He Was A Friend of Mine (Just A Hand To Hold)

Lyrics: Mark Spoelstra
Music: Mark Spoelstra

This was played by the Grateful Dead in their early days, from 1966 to 1970. It is normally in setlists as "He Was A Friend Of Mine" but it is in fact a portion of a Mark Spoelstra song "Just A Hand To Hold". Nonetheless, Grateful Dead releases still list it as "Trad. Arr Garcia/Weir/McKernan/Lesh/Kreutzmann".

He was, he was a friend of mine
He was, he was a friend of mine
Now he's dead and gone

This morning my best friend
Was sleeping in his bed
His face like a jewel
And he was dead


He liked to play games
Mark, push me on a swing
Mark, push me on a merry-go-round
Going round and round

Grateful Dead Recordings
     Date Album
     live Jul 1966 Birth Of The Dead (note 1)
      3 Jul 1966 30 Trips Around The Sun
     24 May 1969 Road Trips Volume 4, Number 1
     8 Jun 1969 Fillmore West 1969 - The Complete Recordings (note 2)
      3 Jul 1969 30 Days Of The Dead (2011)
     12 Dec 1969 Dave's Picks Volume 10

(1) originally released as part of the Rhino box set The Golden Road (1965-1973)
(2) released on the bonus disc issued with advance orders

The original was recorded in 1965 by Mark Spoelstra on his LP Five And Twenty Questions, under the title "Just A Hand To Hold." (Thanks to Russ Lipetzky for pointing this out). The liner notes say it was inspired by the young boy David Anthony Lee, who was the victim of a hit-and-run accident in the community where Spoeltra lived.

Broadside #49 published on 20 August 1964 had this account by Mark Spoelstra:
When I heard the women wailing I looked down the street and saw a crowd gathering. Somebody called that a boy had been hit. John and I grabbed a blanket and ran to the scene. It was a little David Anthony Lee, a boy in our pre-school program -- so little. He had lost a great deal of blood and was lying in it -- half on the pavement and half in the dirt. There was a large hole in his head with three or four pieces of skull embedded in it. His cap was in the middle of the street. A large elderly woman (his grandmother) dropped by his side wailing -- almost as a threat -- "So young." A few women collapsed and had to be helped away. And then everything was quiet, except for occasional sobs. It had been a hit and run murder.

Now there is another little boy who comes to the Center, Timmy Chapel. And Timmy is the one who gave me the incentive to write Just A Hand To Hold. I tried to write a song about David Anthony but I couldn't. But the feeling I have about David is in the song. You see it is Timmy who always wanted to walk with me and hold my hand and be pushed on the merry-go-round. His is the face that is like a jewel -- and he is the one who has about as much chance to make it in this world as did David Anthony Lee. In some wierd way I thought that by writing this song it might help give him the chance David Anthony did not have.
The liner notes to Five And Twenty Questions suggest the route by which it may have got to the Grateful Dead. "Joan Baez performed it for a while, and according to Mark, 'Judy Collins almost recorded it, but for some reason didn't. Maybe it was too sad, I don't know.'"

The lyrics in the Mark Spoelstra version are:
He was, he was a friend of mine
He was, he was a friend of mine
Now he's dead he's and gone

This morning, my best friend
Lay still in his bed
His face like a jewel
And he was dead

He was, he was only six years old
He was, he was only six years old
So I've been told

He like to play games
Push me on the swings
Push me on the merry-go-round
Go round and round

Swing me, oh swing me, swing me all up and down
Spin me, oh spin me, spin me round and round
Till my feet touch the ground

He never was afraid
'Cause he was was brave and bold
And the only thing he ever asked for
Was a hand to hold

It makes no difference
Where he's from or where's he's bound
And it makes less difference
If he's lost or been found
He's dead and he's gone

But there is no power
Anywhere in this land
Like the voice that used to say
Will you hold my hand

There is a voice that rings loud throughout this land
There is a voice that speaks for the black and tan
And for all of man

It's young and it's old
It's brave and it's bold
It can't be bought or be sold
Just a hand to hold
It was covered in the same year by Kathy And Carol (Kathy Larisch and Carol McComb). Their version is almost identical to Spoeltra's except, interestingly, they sing "Mark, push me on the swing," as the Grateful Dead did.

Mark Spoelstra used to perform with Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Richard and Mimi Farina et al in New York in the early 1960s. That may explain the similarities to the song "He Was A Friend Of Mine" recorded by Dylan, Dave van Ronk, the Country Gentlemen and others, which is widely credited as the origin of the song the Grateful Dead sang. Roger McGuinn adapted it to refer to John Kennedy's assasination in a version on the Byrds' album "Turn, Turn, Turn."

The Dylan/Van Ronk version is roughly as follows:
He was a friend of mine
He was a friend of mine
Every time I think about him now
Lord I just can't keep from crying
'Cause he was friend a friend of mine

He died on the road
He died on the road
He never had no money
To pay his room or board
He was a friend of mine

I stole away and cried
I stole away and cried
'Cause I never had too much money
And I can't be satisfied
He was a friend of mine

He never done no wrong
He never done no wrong
He was just a poor boy
Long way from home
He was a friend of mine

He was a friend of mine
He was a friend of mine
Every time I hear his name
I just can't keep from crying
'Cause he was a friend of mine
There are conflicting stories about where Dylan or Van Ronk got their version from. Dylan at one time said he learnt it from "Blind Arvella Gray", a Chicago street singer, but that may have been misinformation.

One explanation given by Van Ronk in introducing the song at a concert was:
"I learned this song from Eric von Schmidt, who learned it from Dylan, who learned it from me"
He then went on to say that each had added and changed the song to suit his own inclination until really neither of them could make claim to it's original authorship.
"About 20 years ago, we finally all got together to try to figure out where the song started"
Half way through a bottle of rum they came to a vote to split the royalties for the song three ways
"It was a democratic vote... two to one"
In the liner notes to "Washington Square Memoirs", Van Ronk gives a slightly variant on this explanation:
"That song was originally called 'Shorty George,' and it was recorded for The Library of Congress by a man named Smith Casey, a cappella, as a work song. Eric Von Schmidt changed it around and set it to chords. Then Bob Dylan and I both got Eric's version and made some more changes to it. So there were really four people responsible for the song."
The Smith Casey version is available on the Rounder CD "Afro-American Blues and Game Songs." The lyrics clearly show how Eric Von Schmidt got the basis for his song, though the melody is different. (It isn't a capella: Smith Casey accompanies himself on guitar)
Mmmm, wonder what's the matter now
Lord, what's the matter now
[Down this path] by myself

Yes, he died on the road
Yes, he died on the road
Had no money to money to pay his board

Ah, he was a friend of mine
Yes, he wa a friend of mine
Every time I think now I just can't keep from crying

I stole away and cried
Yes, stole away and cried
Never had no money, now I wasn't satisfied

I wonder what's the matter now
Lord, wonder that's the matter now
Ain't got no letter, Lord
Don't need no letter, no how

I'm 'bout to lose my mind
I'm 'bout to lose my mind
Gonna spend some time
By this great long line

Further Information
For an online discussion of the lyrics to this song see the deadsongs.vue conference on The Well.
For more information on recordings see Matt Schofield's Grateful Dead Family Discography


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