The other night we were lucky enough to catch a late night set by our favorite local band, Pennyroyal, at the Dakota. We were elated to hear them soundcheck with “Wild Iris”, a song we hadn’t heard them perform in ages. Even more surprising was Angie Oase’s solo opening set, which brought together disparate covers and Pennyroyal favorites. One of the songs was this moving old blues standard, often mis-credited as a Bob Dylan song.
The earliest recorded version of “He Was a Friend of Mine” was captured by John Lomax and his wife Ruby Terrill Lomax at a state workhouse on the southern coast of Texas in 1939. The Library of Congress records the performer as Smith Carson, although he’s known to history as Smith Casey. The eleven songs he performed for the Lomaxes that April day are the sole document of his time on this Earth.
Bob Dylan recorded “He Was a Friend of Mine” for his first album, but it was ultimately cut. His interpretation found its eventual official release on the first of the ongoing “Bootleg Series” collections, and was perhaps the rarest recordings to appear on that overdue compilation. It is likely that Dylan learned the song from Dave Van Ronk, one of the most remarkable and under-appreciated figures in the history of American traditional music.
Some facts about Dave Van Ronk:
*He was considered by promoter Albert Grossman for a folk trio which included Peter Yarrow and eventually became Peter, Paul and Mary. Van Ronk was rejected because Grossman found his unique and personal performances too un-commercial.
*He incorporated New Orleans jazz and ragtime into his performances, connecting the traditional jazz revival of the 50s with the folk and blues revival of the following decade — Van Ronk’s breadth of historical knowledge and his good nature led him to be a mentor to many of the folk singers who settled in the Greenwich Village neighborhood, including Bob Dylan.
*The Coen Brothers’ movie, Inside Llewyn Davis, is said to be based on Van Ronk’s experiences (taking its title from his 1964 LP) but it does not represent the rich background he brought to his performances — from barbershop and traditional jazz to classical music and ragtime piano.
*Dave Van Ronk was one of the thirteen people arrested at the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969.
*He performed “He Was a Friend of Mine” at the memorial service for Phil Ochs after his death by suicide in 1976.
The song’s singular place in the sixties folk revival is on this 1963 Prestige LP, where it opens the second side. It appeared on the Hymies blog a couple years back here. Van Ronk’s performance of the song, then largely unknown, is dynamically idiosyncratic, reflecting Grossman’s concerns that he couldn’t contribute to a folk/pop group like Peter, Paul and Mary.
Since the sixties the song has become more of a standard, and has been recorded dozens of times. Search its title on Youtube and you’ll find hundreds of homemade performances. A song first recorded by a prisoner, a song with stark spiritual overtones, it is an unlikely favorite but there it is — and always achingly sincere. One does not set out to perform “He Was a Friend of Mine” without the the sorrow of grief in their heart.