Milwaukee Record is proud to present Public Domain. The monthly video series features Milwaukee musicians setting up at Colectivo Coffee to adapt some of the world’s best-known songs in ways they’ve never been heard before. Watch the entire series here.
As is the case with many public domain songs, the origin of “Dink’s Song” (also known as “Fare Thee Well”) is unclear. However, the first recording is nothing short of historic. In 1909, renowned ethnomusicologist John Lomax happened upon a woman singing as she washed clothing in a riverbank outside of Houston. When he heard this woman—who went by the name “Dink”—singing her mournful and longing song for a lost love, he decided to capture it on tape.
Ever since Lomax published “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)” in 1934, the song has taken many forms. It’s been featured in African-American music anthologies. It was included in the 1946 Gary Cooper film, Cloak And Dagger, and both 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis as well as in two different version on the film’s soundtrack. Along the way, it’s been covered by the likes of Jeff Buckley, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Burl Ives, The Punch Brothers, Carolyn Hester, and hundreds upon hundreds of other musicians.
Perhaps the most notable version of “Dink’s Song” is that of ’60s folk singer Dave Von Ronk, whose strained and sore vocals add to the century-old song’s overriding sense of melancholy and loss. Milwaukee’s own Trapper Schoepp used his extensive background on the song’s history and Van Ronk’s influence as his launching point for his version. In addition to Van Ronk’s labored “well,” Schoepp incorporated horns and a flute to bring out the celebrated composition’s most mournful qualities.
Quoting Dylan, Schoepp says, “Folk music is a line.” He adds, “It gives people an opportunity to put their own spin on something.” Though his source material was initially documented close to 110 years prior and his take on it pays homage to another singer, Schoepp’s rendition is a gorgeous continuation of a song that exists to be passed on down that line.