Dark As A Dungeon


Jon says, “Another FSC campfire number although I’m not sure who wrote it. I love the line ‘like a fiend for his dope or the drunkard his wine’

I think that line instantly gives it a modern feel, but even so the surprise (for me anyway) answer as to the composer’s identity is Merle Travis who also wrote 16 Tons. I confess to knowing very little about him and although he came from a mining family, I’d suggest the note by Peter Kennedy on Mainly Norfolk that “he is himself a miner”, is probably wide of the mark. Whether Merle was trying to claim that background as this song became a staple of the folk revival is I suppose possible, although chinese whispers is the more likely root of the statement. More interesting is Hedy West’s note about Merle’s conversation with a miner and indicates Merle’s genuine identification with that community he grew up in. He seems to be a character none the less and Merle Fest is a whole American annual event in his honour. His Wiki entry has him as a highly influential guitarist too, with both Chet Atkins and Scotty Moore in his debt. Another name for the ‘investigate at a later date’ file, but let’s face it I’m going to need a whole extra life to get through that one.
You can buy the January digital album now from all good download stores.


39 Responses to “Dark As A Dungeon”

  1. muzza(s.e.England) says:

    Cor blimey guvnor…………this takes me back to my old Skiffle days…we used to thrash this out on guitar/washboard/jug/tea chest….tune sounds a bit different though.

  2. Tim Walters says:

    On Travis’ original recording, his spoken introduction says that he wrote it after talking to a miner, not that he was one.

    Travis also wrote “Nine Pound Hammer” and “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette,” as well as many other brilliant but less well-known songs; has a guitar style (“Travis picking”) named after him; was instrumental in the invention of the tremolo bar; and, I’m told, was a good cartoonist. Essential listening, Americana division. Check this picking out:


    And here’s a great song called “Too Much Sugar For A Dime”:

  3. Adam says:

    I think you’ll find that Merle Fest is actually so named in honor of Doc Watson’s son Merle, not for Mr Travis.

  4. Tim Walters says:

    But then Merle Watson was himself named after Merle Travis.

  5. Jerry Simon says:

    Again! You line up a song to add to your repertoire for singing in Sheffield – and Jon does it on AFSAD before you get it out. And if you then debut it shortly after, what does everyone think? Grumble grumble.

  6. John Biggs says:

    Another stroll down Memory La. We used to belt this out (for obvious reasons) in the back room of the Hunter’s Lodge in The Mendip Hills after days caving, back in the 60’s. One of the few songs from those sessions that is actually printable ! I do’nt think we ever did it as good as Jon, but perhaps the beer had something to do with that.
    Incidentally, was’nt yesterdays ‘Kathleen’ a great favourite of the Irish tenor, Joseph Locke?

  7. Reinhard says:

    Jerry, you’ll just have to learn at least 366 songs. Then there is a fair chance that you’ll have a song not yet sung by Jon 🙂

  8. Simon says:

    Thanks for the link Tim some quality picking there and thanks also for the Merle Fest correction Adam.

  9. John Monk says:

    Just listened again to this since the latest song doesn’t seem to work. This is absolutely superb to my mind and a rousing performance. All the better for another listen!

  10. Clive Lake says:

    Merle Travis sings ‘Dark as the Dungeon’ on the influential 1971 Nitty Gritty Dirt Band double EMI America album “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”. Merle also plays ‘Cannonball Rag’, and is featured speaking on ‘Doc Watson & Merle Travis First Meeting (Dialogue)’.

  11. Maurice says:

    The best version of this I know is Guy Clark’s as seen on the 1995 Transatlantic Sessions. He also explains the writing in his intro. The idea that 3 great songs are written because of the need to produce an album rings true.

    John B I think the whole idea is to put stuff up to encourage people to use the songs.

    How can Jon not get Folksinger of the year at the awards?

  12. John Biggs says:

    Thank you for this link Maurice. An excellent rendering by Guy Clark, Aly Bain and co.
    Very reminiscent of the Hunter’s Lodge sessions ( I wish !)

  13. Jane Ramsden says:

    Cracking all round! – Song, singer, admin notes & informative commentary. A great one to end the last month on and I am so glad, belaTedly, to have caught up with the current month we are now all in! Just got that backlog now!

    Resoundingly sung, Jon! Thanks Skyman/Admin for leaving Dec/Jan songs on so I could catch up. The Completer-Finisher in me would have been sickened otherwise!

  14. Shrinag Ramsden says:

    Still stunning second time around! I prefer your version, Jon, but here’s a link to Merle Travis:


    Dolly Parton recorded it on her 9 to 5 album, Gordon Lightfoot when he was a Two Tone and Johnny Cash with his deep bass-baritone – amongst many others, of course.

  15. viv says:

    This has instantly transported me back to my junior school days. My teacher and her colleague were heavily into the folk revival in the late 1960’s. This is just one of many songs we were taught by a couple of young lads who used to come into school to sing with them and us. A captive young audience we were to!

