"He Was a Friend of Mine" is a traditional folk song in which the singer laments the death of a friend. In 1961 Rolf Cahn and Eric Von Schmidt cut the first version of "He Was A Friend Of Mine", (recorded by Bob Dylan the same year).
It was contained on the next album on the Folkways-label (FA 2417)
But at the bottom of the liner-notes of the Folkways-album by Rolf Cahn and Eric Von Schmidt they mention this:
"He Was A Friend Of Mine", sung with the title "Shorty George" by Smith Casey, Clemens State Farm, Brazoria, Texas, 1939.
And indeed Cahn and Von Schmidt's "He Was A Friend Of Mine" is an almost exact cover-version of Smith Casey's mesmerizing "Shorty George". Casey cut the song and ten others for John Lomax in 1939. Traditionally the Shorty George was the train that took convicts (and visitors) to and from the prison.
Issued by the Library of Congress in the 1950's on the next album:
Afro-American Blues and Game Songs
Library of Congress AFS L4:
The LP album was accompanied by liner note booklet, packed with information about the recordings and the traditions they represented.
Edited by Alan Lomax, 1942. PDF, 10 pp.,
But already in February 1934 James Baker (Iron Head) recorded a version of "Shorty George", at Central State Farm, Sugarland, Texas, with a bit different melody, and with floating lyrics.
In 1935 Leadbelly recorded the song by the same name about the train, also a bit different than the one Casey sang. He even sings: "Well-a Shorty George, he AIN'T no friend of mine"
Listen here to Leadbelly's version:
Just to add some confusion, Sippie Wallace recorded a song by the same title which is UNRELATED to the versions above.
SHORTY GEORGE BLUES
Recorded October 26, 1923
(Composers: GEORGE and HOCIEL THOMAS)
TINY FRANKLIN (piano acc. George Thomas)
SHORTY GEORGE BLUES
Recorded December 10, 1923
But let's see who else covered "He Was A Friend Of Mine":
(c) Bob Dylan 1961
(c) Dave Van Ronk 1963
(c) Dian And The Greenbriar Boys 1963 (as "He Was A Friend") (with an arrangement and lyrics by Hoyt Axton)
(c) Bobby Bare 1964 (dedicated to Jim Reeves who died in a plane-crash in 1964)
(c) Byrds 1965 (dedicated to John F Kennedy who was killed in 1963)
(c) The Byrds also performed the song during their appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival on June 17, 1967, where band member David Crosby made controversial remarks alleging that Kennedy had not been killed by Lee Harvey Oswald alone, but was actually the victim of a U.S. Government conspiracy.
(c) Mark Spoelstra 1965 (Just A Hand To Hold)
Mark says he wrote it after he left Cambridge, when he was in Fresno
doing alternative service, in 1964. It's partly influenced on the van Ronk
song, but with an entirely different theme, based on a true story.
And that story was contained in Broadside Magazine # 49:
(The Grateful Dead (SEE THIRD VIDEO BELOW) commonly performed "He Was a Friend of Mine" during live concerts between 1966 and 1970, but their version was in fact based on the Mark Spoelstra song, "Just a Hand to Hold".
(c) Leaves 1966
(c) Grateful Dead 1969) (SEE NOTES ABOVE ON THE MARK SPOELSTRA VIDEO)
(c) Ramblin' Jack Elliott 1998 (in remembrance of "Sweet Pete")
(c) Cat Power 2005
(c) Willie Nelson 2005 (in movie: "Brokeback Mountain")
On the website Roots of the Grateful Dead the next song is mentioned as a possible precursor:
Ethel Ridley 1925
"He Was A Good Man (But He's Dead And Gone)"
Label: Ajax 17131
Recorded circa March 1925, New York City
And numerous more cover-versions