"Sally Go 'Round the Roses", the Jaynetts

The Enduring Mystery of the Jaynetts’ “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses”

The Jaynett’s ’60s pop single “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” is equal parts all surface and inscrutable depth, which is why a range of artists cover it to this day.

"Sally Go 'Round the Roses"
The Jaynetts
Tuff (original single)
August 1963

Most pop songs are of the moment, and few from lesser-known bands endure beyond their release date and the particular fad or wave they emerged from. Those that survive often do so for strange reasons and reach out to listeners in the most peculiar of ways. “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” is one of these. It was the only charting single by a short-lived girl group in 1963.

Like many early pop songs, I first encountered it in a cover—in this case, riveting 1981 B-side by the even shorter-lived no-wave group the Del-Byzanteens, whose membership included the soon-to-be-iconic indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch. For the longest time after that, I assumed their “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” was covering an old folk tune popularized in 1970 by British folk-rock royalty Pentangle in their equally riveting version of the song (this was before the Internet when such details were a lot harder to unravel). But when neo-psychedelic jam band the Third Mind released their 11-minute take on “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” last October, I discovered it came not out of the remote recesses of dour British ballads but from a handful of Black women assembled as a trio called the Jaynetts by Bronx-based producer Zelma “Zell” Sanders in 1956.

“Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963. It was weird and haunting then and has remained so in the 60 years since. The song has been covered by artists ranging from Nana Mouskouri to the Ikettes, Peter and Gordon, Grace Slick, Tim Buckley, John Compton, Pentangle, Donna Summer, Asha Puthli, Fanny, Yvonne Elliman, and Holly Golightly, among others. It was Andy Warhol’s favorite song, and he played it “over and over again in the studio” for the entire month of September. That same late summer, reportedly, Neil Young was just as obsessed with the single. Like all great pop songs, “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” is equal parts all surface and inscrutable depth.

The best pop music from the heavily censored pre-Beatles era captured life’s traumas by cloaking adult experience in childish or teenaged emotions: listen to Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”, a #1 hit for the Shirelles in 1960; Barry Mann, Phil Spector, and Cynthia Weil’s “Walking in the Rain,” #23 for the Ronettes in 1964; George “Shadow” Morton’s “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” #5 for the Shangri-Las in 1964; and Brian Wilson singles like “In My Room” (#23 for the Beach Boys in 1963) or “Don’t Worry Baby” (#24 in 1964). One of the peculiar qualities of “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” is that its childish features are both heightened and displaced so much that it barely feels or sounds like a pop song is supposed to sound.

In the original version, the guitar has a touch of pop twang, but it plays the same four-note sequence through the entire three-plus minutes with the piano, and intermittently, the organ is mostly content to echo it. The Jaynetts’ voices repeat the same figure, which maps onto the song’s title, chanted in a round as the chorus and the solo voice trade off lead and echo. What melody exists is carried solely through the Jaynetts’ vocals during what’s technically the verses, which is also the only time any story is hinted at beyond its endlessly repeated title. “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” has the simplicity of the nursery rhyme or the skip-rope chant some critics claim it derives from. Like those forms when they’re unexpurgated, the childlike repetition evokes a harsh and frightening experience without spelling out what happened.

Sure, it’s about “seeing your baby with another girl”, but what else? The lyrics’ focus on secrecy suggests to many listeners something clandestine or taboo: madness, death, unwanted pregnancy, a downtown drug purchase. Most frequently, online discussions and music histories imagine a lesbian relationship, some hearing slang for oral sex in the “roses” of the title. Others simply call it lovelorn tears or devastating sadness, the reasons for which don’t really matter. “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” was arguably, if in retrospect bafflingly, the first pop single ever that didn’t pretend to explain what it was talking about. No wonder Warhol played it throughout the summer; it combined an ambient drone perfect for work with a neat subversion of the pop form.

Grace Slick certainly heard that same drone; a 1966 article on the San Francisco scene cited “Someone to Love”, “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses”, and a few Dylan covers as The Great Society’s strongest material. It was one of Bronx native Laura Nyro’s favorites and also one of Joan Baez’s. In a hangout scene in D. A. Pennebaker’s verité Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back (1967), Baez sings several verses of the song off the cuff as a response to Dylan’s quip “I’m glad I’m not me” after reading a newspaper report that he smokes 80 cigarettes a day.

