The history of "Nottamon Town" is a fascinating one. An ancient British folk song, it was thought lost and forgotten in the U.K. when folklorist Cecil Sharp turned up a version by the Ritchie Family in the Appalachians in 1917. Jean Ritchie has since recorded it in a couple of slightly different versions (both of which use Appalachian dulcimer and modal approaches), thus rescuing the song from extinction. It is a haunting minor-key ballad with surreal riddle-like lyrics and a certain intangible feel of constant dread and menace, and yet has an almost whimsical sense of humor. The song itself builds on contradictions, where people look down to look up, where gray horses with green stripes are colored all black, where people talk all day but don't utter a single word, where nothing will settle the dust even though it rains all day long.
Although extremely descriptive, the lyrics to "Nottamon Town" () are so elliptical that it is impossible to grasp firmly what the song might be about, but there is a certain apocalyptic sense about it, the feeling of a recent battle, of refugees on the road, of figures viewed through smoke and haze. The true meaning of the song is probably unknowable, but there are a couple of interesting theories about it. One has the lyrics as fragmentary comments on the English Civil War, which ran from 1642 to 1651, and there is definitely the notion of armies in motion and marching reflected in the verses. Another theory takes the lyrics as the literal description of a town that has gone mad due to ergot poisoning (ergot is the mold that attacks rye, and is a principal ingredient in LSD), although there seems to be no medical or scientific evidence that such an event has ever taken place. A third theory (and perhaps the most plausible one) holds that the song is actually the fragmentary remnant of an ancient mummer's play in which the actors would reverse their clothes, then walk and talk backwards, which would possibly explain the many contradictory symbols in the lyrics.
Whatever the theory, the true meaning of "Nottamon Town" is probably forever lost in the march of time itself, but as a haunting, mysterious, and ultimately unknowable ballad, the song has survived and proliferated, with recorded versions having been done by Jean Ritchie (her renditions are the source of all the others), Fairport Convention, Bert Jansch, Pentangle, Judy Collins, Jackie Washington, Shirley Collins, and Davey Graham and Green Man. Bob Dylan used the melody of "Nottamon Town" for his song "Masters of War" (), and while Dylan's tune is hardly as elliptical as its source, it retains some of the emotional power of the original.