1969 – “The Ballad of Easy Rider,” The Byrds

“The Ballad of Easy Rider” is my choice for 1969, written by the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn and based on a lyrical fragment by Bob Dylan. The story goes that Peter Fonda screened a rough cut of Easy Rider for Dylan, who duly presented these lines to Fonda on a napkin:

the river flows,
it flows to the sea,
wherever that river goes
that’s where i want to be
flow, river, flow

McGuinn subsequently finished the lyric and grafted it onto a suitably elegiac (and beautiful) melody. The version that appears on both the Easy Rider soundtrack and the Byrds’ album The Ballad of Easy Rider had McGuinn backed by the late-era Byrds with Clarence White on electric guitar, and a string orchestration that, surprisingly, adds to the beauty of the piece in a way that’s both conventionally ‘filmic’ and strangely appropriate.

The Byrds - 1969 - Ballad Of Easy Rider

My introduction to the song was from the version on Fairport Convention’s No More Sad Refrain. Sandy Denny’s lead vocal and Richard Thompson’s clearly Clarence White-influenced guitar are highlights, but it’s one of those recordings where the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Sandy Denny + Richard Thompson doing an English folk-rock take on a McGuinn/Dylan composition: sounds like a sure bet. It’s enjoyable to listen to: spare, deeply felt; but it lacks the clarity, depth and brevity of the original (Fairport’s version clocks in at nearly 5 minutes, while McGuinn’s album version is less than 2:30, and the soundtrack’s mix is even shorter, around 2:06).

Structurally, it’s a folk ballad  in the Dylan mold: a descending opening half-verse that leads into a 1-4 second half, and a 2-5 chorus. The McGuinn version has some great acoustic finger-picking (sounds like a nylon string guitar being doubled by a steel string), and of course the pedal steel-like licks of the incomparable Clarence White. I am not an accomplished finger-picker, but I’m going to try my best to at least figure out a decent faux-roll or picking pattern to duplicate what McGuinn does. There’s a good version of him doing it solo on a 12-string acoustic.

The Ballad of Easy Rider (McGuinn)

The river flows,
flows to the sea,
wherever that river goes
that’s where i want to be
flow, river, flow
let your waters wash down
take me from this road
to some other town

all he wanted
was to be free
that’s the way
it turned out to be
flow, river, flow
let your waters wash down
take me from this road
to some other town

flow river flow
past a shady tree
go river go
go to the sea
flow river flow
flow to the sea

The Byrds - 1969 - Ballad Of Easy Rider

Some more thoughts on “The Ballad of Easy Rider”:

I saw McGuinn play a solo acoustic show at the same venue in Knoxville where I had seen Richard Thompson (who was Fairport’s lead guitarist when they recorded their version of the tune) a few years before. The McGuinn show was ’92, I think, and the Thompson show was in ’88 or ’89. The club was in Knoxville’s Old City, and it was called Ella Guru’s when Thompson played there; I’m pretty sure it had become Club Taboo by the time of the McGuinn show. It was the site of a number of memorable shows in my life; aside from the Thomposon and McGuinn concerts, it’s where I saw Scott Miller play for the first time, opening for my friend and still rock and roll hero Brian Relleva (then post-Brian and the Nightmares), where I saw Southern Culture on the Skids put on one of their best shows – certainly aided by the fact that my friend Michael Spirko ate the 8-piece box on stage during the song of the same name – it was a great venue. I think it’s a fondue restaurant now.

I played Club Taboo myself in ’90 or ’91 with the GrooveMasters (yes, it’s a horrible name).  I was the singer in a jump blues band, odd as that may seem. Jump is the sub-genre of blues that most clearly paved the way for rock and roll. Tiny Bradshaw’s “Train Kept A-Rollin’,” Wynonie Harris’s “Bloodshot Eyes,” Ray Charles’s “Did You Cry Blues”: we covered these tunes, and wrote a few of our own. All of the members of that band were great musicians, and many of them veterans of the road and the recording studio: Phil Leonard, Ron Baisden, Dickie Thompson, Billy Crawford, John Smith, Denny Kopp, and near the end, my good buddy Michael Spirko!

Electric blues was pretty big in the Tri-Cities at the time; we had more than our fair share of good white (and black) blues revival bands/writers/performers: JC’s Blue Jackson had written “Lightning” which had been recorded by Johnny Winter; Dickie Thompson, who’d recorded and toured with the Steve Miller Band during their blues period, had relocated to the Tri-Cities (and was the GrooveMasters’ keyboard player and sometime bassist; Kingsport’s Kermit “Champ” Young was playing on and off with New Orleans R&B guitarist Walter “Wolfman” Washington.

[Side note: the first show I saw at the Down Home was Wolfman. I was 17 and John Taylor’s father drove us up to Johnson City for the show. I’m sure I’ll write more on this later — it’s a pretty amusing little story.]

Back to the topic at hand, I can’t remember if McGuinn played “Easy Rider” or not. I do remember him playing “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “The Bells of Rhymney.” My introduction to the song, as I’ve already written, was via Fairport Convention’s version, which casts it as a country-rock waltz (3/4 time). I wasn’t familiar with the McGuinn/Byrds original — which is in country shuffle time (2/2) — until earlier this month, when I heard it on satellite radio. I know some of my musical friends, particularly my old roommate Mark Painter, will be horrified to learn that. I mean, what greater sixties touchstone is there than Easy Rider? And as a music fan born in the sixties, it would seem incumbent upon me to be fully aware of all musical aspects of such a culturally relevant film. But I wasn’t, and I’m still not.

Supposedly, Dylan  wouldn’t give Peter Fonda the rights to use his version of “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” or finish the theme song because he disagreed with the film’s ending, which has Fonda and the other ‘easy rider,’ played by Dennis Hopper, getting blown away by a couple of rednecks in a pickup truck somewhere between Louisiana and Florida.

I doubt Dylan would shy away from the subject matter, so I doubt that’s the reason. However, I do think Dylan was, at the time, trying very hard to shake off the mantle of counter-culture messiah that had been placed on him with the successes of Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. He was preparing to release Nashville Skyline, an album whose “safe” lyrical content and tame production was generally considered a kiss-off to the hippies who had crowned him king and the counter-culture in general. Contributing the theme song to the film that would — and I’m sure he was aware of this after screening the rough cut — be considered a “statement” by the left was, I’m pretty confident in saying, the last thing he wanted to do.

He did, however, give McGuinn those beautiful (if somewhat generic) opening lines.

What the Byrd did with them, well, that’s all McGuinn. “Easy Rider” sounds like an ancient folk hymn, the kind that the Byrds might’ve covered along with all those great Pete Seeger tunes, but the arrangement is both more straightforward and more delicate than any McGuinn had done before. It’s certainly not a ballad, in the traditional sense, or if it is, it’s only the final two verses of a much longer work … which would be the film itself, I suppose. If that’s the case, then McGuinn’s “ballad” succeeds in wrapping things up in a more hopeful package than we’re left with as the final shots of Fonda’s movie fade.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s