Indeed, Baez knows the song backward and forward: she quotes from the middle, not the beginning: “Sally go ’round the roses / Sally won’t tell her secrets / Sally don’t tell your secrets / Roses they can’t hurt you / Rose they can’t hurt you”. She then turns, grinning, to a woman smoking in the room and asks rhetorically, “You know that song?” “Yes, of course,” is the answer. “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” was not just part of the repertoire; it was a hardwired piece of the countercultural lexicon of the time. As Mitch Ryder addressed Sally in the spoken-word intro to his rave-up 1967 version with the Detroit Wheels: “Here it is, almost 1968, and you still aren’t straight!”

“Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” was produced by Abner Spector (no relation to Phil) at Broadway Studios, a few blocks north of the Brill Building in midtown Manhattan. The song is “so strange”, Wayne Robins argues, that it plays like “a precursor to acid rock” on an album otherwise padded out with “1963 filler tracks”, the only one for which arranger and composer Artie Butler was responsible, and Butler’s first professional credit. According to Butler, he played everything but guitar. He started with piano, layered on drums (other sources credit Buddy Miles), upright bass, and finally Hammond B3 organ. After adding Al Goroni and Carl Lynch on guitar, he recorded the vocals by Lezli Washington, Marie Hood, and Louise Harris, with overdubs by Lezli; none of the three was credited on the recording.

Other sources report as many as ten distinct voices and 20 vocal tracks. However, the vocals tend to duplicate the instrumental backing rather than sing over it. The background singers open the vocal line, and the lead voice sometimes follows and sometimes leads the call and response. There are just a few brief soul-style vocal explosions by the lead; for most of the song, the vocals cleave to the monodynamic template of a playground round or skip-rope chant.  

As Butler terms it, the added reverb is a large part of the eerie (or muddied, if you’re an audiophile) sound. As Robins notes, the audio “degenerated” with each rerecorded instrument or voice, which is why “The vocals sound recorded in two different cardboard boxes … the volume rises and sinks, and sometimes almost disappears … [and the] vamping organ, is here now, almost gone later”. The organ has apparently been remastered out of the stereo version on Spotify. Still, it’s eerily audible throughout this YouTube version, evidently digitized from the original 45, along with the 1963 American Bandstand recording and also on early French versions of the song by Nana Mouskouri and Richard Anthony and the German version by Maria Duval, which all sound as if they were recorded directly over the instrumental backing track released as the single’s B side, as does the even murkier 1967 version released by the short-lived Australian band the Questions.

Butler appears to have approached this technical inevitability as a positive affordance rather than an intrinsic flaw in the medium: “Each time when I added another element I added a different type of reverb. Each generation seemed to add to the distinct sound of the record”. Given the low-fi production, it is not perhaps surprising that when Butler played it for the producer (whom he never names in his account), “he hated it. He was really angry. He felt that I wasted his money”. Spector only relented when Butler told him that the crack Brill Building songwriting team Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller liked the song so much they were willing to reimburse the production costs. Butler never got paid, he recalls, but did get the album credit, which “hangs on my wall where my high school diploma would be hanging”.

Released in August, “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” would peak at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in late September and early October, right behind Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet”. It made #1 on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand on 28 September; among the expected white couples dancing metronomically to the song on the notoriously segregated show can be glimpsed one Black couple and one pair of young women.

The popularity of the song meant that it was immediately rerecorded for additional release outside the US: Lyn Cornell and Dee King cut versions in England in 1964, as did Peter and Gordon in 1967. King’s is a close copy down to the vocal round; the other two versions smooth out the eccentricities with bright horn fills and more conventional harmonies. The French lyrics by Jacques Plante cleverly rename “Sally” as “Rose”, making the chanted verse/chorus structure even more circular: “Rose parmi les roses” (Rose among the roses), with the soft ‘e’ pronounced rather than silent in both words to keep “Rose” at two syllables. Near the very beginning of her 60-year career, multilingual Greek singer Mouskouri’s vocals closely reproduce the dynamics of the original.

