The Roger McGuinn song that Bob Dylan disowned

There are many stories of Bob Dylan being disgruntled, and one of the most fascinating involves the counterculture’s defining movie, Easy Rider. In a reflection of the shoulder-rubbing closeness of the day’s music scene, this anecdote also features The Byrds leader, Roger McGuinn.

The story goes that Peter Fonda, the star and co-writer of 1969’s Easy Rider, initially wanted to use the classic Bob Dylan track ‘It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’ from 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home in the movie. However, after failing to secure a license for the song, he asked McGuinn to record a cover instead.

Fonda, a big fan of Dylan, also wanted him to pen the film’s theme song, but Dylan declined. According to David Fricke in the liner notes of 1997’s Ballad of Easy Rider, Dylan refused the request and instead quickly scribbled the following lines 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”. He then mysteriously instructed Fonda to “give this to McGuinn. He’ll know what to do with it”.

Per his direction, the lyrics were then passed onto Roger McGuinn. Since he had always been connected to Dylan through The Byrds’ penchant for covering his songs, he effortlessly built upon them with his own words and music to complete the composition.

However, Dylan would have his say again. It is claimed in Johnny Rogan’s book, The Byrds: Timeless Flight Revisited, that after Dylan saw a private screening of Easy Rider, he realised that he had been credited as the co-writer of the theme song, ‘Ballad of Easy Rider’. He then telephoned McGuinn and demanded that his name be removed from the movie’s ending credits and all subsequent releases of the track.

Whilst Dylan has never verified the story, it has been theorised by McGuinn that he disowned the song because “he didn’t like the movie that much. He didn’t like the ending. He wanted to see the truck blow up in order to get poetic justice. He didn’t seem to understand Peter Fonda’s anti-hero concept”. Other commentators have postulated that Dylan’s reasoning was that he felt his name was being exploited to boost the movie’s prospects.

Notably, the version of ‘Ballad of Easy Rider’ used in the movie and included on its soundtrack album is listed as a solo effort by McGuinn, which features the eminent fellow Byrd Gene Parsons on harmonica. Confusingly, this version is entirely different to the one that The Byrds would then record and release on the Ballad of Easy Rider album later in the year.

Listen to McGuinn’s solo version of ‘Ballad of Easy Rider’ below.

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