Audio: Bob Dylan Plays ‘He Was A Friend Of Mine,’ & I Think Of Nelson Mandela

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I was thinking about Nelson Mandela today as I listened to Bob Dylan’s version of “He Was A Friend Of Mine.”

I first heard that song as recorded by The Byrds for their second album, Turn! Turn! Turn!. Roger McGuinn modified the lyrics to make the song about the late President Kennedy and I’ve always associated the song with President Kennedy’s assassination.

When I eventually heard Dylan’s version on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 many years later I couldn’t help thinking of President Kennedy, and his tragic death.

Dylan had himself had modified the song, creating his own arrangement. The earliest known version of “He Was A Friend Of Mine” was a song called “Shorty George” recorded by Leadbelly (listen to it below) in 1935 for the Library of Congress, according to John Bauldie’s liner notes for The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3.

A Boston folk singer, Eric von Schmidt, adapted the Leadbelly recording and later played the song for Dylan who incorporated it into his repertoire and performed in around New York and elsewhere during the early ’60s.

“I sang [Dylan] a bunch of songs, and, with that spongelike mind of his, he remembered almost all of them when he got back to New York,” von Schmidt told The Boston Globe.

Dylan recorded a version of the song during the sessions for his debut, Bob Dylan. That version is the one on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3.

Unlike President Kennedy, Nelson Mandela wasn’t gunned down. He died of natural causes and he was 95. But he suffered much during his life in holding true to his values. He was a standup man if there ever was one.

In 1985 Dylan appeared on Steve Van Zandt’s all-star anti-apartheid record and in the video, “I Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City.”

I wonder if Dylan thought about “He Was A Friend Of Mine” following Mandela’s death. I bet he did.

Bob Dylan, “He Was A Friend Of Mine,” live, New York, 1961

Leadbelly, “Shorty George”:

Bob Dylan, “He Was A Friend Of Mine,” from the sessions for Bob Dylan, November 20, 1961:

He Was A Friend Of Mine by Bob Dylan on Grooveshark

Bob Dylan, “He Was A Friend Of Mine,” live, Finjan Club, Montreal, Quebec, July 2, 1962

He Was A Friend Of Mine by Bob Dylan on Grooveshark

The Byrds, “He Was A Friend Of Mine”:

Artists Against Apartheid, “I Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City”:

Dave Van Ronk also recorded “He Was A Friend Of Mine.” This is from Inside Dave Van Ronk, 1963.

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About Michael Goldberg

Michael Goldberg is a distinguished pioneer in the online music space; Newsweek magazine called him an ‘Internet visionary.’ In 1994 he founded Addicted To Noise (ATN), the highly influential music web site. He was a senior vice-president and editor in chief at SonicNet from March 1997 through May 2000. In 1997, Addicted To Noise won Webby awards for best music site in 1998 and 1999, and also won Yahoo Internet Life! awards for three years running as best music site in 1998, 1999 and 2000. Prior to starting Addicted To Noise, Goldberg was an editor and senior writer at Rolling Stone magazine for 10 years. His writing has also appeared in Wired, Esquire, Vibe, Details, Downbeat, NME and numerous other publications. Michael has had three novels published that comprise the "Freak Scene Dream trilogy": "True Love Scars," "The Flowers Lied" and "Untitled" which can be ordered here. His new book, "Wicked Game: The True Story of Guitarist James Calvin Wilsey," can be pre-ordered from HoZac Books. In November Backbeat Books will publish "Addicted To Noise: The Music Writings of Michael Goldberg," which can be be pre-ordered here.

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