Jim Jones (1992) – Bob Dylan

Jim Jones is my joint favourite song from Dylan’s 1992 record Good as I Been To You. Canadee I-O which has already featured here is my other favourite from his cover versions of old mainly 19th Century folklore ballads. The difference with this one is it is steeped in the colonial-history of my home country – Australia. As I wrote in that Canadee I-O article below; the same could be said for my appreciation of the Jim Jones version by Dylan:

When I hear it, I can’t help but sing it at the top of my lungs. I so admire Dylan for unearthing these old 19th century English (Australia in this case) ballads that would otherwise remain dust-ridden in some old folk collection and giving them his signature acoustic sound. He really does them enormous justice and his guitar playing is brash, but entirely unique and incapable of replication.

The storytelling in this remarkable traditional Australian folk ballad ‘Jim Jones at Botany Bay‘ which dates from the early 19th-century immerses me like none other in my country’s early – white settlement history.

Come and listen for a moment, lads
And hear me tell my tale
How across the sea from England
I was condemned to sail
Now the jury found me guilty
Then says the judge, says he
“Oh, for life, Jim Jones, I’m sending you
Across the stormy sea
But take a tip before you ship
To join the iron gang
Don’t get too gay in Botany Bay
Or else you’ll surely hang
Or else you’ll surely hang,” says he
“And after that, Jim Jones
It’s high above on the gallows tree
The crows will pick your bones.”

From the Wikipedia article below: The narrator, Jim Jones, is found guilty of poaching and sentenced to transportation to the penal colony of New South Wales. En route, his ship is attacked by pirates, but the crew holds them off. When the narrator remarks that he would rather have joined the pirates or indeed drowned at sea than gone to Botany Bay, Jones is reminded by his captors that any mischief will be met with the whip. In the final verse, Jones describes the daily drudgery and degradation of life as a convict in Australia, and dreams of joining the bushrangers (escaped convicts turned outlaws) and taking revenge on his floggers.

This is a silly personal account I can relate here. When my class were on excursion to Botany Bay (a little south of Sydney) back in the 80’s I found washed up on the shores a piece off old wood which had fungi and moss growing on it. I declared to the class, that this rare artefact was in fact from one of the convict boats that arrived in Botany Bay during colonisation. I wanted to believe it and hoped others did as well even if it was for a few seconds.

Australian folklorists such as Bill Scott date the song’s composition to the years immediately preceding 1830 when bushranger Jack Donahue, who is named in the song, was fatally shot by troopers. The oldest surviving written version of the ballad is found in Old Pioneering Days in the Sunny South (1907), a book of reminiscences by Charles McAlister, a pioneer who drove bullock teams in southern-eastern New South Wales in the 1840s. According to folklorist A. L. Lloyd, “Jim Jones at Botany Bay” may have been lost to history had McAlister not included it in his book.

Apart from the studio version below, there is a lovely live version here where Dylan’s acoustic guitar work is on another level.

1. Jim Jones at Botany Bay – Wikipedia

“The more I live, the more I learn. The more I learn, the more I realize, the less I know.”- Michel Legrand

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