‘Dink’s Song’ is an old American folk song. It’s sometimes called ‘Fare Thee Well’, which makes more sense when you listen to it than ‘Dink’s Song’. It gets its name because John Lomax, who studied folk music, first heard it sung by a woman named Dink in Texas in 1909. John’s son Alan first published the music in 1936, and it has since been performed by hundreds if not thousands of folk singers.
If you go to Youtube and search ‘Dink’s Song’ it looks like a who’s who of famous musicians, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Dave Van Ronk, Jeff Buckley, you name it, they’ve all sung it. I would guess you couldn’t spend an evening in a coffee shop in Greenwich Village from 1961 to 1969 without hearing it at least once.
Looking at my own collection of music, I’ve heard the song plenty, but it never really made an impression on me until I saw the movie ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’. The movie stars Oscar Isaac as the titular character. He is a jackass of a folk singer whose career isn’t going anywhere, and it documents his struggles, all entirely of his own making. It’s apparently loosely based on Dave Van Ronk’s book ‘The Mayor of MacDougal Street’. I fell in love with the movie immediately after seeing it for the first time, much to the chagrin of my wife who hates Oscar Isaac’s character in it, as does everyone he encounters in the movie itself.
Sometime after seeing the movie my brother gave me a CD of the soundtrack. It’s a wonderful album that features some old and some new versions of classic folk songs. Most of the album is made up of the songs Oscar Isaac sings in the movie, including two versions of ‘Dink’s Song’. One version is Isaac solo, taking from the movie performance. The other is Isaac and Marcus Mumford. That’s the version the got me.
It begins quietly, playing the main riff all the way through, then the voices join in harmony with the opening line ‘If I had wings like Noah’s dove’. The music slowly builds in intensity as the song rolls along, with the vocal harmonies continuing. There’s something extraordinarily pretty and delicate about the song in the early going that evolves into something much harder by the end. Not an angry hardness, but a defiant one. Given the songs lyrics, telling the tale of a woman abandoned, the way it flows and builds works perfectly.
A few years back my father, brother, and I took a trip out to Shelter Island, just off of Long Island in New York. There’s a summer camp and retreat center on the Island called Quinipet. When I was growing up, my father used to run the camp, along with a few others, as part of his job in the Methodist Church.
Many of the happiest memories of my youth take place at Quinipet. Not just during summer camps, but also just being there with my family. I learned to swim and ride a bike there. I couldn’t swear by it, but I think my brother had his first kiss there. Our summers used to be spent running around in the woods, walking along the beach, swimming in the sound, and climbing the rocks that sit at the center of the camp.
The rocks are central in most of my memories of the place. Each had a name carved into them; faith, courage, honesty, humility, and love. Quinipet is one of the places where I began to actually understand what those words really meant. The toughest of them to climb was the one named faith. There were two ways up, one along the back of the rock and required real climbing skills, and one up the front that was more doable but still hard. Part of the path up the front required you to lean on a tree. It was a strong tree, but you never did know. To my young mind, leaning against it and using it to help find the next foothold on the way up the rock had a lot of significance. Much of my understanding of faith centered on that tree and that rock. As a kid who grew up in the church, it was a practical way for me to understand what my parents were talking about in the pulpit.
Quinipet is a beautiful and peaceful place, as is most of Shelter Island. To get there you take a ferry from the town of Greenport. To this day I love ferry rides, and that Shelter Island Ferry is a big reason why. It was always the last part of what was a long drive up from Connecticut, across the whole length of Long Island. It’s all winery’s now, but back then it was potato fields. The smell of farms often brings me back to those long drives.
This particular trip back to the Island was for a reunion. Many of the folks who grew up at the camp and were part of the group of folks that made it such a special place were coming back for a weekend. We’d be staying in the various cabins, eating in the dining hall, and helping get the camp ready for the summer. The three of us were meeting up in the town of Greenport to stay the night, before heading over the ferry the next morning. It was the first time we’d all been together in a while, and certainly the first time we’d been together near Quinipet in decades.
There was a lot of nostalgia wrapped up in the trip, but more so it was a chance to see folks we hadn’t seen in years, and spend some time in a place we all loved. Music had always been a big part of those trips, mostly Methodist songs, but plenty of folk songs too. A lot of the people involved in the camp that we grew up around could pretty easily be classified as ‘hippies’. They were the kind of people who would sit around campfires and sing songs late into the night. That music of those years, and the simple guitars and banjos went a long way towards me developing a love of Dylan and folk music in general.
As I set off from Delaware up the Jersey turnpike and across to the Island and down the Long Island Expressway, I may have listened to the Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack five or six times. It’s an album full of music that sounds like those wonderful childhood nights sung by voices that sound familiar to me because they have the same earnestness and hope that those young and old people I knew in those days past.
Folk music is about connections. It’s songs that connect our modern technologically addled lives of long hours and stress, to days past and traditions that we have left behind. It’s a bridge to times that were simpler, just as hard, but simpler nonetheless. It’s about simple music sung together, trying to keep the circle unbroken.
For me, ‘Dink’s Song’ is a song that sums up all those feelings and gives them voice. It has all the nostalgia, hope, fear, longing, and love that connecting to the past and family is about. My brother, father, and I listened to the album together as we drove around Shelter Island. I don’t think my father had seen the movie, but he loved the music.
The weekend was lovely. It was nice reconnecting and just being in that place again with those people. When you’re never really sure who you are, knowing there are places and people that remember you helps. The music, especially ‘Dink’s Song’ existed for me like a firmament between the past and the present, and is indelibly tied up in my memories of that weekend.
As I drove out of the camp and off the Island on Sunday after saying my goodbyes, I listened to it one more time. It felt like the right song to be playing, and to fix that place and that time into my mind. Now when I hear it I feel at peace and my mind always turns the gazebo on the beach, the sunsets behind the cross, the green fields, family, and the rocks. Faith, courage, honesty, humility, and most of all, love.
Fare thee well.