

While Bob is a noteworthy folk performer with a bright future, I believe his most significant and lasting contribution will be in the songs he writes. Dylan avoids the terms "write" or "compose" in connection with his songs. "The songs are there. They exist all by themselves, just waiting for someone to write them down. I just put them down on paper. If I didn't do it, somebody else would." His method of writing places the emphasis on the words, the tune almost always being borrowed or adapted from one he has heard somewhere, usually a traditional one. I remember the first night he heard the tune he used for the "Ballad of Donald White." It was in Bonnie Dobson's version of the "Ballad of Peter Amberly." He heard the tune, liked it, made a mental record of it and a few days later "Donald White" was complete. About this song, Dylan says: "I'd seen Donald White's name in a Seattle paper in about 1959. It said he was a killer. The next time I saw him was on a television set. My gal Sue said I'd be interested in him so we went and watched... Donald White was sent home from prisons and institutions 'cause they had no room. He asked to be sent back 'cause he couldn't find no room in life. He murdered someone 'cause he couldn't find no room in life. Now they killed him 'cause he couldn't find no room in life. They killed him and when they did I lost some of my room in life. When are some people gonna wake up and see that sometimes people aren't really their enemies but their victims?"
(THOMSON, p. 65) The folksong source for Dylan's "Ballad of Donald White", can be found as No. 27 in the late Edith Fowke's "Penguin Book of Canadian Folk Songs" (1973), pp. 72-73, and in Digital Tradition (filename PTRMBRLY; play.exe PTRMBRLY):


My name 'tis Peter Emberley, as you may understand.
I was born on Prince Edward's lsland near by the ocean strand.
ln eighteen hundred and eighty-four when the flowers were a brilliant hue
I left my native counterie my fortune to pursue.

I landed in New Brunswick in a lumbering counterie,
I hired to work in the lumber woods on the Sou-West Miramichi.
I hired to work in the lumber woods where they cut the tall spruce down
While loading teams with yarded logs I received a deadly wound.

There's danger on the ocean where the waves roll mountain high,
There's danger on the battlefield where the angry bullets fly.
There's danger in the lumber woods, for death lurks sullen there,
And I have fell a victim into that monstrous snare.

I know my luck seems very hard since fate has proved severe,
But victor death is the worst can come and I have no more to fear.
And he'll allay those deadly pains and liberate me soon.
And I'll sleep the long and lonely sleep called slumber in the tomb.

Here's adieu to Prince Edward's lsland, that garden in the seas,
No more I'll walk its flowery banks to enjoy a summer's breeze.
No more I'll view those gallant ships as they go swimming by,
With their streamers floating on the breeze above the canvas high.

Here's adieu unto my father, it was him who drove me here.
I thought he used me cruelly, his treatments were unfair.
For 'tis not right to oppress a boy or try to keep him down.
'Twill oft repulse him from his home whcn he is far too young.

Here's adieu unto my greatest friend, I mean my mother dear,
She raised a son who fell as soon as he left her tender care.
'Twas little did my mother know when she sang lullaby,
What country I might travel in or what death I might die.

Here's adieu unto my youngest friend, those island girls so true.
Long may they bloom to grace that isle where first my breath I drew.
For the world will roll on just the same when I have passed away,
What signifies a mortal man whose origin is clay?

But there's a world beyond the tomb, to it I'm nearing on.
Where man is more than mortal, and death can never come.
The mist of death it glares my eyes and I'm no longer here,
My spirit takes its final flight unto another sphere.

And now before I pass away there is one more thing I crave,
That some good holy father will bless my mouldering grave.
Near by the city of Boiestown where my mouldering bones do lay.
A-waiting for my saviour's call on that great Judgement Day.

Edith Fowke remarks:
This tale of the young man from Prince Edward Island who was fatally injured in the Miramichi woods when a log rolled on him is the favourite ballad of New Brunswick. John Calhoun, one of the men who drove the injured lad down to his employer's home, described his fate in these verses, and a local singer, Abraham Munn, set them to and old Irish tune that has served for many songs both in Ireland and North America... The song is well known along the east coast... and it has also spread to Ontario.
(p. 200)

Not only Dylan seems to have been inspired by this song (most notably by the third verse "There's danger..."). Gil Turner, in his song "Benny 'Kid' Paret" (also included on the complete May 1962 WBAI-FM Broadside show tape) also quotes and paraphrases the same stanza:
There's danger on the ocean where the waves roll mountain high
There's danger on the battlefield where angry bullets fly.
There's danger in the boxing ring for death is waiting there
Watching for a killing through the hot and smoky air

" (BROADSIDE No. 4, Mid-April 1962, reprinted in liner-notes for "Broadside", BR 301, 1963).

The topic of the song (the death of Cuban boxer Benny 'Kid' Paret) is obviously related to that of Dylan's "Who Killed Davey Moore?" (Apr 1963; Heylin, "Stolen Moments") and Gil Turner's imagery and choice of words in one stanza is, in my opinion, rather close to that of Dylan's "Long Ago, Far Away" (copyrighted Dec 4, 1962; Heylin, "Stolen Moments"):

You've heard about our Romans, long many years ago
Crowding big arenas just to see the slaves' blood flow
There's been lots of changes since those days and now we're civilized
Our gladiators kill with gloves instead of swords and knives.

But that's a different subject...

The television show which inspired Bob Dylan to write "The Ballad of Donald White" (rather than his somewhat doubtful claim of having read about Donald White as early as 1959 in a Seattle newspaper) is identified in Scaduto's biography:

Sue Zuckerman, who occasionally slept over in the apartment on Fourth Street with Suze and Bob, recalls watching television with them one night (February 12, 1962). The program was about crime and capital punishment -- a film called "A Volcano Named White." A 24-year-old black man was sitting in his prison cell in Texas talking about his life, its oppression, his cries for help that were ignored, until he finally killed somebody and was now waiting to be executed. "Bobby just got up at one point," Miss Zuckerman says, "and he went off in the corner and started to write. He just started to write, while the show was still on, and the next thing I knew he had this song written, Donald White."

Suze Rotolo: "Donald White was only partly a journalistic approach. Dylan was perceptive. He felt. He didn't read or clip the papers and refer to it later, as you would write a story, or as other songwriters might do it. With Dylan it was not that conscious journalistic approach. It was more poetical. It was all intuitive, on an emotional level. Not as a newspaper rewriteman, although it may have on occasion seemed that way. It was more than just writing, it was more like something flowing out of him."

(p. 116 of the Apr 1973 British Abacus edition)

Further printed references to "Ballad of Donald White":

Sy and Barbara Ribakove, "Folk-Rock: The Bob Dylan Story" (1966), p. 42 (basically just a condensation of Gil Turner's "Sing Out" article; cf. part 1 of this thread)

Terry Alexander Gans, "What's Real And What Is Not" (1983), p. 82 (quotes "danger on the ocean" stanza, mentions first-person narrative technique, topical songs of protest versus 'Dylan's concern with the death of an individual'). Gans concludes: 'Dylan's compassion is still oriented toward individual suffering; and though the suffering is now in the hands of society rather than in the hands of God, or a woman, it is still individual rather than societal.'

Paul Williams, "Bob Dylan - Performing Artist 1960-1973", p. 44-47 of the 1991 British Xanadu edition (quotes extensively from the May 1962 WBAI-FM Broadside show tape, but dismisses the performance of "Ballad of Donald White" as 'rather lacklustre.')

- Man of Peace

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