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