In March 1961, the U.S. Navy opened a base in Scotland, following a request from President Eisenhower to British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. Macmillan’s November 1960 announcement about the base in the House of Commons triggered great controversy, not just in Parliament but across Britain. It boosted Britain’s peace movement bodies. It triggered strong reactions in Scotland, particularly in Glasgow, then Scotland’s most populous city and third most populous in the United Kingdom.
Less expectedly, it also triggered Ding Dong Dollar, a collaborative songwriting project and the world’s first suite of anti-nuclear weapon protest music. The songs mostly focused on opposing Polaris nuclear missiles, launchable from U.S. submarines based at the Holy Loch on the River Clyde near Dunoon, Scotland, just thirty miles from Glasgow. Their name came from the titular song’s apocalyptic chorus: “Ye canny spend a dollar when ye’re deid.”
Twenty-five of their songs were publicly known at the time from recordings or songbooks, but our research has revealed that the team wrote more than fifty. At least fourteen people contributed to the songwriting, at least thirteen to the recording, and more to the protest singing. While Ding Dong Dollar is a piece of Scottish history, we believe it as also an American story.
The leader of the songwriting team, Morris Blythman, a language teacher at a Glasgow high school, always said that political songs could not be created in a vacuum; they needed an event to trigger them. Polaris was the trigger. In addition to Polaris, their songs targeted President Kennedy, the White House, Captain R.B. Laning (commander of the first depot ship at the Holy Loch, the Proteus), Wall Street, and even Billy Graham, a then-recent Scottish visitor. All infused a sense of humor into their calls for action.
The team used several American tunes, including “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round The Mountain,” “I Shall Not Be Moved,” “John Brown’s Body,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and “Marching Through Georgia,” “Casey Jones,” “Mary Don’t You Weep,” and “Take a Whiff on Me,” partly for their melodic strength, recognizability, and “singability.” The tunes also offered something ear-catching for the U.S. Navy personnel: the mix of a familiar melody with unfamiliar words.
To the tune of “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” the chorus of “Paper Hankies” goes:
Chase the Yankees oot the Clyde,
Away wi Uncle Sammy;
Chase the Yankees oot the Clyde
An send them hame tae mammy.
“Ban Polaris—Hallelujah!” takes the tune of “John Brown’s Body”:
When Dunoon folk breathe atomic dust
and drink the strontium waste,
They’ll hae clever deils for bairnies,
Like the fish that soom in the Holy Loch
the first three-Ieggit race,
Send the Yankees hame.
Among the Ding Dong Dollar repertoire was a single song of U.S. origin: “Old Man Atom,” penned by American journalist Vern Partlow, made famous by Pete Seeger as “Talking Atom” and by Sam Hinton as “Talking Atomic Blues.” While working for the Los Angeles Daily News, Partlow interviewed scientists about nuclear weapons and was horrified by what he learned. His thought-provoking yet catchy song became popular but in 1950 fell afoul of the Joint Committee Against Communism, killing the song’s commercial prospects. Partlow was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and ultimately lost his job.
So the moral is this, just as plain as day,
That Old Man Atom is here to stay.
He’s gonna stick around, that’s clear as sea
But, ah, my dearly beloved, are we?
So listen, folks, here is my thesis:
“Peace in the world, or the world in pieces!”
Soon after the group took shape, they began recording and disseminating their work. Kenneth Goldstein—a folklorist, record producer, and colleague of songwriter Hamish Henderson—was the first in the United States to possess recordings of the Ding Dong Dollar songs.
Canadian broadcaster Edith Fowke heard the tape and shared it with Pete Seeger while he was in Quebec. In a letter to Henderson, Fowke described how Seeger was so impressed that he immediately began transcribing the songs so he could learn to play them too. Seeger also wrote to Henderson—so quickly that it was addressed from Quebec—offering to help get the songs published in the United States.
Fowke arranged for Moses Asch, founder of Folkways Records, to hear the “Goldstein tape,” suggesting he release an album of Ding Dong Dollar songs. Seeger—already an artist on the Folkways label—also encouraged Asch to consider an album. In November 1961, Asch wrote to Blythman, offering $100 for their recordings and notes explaining the background to the songs.
Blythman responded, asking for more money, but Asch said his offer was all he could afford. They were at an impasse until, on his own initiative, Seeger wrote from his home in upstate New York to Blythman in Glasgow in January 1962, offering his own money to ensure that an album was released. Seeger’s offer broke the deadlock. Folkways issued Ding Dong Dollar: Anti-Polaris and Scottish Republican Songs in the United States in April 1962.
Our research found that the album was an unexpected strong seller for Folkways, despite the fact that the songs and musicians were unknown in the United States, nor did they ever perform in the United States. It may have helped that Seeger persuaded both Broadside and Sing Out! (then less politically focused)—the two leading folksong magazines—to publish Ding Dong Dollar songs throughout 1962.
“Ding Dong Dollar” was published in Folksinger’s Wordbook (1973), edited by Fred and Irwin Silber, another longtime Folkways associate. In the 1980s, there was a songbook titled Ding Dong Dollar, although we’ve been unable to trace a copy. More recently, in 2015, the Rise Again Songbook, edited by Peter Blood and Annie Patterson, contains “Freedom,” reworked from Scots into English, with explanatory notes. Of course, the album and original liner notes—including the song lyrics and a highly entertaining 900-word essay—are available online from Smithsonian Folkways. In 2011, archivist Stephanie Smith researched the album for an article in Smithsonian Folkways Magazine.
In conclusion, we feel that Ding Dong Dollar is significant today for several reasons. The songs reached both superpowers of the day: the United States and the USSR—Russian translations were printed in a newspaper and magazine, and there were live performances in Moscow. The project made an unprecedented contribution to the Scottish folk music revival, and one song, Hamish Henderson's “The Freedom Come-All-Ye,” is widely regarded as the best new song of the revival. And, contrary to expectations of topical songs, our research shows that Ding Dong Dollar songs are still sung today.
Stewart Black is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at Stirling University, Scotland. Bill Wagman is a presenter of folk music on KDRT and KDVS in Davis, California.
This article draws on research which is almost complete and ready for book publication. It expands on a presentation at the Smithsonian, “Ding Dong Dollar – Then And Now,” on May 10, 2019, as part of the Smithsonian Year of Music.