He Was a Friend of Mine

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"He Was a Friend of Mine"

"He Was a Friend of Mine" is a traditional folk song in which the singer laments the death of a friend. Ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax was the first to collect the song, in 1939, describing it as a "blues" that was "a dirge for a dead comrade."[1]

Early recordings[edit]

The earliest known version of the song is titled "Shorty George" (Roud 10055).[2] A performance by African-American inmate Smith Casey, who accompanied himself on guitar, was first recorded by musicologist couple John and Ruby Terrill Lomax in 1939 at the Clemens State Farm in Brazoria County, Texas.[1]

The first professional singer to pick up the song from the Library of Congress recordings was Rolf Cahn. He recorded the song on his 1961 Folkways album Rolf Cahn & Eric von Schmidt, where the song was titled "He Was a Friend of Mine" for the first time.[3]

Bob Dylan picked up the song from the Cahn recording and made some changes to it when he recorded it for his debut album Bob Dylan on November 20, 1961. However, Dylan's recording was not included on the album. It did show up on various Dylan bootleg albums, which received wide distribution soon thereafter. That recording of the song eventually had its official release in 1991 on volume 1 of Columbia Records' Dylan Bootleg Series.[4]

When Dave van Ronk recorded Dylan's version of the song on his 1962 Prestige album Dave Van Ronk, Folksinger, he incorrectly credited Dylan as the song's author.[3]

The Byrds' version[edit]

"He Was a Friend of Mine"
Song by The Byrds
from the album Turn! Turn! Turn!
ReleasedDecember 6, 1965
RecordedNovember 1, 1965
StudioColumbia, Hollywood, California
GenreFolk rock, folk
Songwriter(s)Traditional, new words and arrangement Jim McGuinn
Producer(s)Terry Melcher

The Byrds included a reworded version of "He Was a Friend of Mine" on their 1965 album Turn! Turn! Turn!.[5] In the band's version, the song's melody is altered and the lyrics are changed to lament the assassination of John F. Kennedy.[6] The Byrds' 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.[7][8] 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."[8] 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".[8]

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 disbandment in 1973.[8] 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 shot from multiple directions.[9][10][11][8] 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.[12]

In 1990, a reformed line-up of the Byrds, featuring McGuinn, Crosby, and Chris Hillman, re-recorded the song for The Byrds box set.[8]

Other versions[edit]

The song has since been recorded by many artists, including the Washington Squares, Bobby Bare, Mercury Rev, the Black Crowes, the Mitchell Trio, Willie Nelson, Nanci Griffith, Cat Power, and the Leaves.[13][7] The version recorded by Willie Nelson was used in the film Brokeback Mountain and erroneously credits Bob Dylan as the songwriter.[14] The Country Gentlemen also recorded a bluegrass version the song on their The Country Gentlemen Play It Like It Is album in 1969.

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 number 126 on the Billboard charts in December 1963.[15] 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 the writer.[citation needed]

Stephen Stills' band Manassas covered "He Was a Friend of Mine" during a 1972 performance at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, Netherlands, which was released in 2017 as the Live Treasure album.[16] 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.[17]

The English band the Bishops have also covered the song on their 2009 album, For Now.[18] 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]

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 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".[19]

In 2020, folksinger Max Gomez released a version of "He Was a Friend of Mine" in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, with verses referencing the murder of George Floyd, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, and the removal of Confederate statues.[20] French singer Etienne Daho released a version of the song in 2020.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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.
  2. ^ "Shorty George". The Ballad Index. Retrieved 2012-02-29.
  3. ^ a b Wald, Elijah (June 9, 2016). "He Was a Friend of Mine (Dave van Ronk & Co)". Elijah Wald Songblog. Retrieved January 13, 2018.
  4. ^ "He Was a Friend of Mine". Bob Dylan Home Page. Archived from the original on 2006-10-12. Retrieved 2006-09-17.
  5. ^ "Turn! Turn! Turn! album review". AllMusic. Retrieved 2009-12-01.
  6. ^ Fricke, David. (1996). Turn! Turn! Turn! (1996 CD liner notes).
  7. ^ 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 978-1-906002-15-2.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ The Complete Monterey Pop Festival (DVD). Monterey International Pop Festival Foundation, Inc. 2002.
  10. ^ "The Byrds - "He Was a Friend of Mine" (Live at 1967 Monterey Pop Festival)". YouTube. Retrieved 21 May 2019.
  11. ^ 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 978-1-906002-15-2.
  12. ^ "The Complete Monterey Pop Festival – Menu Options". Allmovie. Retrieved 2010-01-19.
  13. ^ "He Was a Friend of Mine cover versions". AllMusic. Archived from the original on August 8, 2009. Retrieved 2009-07-21.
  14. ^ "He Was a Friend of Mine – Willie Nelson version". AllMusic. Retrieved 2009-12-09.
  15. ^ "The Briarwood Singers chart data". Ultimate Music Database. Retrieved 2010-01-01.
  16. ^ "Manassas - Live Treasure product listing". Amazon.com. Amazon.com, Inc. Retrieved 2017-07-26.
  17. ^ "Private Radio review". AllMusic. Retrieved 2013-12-03.
  18. ^ "Releases". The Bishops Band. Retrieved 2014-04-22.
  19. ^ "He Was A Friend Of Mine by the Grateful Dead". Deaddisc.com. Retrieved 2009-10-16.
  20. ^ JD Nash. "New track from Max Gomez – 'He Was A Friend of Mine'". American Blues Scene. Retrieved 2020-11-07.

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