“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.