  16. John Biggs (Welsh Marches) says:

    Second time round, and went back to the Guy Clark / Transatlantic Sessions link noted by Maurice (above) MARVELLOUS !!

  17. Diana says:

    Grim – I pity the poor miners, it is a dreadful Job. I have been down a mine or two and to see what working at the coal face was like – terrible.

  18. Diana says:

    How went it last night Reynard? Great I expect. Bellowhead were when I saw them.

  19. Muzza(NW Surrey.UK) says:

    Everybody likes this one….
    come on- there must be somebody out there that thinks it’s the pits!

  20. Reynard says:

    Diana, it was great craic ! It was very nearly Dark As a Dungeon in the venue which was aptly named Uebel & Gefährlich (Evil & Dangerous) but that fitted well with the music, a good 90 minutes of classing songs like The Rigs of St Pauli Town and Hamburg Girls, mixed with some furious tunes. You could even see a few punters slightly move their feet which is no easy feat for us dour North Germans. After the concert I could chat a bit with the guys and gal, and they are super friendly. And at the end I was glad to buy a Bellowhead bobble hat at the souvenir stand because Cold Blew the Wind outside at -12 Celsius.

  21. Diana says:

    I knew you would enjoy it Reynard, I like the title Uebel & Gefahrlich. They are a great group and I am glad you got to meet them. You can now add the bobble hat to your collection although I think you would have probably put it on your head if it was that cold outside. It’s not very warm here either. The snow has gone from here but the keen frost is back. I like the feet and feat – very good! You always get your moneys worth with the show a 90 minute one isn’t bad going.

  22. Diana says:

    Tedd how is cat-catching going? Where is the recalcitrant female now? If you manage to capture her and do the necessary, (which she will not like) I do hope you will get away uns-cat-hed. I found your link about the RBS man’s change of heart. Very gratifying for all us tax payers.

  23. Muzza(NW Surrey.UK) says:

    “The pits”….see what I did there…….nooooooo…….just me then!

  24. geri chair says:

    geri chair…

    […]Dark As A Dungeon « A Folk Song A Day[…]…

  25. Muzza (NW Surrey-UK) says:

    Ref the Folk awards….Congrats to Bellowhead and Nic Jones.

  26. Jane Ramsden says:

    Ditto, Muzza! I forgot to watch! Rats!

  27. Muzza (NW Surrey-UK) says:

    Diana…speak to us……or are you in high dungeon?

  28. Diana says:

    No here I am – been a little dilatory but catching up now.

    Congratulations to Bellowhead and commiserations to Sam.

  29. Muzza (NW Surrey-UK) says:

    @Diana……had to look in dictionary ref ‘dilatory’…
    glad I did…wiped the knowing smile I had on my face beforehand.

  30. Muzza (NW Surrey-UK) says:

    You lot all worry us when you go quiet

  31. Diana says:

    Still turn up most days and if I miss I do catch up soon after. Hear all the songs.
    How are you Muzza then – been a long winter hasn’t it but reckon spring is just around the corner. Which corner I do not know.

    Just what did you think dilatory meant? And why did it wipe a knowing smile off you face when you resorted to the dictionary?

    Still don’t envy miners their job.

  32. old Muzza (N.W.Surrey UK) says:

    Linda and I are still visiting………my- doesn’t time fly…………..Must get my ‘Only look on the bright side of life” onto Youtube before I pop my clogs!

  33. Linda says:

    February doesn’t seem to be getting through could it be we have finally come to the end….
    so sad if it has ….still.. grateful to Jon for opening doors which have led to some interesting finds and some lovely friendships….Listening to the new CD Ron and Bob Copper ..know more of the songs than I would have before AFSAD………
    @Muzza……. these dot are catching maybe we need to find the vests out……..

  34. Dave R says:

    Yep. The 2014/15 season started with Sheffield Apprentice on 1st Feb 2014. It leaves a small hole in my day.

    Many thanks.

  35. old Muzza (N.W.Surrey UK) says:

    Linda……don’t forget the socks…………….
    have faith Dave ……….the system has juddered to a stop several times in the past and then jolted back to life…………perhaps I’m clogging it up with all these dots Lindy loo!

  36. Linda says:

    Hoping for a jolt back to life.. mean while am using the archives ..

  37. Old Muzza (N.W.Surrey UK) says:

    Open sesame…NO
    Izzy whizzy let’s get busy…NO
    Drat….there must be some magic word to get the old AFSAD going again
    Does anybody know where Harry Potter lives?
    Meanwhile I’ll keep rubbing this lamp…

  38. Old Muzza (N.W.Surrey UK) says:

    Hey guys and gals…………if you are really desperate…you can select next day song from the archive and still hear it and ADD A COMMENT…..wey hey

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