JFK Assassination Songs: “He Was a Friend of Mine” by The Byrds

November 22, 2013 will be the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. That event inspired a host of songs across a variety of genres, some became well known while others quickly faded into obscurity. This is the first post in a series that will run throughout this year focusing on songs that address the JFK assassination.

“He Was a Friend of Mine” is the last song on side one of The Byrds’ 1965 album Turn! Turn! Turn!“He Was a Friend of Mine” dates back to at least the 1934 when John Lomax recorded James “Iron Head” Baker singing “Shorty George” at Central State Prison Farm in Sugar Land, Texas. Lead Belly also recorded “Shorty George” in March, 1935. Bob Dylan was singing a version of the song from late 1961 until the middle of 1962 under the title “He Was a Friend of Mine” that he had learned from Eric von Schmidt. As sung by Bob Dylan, “He Was a Friend of Mine” laments the death of a friend who died penniless on the road, “He was just a poor boy along way from home”. Dylan did not release “He Was a Friend of Mine” at that time, but the song surfaced on The Bootleg Series, Volumes. 1-3: Rare And Unreleased, 1961-1991. Other folk artists were keenly aware of what Dylan was doing and adapted songs in his repertoire. Jim McGuinn had adapted “He Was a Friend of Mine” for The Byrds before the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but after that event McGuinn rewrote the lyrics of the song so that The Byrds’ version is a solemn elegy to the fallen President, lamenting the passing of a “leader of a nation for such a precious time”. He claims to have written the revised lyrics the day of the assassination.

He Was a Friend of Mine
by Jim McGuinn/Traditional

He was a friend of mine
He was a friend of mine
His killing had no purpose, no reason or rhyme
He was a friend of mine

He was in Dallas town
He was in Dallas town
From a sixth floor window a gunner shot him down
He died in Dallas town

He never knew my name
He never knew my name
Though I never met him I knew him just the same
Oh, he was a friend of mine

Leader of a nation for such a precious time
He was a friend of mine

McGuinn’s lyrics seem to suggest that he accepts the ruling of the Warren Commission that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the assassination of JFK. After singing, “His killing had no purpose, no reason or rhyme” he describes the shooting, “From a sixth floor window a gunman shot him down.” When The Byrds performed this song at the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967, however, David Crosby told the audience that he did not accept this explanation of the JFK assassination. Prefacing his remarks with “I’m sure that they’ll edit this out,” he told the audience, “When President Kennedy was killed, he was not killed by one man. He was shot from a number of different directions by different guns. The story has been suppressed, witnesses have been killed, and this is your country, ladies and gentlemen.” And after the song was over Crosby said, “Thank you. As I say, they will censor it I’m sure. They can’t afford to have things like that on the air. It’d blow their image.” The rest of the Byrds were reportedly upset with Crosby because his remarks resulted in a lack of television coverage of the Byrds performance, not to mention that Crosby performed the following day with Buffalo Springfield without informing any the members of the Byrds.