He Was a Friend of Mine

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"He Was a Friend of Mine"
Written Unknown
Songwriter(s) Traditional

"He Was a Friend of Mine" is a traditional folk song in which the singer laments the death of a friend. The earliest known version of the song is titled "Shorty George" (Roud 10055).[1] A performance by African-American inmate Smith Casey, who accompanied himself on guitar, was first recorded by musicologist couple John A. and Ruby Terrill Lomax in 1939 at the Clemens State Farm in Brazoria County, Texas.[2] Alan Lomax described the song as a "blues" that was "a dirge for a dead comrade."[2]

The song has since been recorded by many artists, including Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, The Washington Squares, Bobby Bare, Mercury Rev, The Black Crowes, The Mitchell Trio, Willie Nelson, Nanci Griffith, Cat Power, The Leaves and, in a reworded version, The Byrds.[3][4] The version recorded by Willie Nelson was used in the film Brokeback Mountain and inaccurately credits Bob Dylan as the songwriter.[5] Dylan had arranged an early version of the tune in 1961 and his version can be heard on the compilation album The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991.[6]

The Byrds' version[edit]

"He Was a Friend of Mine"
Song by The Byrds
from the album Turn! Turn! Turn!
Released December 6, 1965
Format LP record
Recorded November 11, 1965
Studio Columbia, Hollywood, California
Genre Folk rock, folk
Length 2:30
Label Columbia
Songwriter(s) Traditional, new words and arrangement Jim McGuinn
Producer(s) Terry Melcher

The Byrds included a recording of "He Was a Friend of Mine" on their 1965 album Turn! Turn! Turn! (see 1965 in music).[7] In The Byrds' version, the song's melody is altered and the lyrics are changed to lament the assassination of John F. Kennedy.[8] The band's lead guitarist Jim McGuinn rewrote the song's lyrics in late 1963 to give it a more contemporary slant and transform it into a eulogy for President Kennedy.[4][9] McGuinn explained the origins of the song in an interview: "I wrote the song the night John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I suppose you could say it's one of the earliest Byrds songs. The arrangement used was as I'd always sung it. I just thought it was a good idea to include it on the Turn! Turn! Turn! album."[9] Due to the extensively rewritten lyrics of The Byrds version, the officially registered songwriting credit for the song is "Traditional/new words and arrangement McGuinn".[9]

Following its appearance on the band's second album, the song would go on to become a staple of The Byrds' live concert repertoire, until their final disbandment in 1973.[9] The band also performed the song during their appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival on June 17, 1967, where band member David Crosby made controversial remarks alleging that Kennedy had not been killed by Lee Harvey Oswald alone, but was actually the victim of a U.S. Government conspiracy.[10][9] The Byrds’ performance of "He Was a Friend of Mine" at Monterey was included in the 2002 The Complete Monterey Pop Festival DVD box set.[11]

In 1990, a reformed line-up of The Byrds, featuring Roger McGuinn, David Crosby and Chris Hillman, re-recorded the song for The Byrds box set.[9]

Other versions[edit]

In 1963, the Greenbriar Boys recorded "He Was a Friend of Mine" with singer Dian James on their Elektra Records album Dian & the Greenbriar Boys. The Briarwood Singers, a five-piece folk group, released a version of the song that reached #126 on the Billboard charts in December 1963.[12] Bobby Bare also recorded "He Was a Friend of Mine" in 1964, in memory of air crash victim Jim Reeves.[citation needed] That same year, Petula Clark released a French version of the song under the title "Toi qui m'as fait pleurer" (="You, who have made me cry"), with Bobby Bare credited as writer.[citation needed]

Tom Goodkind of the Washington Squares sang the song with Marco Sin of Dirty Looks on bass and Billy Ficca of Television on drums at NYC's Paladium as a tribute to friend Abbie Hoffman. Dave Van Ronk sang the song at the memorial concert for Phil Ochs in New York City's Madison Square Garden Felt Forum, in May 1976, after Ochs' suicide. Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Jerry Jeff Walker sing a duet version on Elliott's 1998 album Friends of Mine, and Walker includes it in his 1996 album Scamp. American actor Billy Bob Thornton included a cover of The Byrds' version of the song on his 2001 debut album Private Radio.[13]

As performed by Gustavo Santaolalla, "He Was a Friend of Mine" was included on the soundtrack of the 2005 film Brokeback Mountain.

The English band, The Bishops, have also covered the song on their 2009 album, For Now.[14] The song was featured in an episode of the reality television series Jacob and Joshua: Nemesis Rising when the gay pop duo Nemesis recorded it for the album Rise Up.[citation needed] This version was produced by Barry Manilow and released June 26, 2007.[citation needed]

In 2014, Merrymouth, a folk band led by Ocean Colour Scene singer/songwriter Simon Fowler, recorded the song on their second album Wenlock Hill. The lyrics were adapted by the band (Fowler/Dan Sealey/Adam Barry) to be about the killing of John Lennon.

The Grateful Dead commonly performed a song called "He Was a Friend of Mine" during live concerts between 1966 and 1970, but that song was in fact based on the Mark Spoelstra song, "Just a Hand to Hold".[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Shorty George". The Ballad Index. Retrieved 2012-02-29. 
  2. ^ a b "Archive of American Folk song: Afro-American Blues and Game Songs" (PDF). Library of Congress/The American Folklife Center. Retrieved 2012-02-28. 
  3. ^ "He Was a Friend of Mine cover versions". AllMusic. Archived from the original on August 8, 2009. Retrieved 2009-07-21. 
  4. ^ a b Hjort, Christopher. (2008). So You Want To Be A Rock 'n' Roll Star: The Byrds Day-By-Day (1965-1973). Jawbone Press. p. 70. ISBN 1-906002-15-0. 
  5. ^ "He Was a Friend of Mine - Willie Nelson version". AllMusic. Retrieved 2009-12-09. 
  6. ^ "He Was a Friend of Mine". Bob Dylan Home Page. Retrieved 2006-09-17. 
  7. ^ "Turn! Turn! Turn! album review". AllMusic. Retrieved 2009-12-01. 
  8. ^ Fricke, David. (1996). Turn! Turn! Turn! (1996 CD liner notes). 
  9. ^ a b c d e f Rogan, Johnny. (1998). The Byrds: Timeless Flight Revisited (2nd ed.). Rogan House. p. 145. ISBN 0-9529540-1-X. 
  10. ^ Hjort, Christopher. (2008). So You Want To Be A Rock 'n' Roll Star: The Byrds Day-By-Day (1965-1973). Jawbone Press. p. 134. ISBN 1-906002-15-0. 
  11. ^ "The Complete Monterey Pop Festival - Menu Options". Allmovie. Retrieved 2010-01-19. 
  12. ^ "The Briarwood Singers chart data". Ultimate Music Database. Retrieved 2010-01-01. 
  13. ^ "Private Radio review". AllMusic. Retrieved 2013-12-03. 
  14. ^ "Releases". The Bishops Band. Retrieved 2014-04-22. 
  15. ^ "He Was A Friend Of Mine by the Grateful Dead". Deaddisc.com. Retrieved 2009-10-16. 

External links[edit]