"He Was a Friend of Mine
" is a traditional folk song in which the singer laments the death of a friend. Alan Lomax, first to collect the song, in 1939, described it as a "blues" that was "a dirge for a dead comrade."The earliest known version of the song is titled "Shorty George
" (Roud 10055). A performance by African-American inmate Smith Casey, who accompanied himself on guitar, was first recorded by musicologist couple John A. and Ruby Terrill Lomax in 1939 at the Clemens State Farm in Brazoria County, Texas. The professional singer who first picked up the song from the Library of Congress recordings was Rolf Cahn
. He recorded the song on his influential 1961 Folkways album Rolf Cahn & Eric von Schmidt, where the song for the first time was titled "He Was a Friend of Mine". Bob Dylan
picked up the song from the Cahn recording and made some changes to the song when he recorded it for his first album on November 20, 1961. However, Dylan's recording was not included in 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 issuance in 1991 on volume 1 of Columbia Records' Dylan Bootleg Series. When Dave van Ronk
recorded Dylan's version of the song on his own 1962 Prestige album Dave Van Ronk, Folksinger, he incorrectly listed Dylan as the song's author. The Byrds
included a reworded version of "He Was a Friend of Mine" on their 1965 album Turn! Turn! Turn! In The Byrds' version, the song's melody is altered and the lyrics are changed to lament the assassination of John F. Kennedy.