Mouskouri does something similar in her Italian version, “Rosa tra le rose“, with a jazzed-up arrangement and lyrics which sound translated from the French. Plante’s lyrics reduce the song’s ambiguities to the timeworn convention of gathering rosebuds as a metaphor for sex: she thinks he’s coming back, but he’s not, full stop. The rest of the lyrics obsessively describe Rose (also the French adjective for “pink”) rather than her feelings or mood: her name is Rose, her dress is pink, and she’s picking roses to put in her room.

The 1965 Spanish version from the first album by Mallorca pop band Los Javaloyas adds a trilling flute and patronizingly counsels Sally to circle the roses like a butterfly rather than going to see her love in the city. The German version by Maria Duval, arranged by Heinz Alisch keeps Butler’s backing track but discards the lyric completely, replacing it with the coy reminder that “Liebe beginnt mit Amor” (Love begins with Cupid).

There may well be more of these early versions—it was so common at the time to rerecord hits in other countries that there’s even a Quebecois remake of Mouskouri’s single by Manon Desy Et Les Valiants—but what really interests me is how many cutting edges “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” would start to hit once that initial impulse to capitalize on its chart-topping potential and smooth out its lyrical or musical wrinkles had passed. Whereas pop songs typically undergo a transformation when covered into new genres, “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” had so much weird stuff going on vocally, lyrically, and instrumentally that all that was needed was a bit of amplification for it to become what music magazine Crawdaddy! was soon labeling “raga rock” or Pentangle’s folk-jazz rock, or Donna Summer’s proto-funk, or the Del-Byzanteens’ no wave. It’s already there, somehow, implicit in the mystery of the Jaynetts.

The Great Society’s 1966 version, recorded live at the Matrix club in San Francisco and released two years later after Grace Slick had left the band (and also her husband Jerry and brother-in-law Darby) and hit the big time with the songs she brought with her to the Jefferson Airplane, beautifully opens up the original’s looping repetition into a six-and-a-half-minute drone jam, with Grace’s melismatic vocals internalizing the multiple original voices, while her organ and Darby’s atonal guitar solo draw out every last ounce of paranoia implicit in Butler’s arrangement. I don’t know who got there first, but it’s the identical bad-trip vibe to Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger’s work on the Doors’ “The End”, recorded in August of that same year.

Pentangle would play four nights in 1969 at the Fillmore West in San Francisco, opening for the Grateful Dead. The story goes that, after that meeting, Pentangle came back hippies, and the Dead went folk. Pentangle had joined a jazz-trained rhythm section with virtuoso folk guitarists John Renbourn and Bert Jansch and London-born traditionally-trained singer Jacqui McShee. They would not go fully electric until their next album, but their third album, 1969’s Basket of Light swung like jazz, incorporated sitar and other non-traditional (in Western circles) instruments, and blended original songs, traditional ballads, and covers of pop tunes like “Sally Go Round the Roses“, which was the B-side to the lead single “Light Flight”, a hit in the UK.

I always assumed Pentangle’s “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” was a swinging folk revival version of an old English ballad. Jansch and McShee trade vocals back and forth, and the dual guitars fill in for the keyboards on earlier versions. There’s less immediate drama and mystery than in the Jaynetts or the Great Society versions; where this one gains, as always in the ballad tradition, is in the sense of a buried trauma echoing across centuries into the present. Horror is cloaked in beauty, just as in Pentangle’s “The Cuckoo” and “House Carpenter”, the ballads that follow on Basket of Light, and which amplify the long lineage of “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” – “Those are the hills of hell, my love, where you and I must go”.

Cambridge, Massachusetts, singer-songwriter John Parker Compton produced a lyrically faithful cover with a piercing cello line, presumably by fellow Appaloosa band member Eugen Rostov, and a looping piano, probably by Compton’s producer Al Kooper. The rest of the arrangement is straightforward ’70s folk rock, but the piano-cello combo is hypnotic, especially in the coda. Los Angeles singer-songwriter Tim Buckley transposed “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” into a male voice singing directly at an ex-lover on his penultimate album, Sefronia (1973).

