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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

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