The Byrds’ Top 25 Songs: #18, “The Bells of Rhymney”

“The Bells of Rhymney” (3:30)
Written by Idris Davies and Pete Seeger
Produced by Terry Melcher
From “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Columbia, June 21, 1965

For song #18 in our Byrds’ Top 25 Songs countdown, we go all the way back to the band’s 1965 debut album, “Mr. Tambourine Man.” With that LP, the Byrds introduced a new genre to the pop music scene by combining Bob Dylan folk and Lennon-McCartney rock ‘n’ roll to create “folk-rolk.”

In addition to its same-named, chart-topping #1 single, the album included many excellent tunes, including a couple of protest songs, Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom” and “The Bells of Rhymney.” Protest songs were a standard in the folk category and made the transition to folk-rock.

Folk singer and member of the American Communist Party, Pete Seeger, had adapted Welsh poet, Idris Davies’ Gwalia Deserta (“Wasteland of Wales”), a lament about miners toiling in unsafe mining operations throughout Wales, into a general critique of greedy and remorseless capitalists.* The Byrds adapted Seeger’s protest song into one of their best early tunes. Jim (later Roger) McGuinn, the band’s lead guitarist, was already familiar with the song after having previously arranged it for folk singer, Judy Collins, on her third album, “Judy Collins 3” (1964).

The jingle-jangle of McGuinn’s twelve-string Rickenbacker is front and center on this tune, with David Crosby and Chris Hillman contributing the distinctive rhythm guitar and bass parts respectively. The band’s trademark complex harmony singing is also on display (Crosby interjects his high harmonies in the last half of the song). A music critic captured it perfectly by noting that the band’s rendition of “The Bells of Rhymney” “managed to craft the dour subject matter into a radio-friendly pop song without sacrificing the song’s haunting message.” It didn’t occur to me until I wrote this post, that McGuinn’s chiming electric Rick evokes the peals of the church bells of the Welsh towns in mourning after a mining disaster.

Frivolous trivia: 1) The Beatles’ George Harrison would later send a grateful note to McGuinn, acknowledging that he “borrowed” the guitar riff from “Bells” for his excellent “If I Needed Someone” (listen here). 2) The correct pronunciation of Rhymney in Welsh is actually “Rhumney.”

Sad trivia: 439 miners and 1 rescuer died in the explosion and fire at the Senghenydd Colliery in the Rhymney Valley on October 14, 1913, the worst mining disaster in U.K. history.

* Postscript: I’m not sure how Communist Seeger squared Stalin’s Gulag with his laments about greedy capitalists.

16 thoughts on “The Byrds’ Top 25 Songs: #18, “The Bells of Rhymney”

  1. Another excellent write-up … for another excellent song! Love the Byrds’ jingly-jangly guitar, as well as the depth of this song. I like the tidbit you added about George Harrison and listened to the song again (I think “Rubber Soul” is a really good album).

    If this song was number 18, I can only imagine how good some of the others are (though I can guess a few of them). I’ll be very interested to see where you rate the most famous of the Byrds’ songs. Great job, Tom.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks a lot, David! Much appreciated. I really enjoyed “The Bells of Rhymney,” an excellent song on an excellent album. There was definitely a bit of interchange between the Beatles and Byrds back in those early years. Yup, Rubber Soul is a great album.

      The hits are definitely coming down the tracks. The Byrds surprisingly had “only” seven singles chart on the Billboard Top 40. However, two of those Top 40 tunes didn’t make my Top 25 list because they’re not personal favorites.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The dam broke after completing the dull IFB book. I actually have more couch/reading time while tackling the leaves because when I’m done dragging tarps the only thing I’m capable of doing is sitting on the couch. Ironic.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading and listening! Yes, a lot of history in this song. I imagine the mining disaster at Senghenydd/Rhymney was a rallying cry for U.K. socialists and communists for decades. I looked at Senghenydd and Rhymney via Google Earth and saw a large memorial to the dead miners near the remains of the abandoned Senghenydd mine. There were also several open strip mines in the area. You listened twice?!?!? Glad you enjoyed it!

      Liked by 1 person

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