In the spoken intro to a contemporary live recording, Buckley takes his audience ten years back over a slowed-down four-note vamp on the original guitar motif to the time “when you’re sniffing evil Night Train and climbing all over that girl in the back seat of your car. One foot in the glove compartment and the other one changing the stations on the radio”. Buckley, at least, knows exactly what happened to Sally. “We used to be down on the street, harmonizing like this,” he continues, as memory becomes music. It’s a gorgeous rendering in the male self-pitying style of early ’70s southern California. It also makes clear that Buckley, at least, took the lesbian subtext as read. In this version, “The saddest thing in the whole wide world / Is to find your woman been with another girl”. He doesn’t want her going downtown because that’s where the “roses”, his rivals for Sally, all hang out.

“Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” went funk, too, especially for the ladies. San Francisco Latin-funk band La Clave made “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” the lead track on their self-titled 1973 debut and only album. The four-note guitar motif remains but amped up and fuzzed out. Donna Summer’s early single—she was still credited as Donna Gaines in 1971—transforms the guitar motif into a hard funk loop, and there’s not much else beyond drums and Summer’s trademark vocal power. Asha Puthli brings similar pyrotechnics to the vocals of “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” B-side of her 1974 disco single “One Night Affair,” but the arrangement is more boogie-woogie than funk or disco. Yvonne Elliman’s 1978 album Night Flight gives “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” the full disco-funk treatment. And mixed-race 1970s-era girl group Fanny perform a funk-rock workout to the song on their 1974 release, Rock and Roll Survivors, their fifth and final album. There was ample mileage left in the song’s proto-feminist pathos as in its proto-funk rhythms.

Most post-punk cover songs—think “Money” by the Flying Lizards, “Take Me to the River” by the Talking Heads, “Use Me” by Grace Jones, or the sublime “My World Is Empty” by the Del-Byzanteens—work by flattening their source material—shrinking the dynamics, streamlining the beats, and curbing the emotional range to a near monotone. This doesn’t negate the drama of the originals; when it works, the constraints simply intensify the effect. But there was no need for the Del-Byzanteens to transform “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses”; the Jaynetts had already shown the way back in 1963.

You can hear the song’s influence on many of the dozen songs in the band’s slim corpus: the roundelay choruses on the title song on the 1981 12-inch Girl’s Imagination, the evocative yet minimalist lyrics paired with tight melody in most of the tracks on the follow-up album Lies to Live By, including the sped-up new version of “Girl’s Imagination” that was featured in Wim Wenders’ 1982 film The State of Things. Jarmusch, who played keyboards and shared vocal duties with guitarist Phil Kline, may have brought more “spirit” than “technical expertise” to the band (Jarmusch’s assessment), but the other band members were musicians. Kline has long been a fixture as composer and performer in the experimental music scene, and saxophonist John Lurie would join them on stage when they opened for bands from New Order and Echo and the Bunnymen to the Four Tops.

In addition to ending side one of their only LP, “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses”, was the B-side of the band’s only 7-inch, with “Draft Riot” as the A-side. “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” both cleaves to and travesties the Jaynetts’ original. A synthesizer hum and mechanical drumbeat replace the lead guitar, while the limited range of Kline’s leading and Jarmusch’s following vocals flatten the dynamics, even as they still carry what melody remains. Unlike, say, the Flying Lizard’s “Money”, though, there’s no snark here. “Don’t you go downtown” is the operative verse since downtown was the band’s home base and core identity as East Village / Lower East Side artists.

There’s a claim here not only to the New York cool that already permeates the Jaynetts’ original but also to a musical palette broader than the punk they were following hot on the heels of. Like Jarmusch’s films, the Del-Byzanteens’ no-wave is doubtless artsy, but it’s not elitist. Their other cover, “My World Is Empty”, from the million-selling top-ten 1965 Holland-Dozier-Holland single by the Supremes, is far more ambitious than the minimalist “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses”, but its treatment comes from the same template, layering a round of voices chanting “we’re going to lock you in your room” and other ’80s-style-paranoia additions over a jangling, repetitive, almost militant beat of drum, bass, and guitar. Whatever was going on in “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses”, The Del-Byzanteens heard it, channeled its groove, and dug deeply into its mysteries without explaining them.

Plenty of “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” covers have been made since the Del-Byzanteens. Louise Murray continues to perform “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” on the nostalgia circuit; recent videos show her heightening the R&B pyrotechnics to compensate for the irreplaceable youthfulness of the original teenaged voices. But no version of the song stood out until a few months ago when psychedelic jam band the Third Mind released their aforementioned eleven-minute cover of “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” as the third ‘single’ to their second album.

I was not the only one this scorching jam sent back to the original. Described on their label Yep Roc Records as a “supergroup“, the Third Mind includes Victor Krummenacher (Camper Van Beethoven, Cracker), David Immergluck (Counting Crows), and Michael Jerome (Better Than Ezra, Richard Thompson Band), along with “special guest” singer and guitarist Jesse Sykes. They draw their material primarily from the ’60s and early ’70s across various genres and base their process on electric-era Miles Davis. “Bring a set of great musicians into a studio, select a key, establish a groove, and hit the record button” (Wilhelm). Their first album covers Alice Coltrane, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Bonnie Dobson, Fred Neil, and the 13th Floor Elevators; the second album covers Neil, Butterfield, the Electric Flag, Doug Dillard & Gene Clark, and, of course, the Jaynetts. Each album adds one original to the mix. “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” is the most stretched out of the songs, but nothing as long as “East West” on the first release.

As Robins notes, while they probably know the Jaynetts’ version, it’s inarguably the Grace Slick performance the Third Mind have listened to the most. The opening plays like an homage, but once the jamming takes off, they don’t copy the raga style of Grace’s and Darby’s solos, opting for bluesier acid rock licks. And while I certainly hear Slick’s voice in what Robins calls Sykes’ “angry ghost” vocal, there’s also an unmistakable Neil Young croak to her performance, if perhaps an octave higher. Especially when the guitars start ripping off mono-note runs, her vocal makes “Sally don’t you go” resonate strongly with “Down by the River”, not quite so enigmatic a song as “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” perhaps, but enough to make me wonder in retrospect if “Down by the River” and its five-note intro and broodingly violent mood were Young’s oblique response to a song that had “obsessed” him in his late teens.

Certainly, Sykes’ solo vocal picks up on Young’s, while Young’s and Whitten’s circling guitars translated the vocals of”Sally Go ‘Round the Roses”, and Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina’s rhythm section captures its groove. But the Third Mind’s reflectively slow intro, with barely audible notes followed by bass and finally, almost a minute in, a version of the “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” guitar motif, sounds closer to “Cowgirl in the Sand” than the no-nonsense kickstart of the Great Society’s “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses”. Once the obsessive groove kicks in, the resemblance to the latter performance is unmistakable, before it eases back into something like the unmatched intensity of “Down by the River”.

There’s a mournfulness to Sykes’ vocal that’s part-and-parcel of the archival thrust of Third Mind’s song selection. It’s as if they’re circling around the myriad past artists and performances they’re channeling, summoning up, and memorializing a new reading of this transformative period of popular music. The solos burst out from the borrowed raga drone because they’re an intense yet joyous acknowledgment of that past in the same breath as they repeatedly settle back down to respect its haunting message.

Like the best covers, the Third Mind’s “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” dwells in the original but doesn’t lose sight of when and where they’re playing it now. The Jaynetts were maybe not the first to tap into the primal subterranean musical seam somehow captured in the lyrics and arrangement of “Sally Go Round the Roses”, but now I hear it everywhere, just as everyone that was anyone appears to have in the late summer and fall of 1963.

Works Cited

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“Jaynetts”. history-of-rock.com. (n.d.)

McDonough, Jimmy. Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography. Random House. May 2002.

Robins, Wayne. “Sally Go Round the Roses: A Ghost Story”. Critical Conditions by Wayne Robins. 11 November.

Rosenberg, Stewart. Rock and Roll and the American Landscape: The Birth of an Industry and the Expansion of the Popular Culture, 1955-1969. iUniverse 2008.

Sculatti, Gene. “San Francisco Bay Rock”. Crawdaddy! 6 (November 1966). In The Crawdaddy! Book: Writings (and Images) from the Magazine of Rock. Ed. Paul Williams. Milwaukee: Hal Leonard. 2002.

Wall, Mick. “The story of Pentangle’s Basket of Light”. Louder, 3 November 2022.

Wikipedia contributors, “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses”. Wikipedia. (accessed 30 January 2024).

Wilhelm, Rich. “Plugging into the Third Mind”. PopMatters 14 February 2020.