The Flying Burrito Brothers Song That Includes a Tribute to Bobby Kennedy

I have probably heard “Sin City” by the Flying Burrito Brothers more than a hundred times.  But I never realized that one of the verses is about Robert F. Kennedy until reading an interview with Steve Earle.

In the interview, Earle recounted how the song’s co-writer Chris Hillman explained the Bobby Kennedy connection.  The following verse is about Kennedy.

A friend came around,
Tried to clean up this town;
His ideas made some people mad;
But he trusted his crowd,
So he spoke right out loud;
And they lost the best friend they had.

In another interview from many years ago in The Los Angeles Times, Hillman confirmed the above verse was about Kennedy. Hillman also explained how he and Gram Parsons came to write the song.

Hillman woke up one morning with the opening lines of the song in his head: “This old town’s filled with sin, it’ll swallow you in….”  He immediately woke up his roommate Parsons, who soon came up with the melody for the song.

Parsons and Hillman, who both had recently experienced relationship breakups, completed the song in about thirty minutes.  And they both ended up singing it on the first Flying Burrito Brothers album, The Gilded Palace of Sin (1969).

Bobby Kennedy was not the only person referenced in the song.  Hillman, who still had bad feelings about the breakup of his former band The Byrds, included an allusion to that band’s manager Larry Spector.  Hillman considered Spector a thief, and the man lived on the thirty-first floor of a condo.  Hence the line:  “On the thirty-first floor a gold plated door / Won’t keep out the Lord’s burning rain.”

Hillman further explained that they wrote “Sin City” as a cautionary tale to “people like Gene Clark from the Byrds, who came here from Kansas with all that talent and all bright-eyed and talented and idealistic, and the whole thing just swallowed him up.”  Unfortunately, that cautionary tale could equally refer to the tragic young death of Parsons.

“Sin City” remains one of the great collaborations between two great singer-songwriters. While the original recorded by the songwriters remains definitive, there have been a couple of nice covers through the years. Below in a performance from 1989, k.d. lang and Dwight Yoakam do the song justice.

Finally, here is a wonderful version by Steve Earle, Gillian Welch, and David Rawlings (Buddy Miller is also there on guitar).

And that is the story behind the song.

What is your favorite song by the Flying Burrito Brothers? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Tom Jones: “Elvis Presley Blues”

    The 75-year-old Tom Jones continues to create interesting music, and he is releasing a new album that includes a cover of Gillian Welch‘s “Elvis Presley Blues.” While it may seem unusual for Jones to cover a folk/Americana singer-songwriter like Welch, Jones has always been willing to sing great songs, no matter what the genre.

    Jones’s cover of “Elvis Presley Blues” is also interesting because Jones was friends with Elvis Presley. Welch’s song is a tribute to Presley and a lament, as the singer thinks “about the day he died,” comparing Presley’s world-changing shaking to the steel-driving man John Henry. Jones, who also was famous for “shaking it,” seems the perfect person to sing the song. His version and the video featuring Jones watching video of his friend makes the song more personal, adding a new poignancy to the lyrics.

    “Elvis Presley Blues” appears on Jones’s upcoming album Long Lost Suitcase. Check out the video for the song.

    Long Lost Suitcase, a CD being released as a companion of sorts to Jones’s recent autobiography Over the Top and Back, hits stores December 5. Jones’s website describes the new album as “a catalogue of tracks that have impacted on Tom throughout his legendary career.”

    What do you think of the new Tom Jones video? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Song of the Day: “The Weekend” by David Rawlings Machine

    The David Rawlings Machine recently released its second album, Nashville Obsolete (2015). In the video for the lead track on the album, “The Weekend,” David Rawlings and Gillian Welch take us on a fast road trip from Nashville to California.

    Before The David Rawlings Machine released its first album A Friend of a Friend in 2009, David Rawlings already had an established music career doing things like producing Old Crow Medicine Show and co-writing songs with Ryan Adams such as “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High).”

    Now Rawlings is making great music with Gillian Welch with harmonies that remind me of the Jayhawks. Check out the video for “The Weekend.”

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    “I’ll Fly Away” and the Prisoner

    On October 9, 2013, the state of Arizona executed the 71-year-old Edward H. Schad, Jr. by lethal injection in Florence, Arizona. Schad, the oldest person on the state’s death row, had been convicted of killing a man during a robbery almost 35 years earlier.

    The warden asked Schad if he had any last words. And the inmate responded, “Well, after 34 years, I’m free to fly away home. Thank you, warden. Those are my last words.”

    The Song That Inspired the Last Words

    Reverend Ronald Koplitz, who was Schad’s pastor and who met the prisoner in 1981 while serving as prison chaplain, explained that the last words were a reference to the hymn “I’ll Fly Away.” Rev. Koplitz had become friends with Schad and kept in touch with him after his time as prison chaplain.

    Rev. Koplitz gave Schad the song “I’ll Fly Away” a few weeks before the execution.  And apparently, Schad felt a connection to the song.

    “I’ll Fly Away”

    The song that gave some comfort to the prisoner in his final moments before being killed goes back to 1929.  In that year, Albert E. Brumley wrote “I’ll Fly Away.” The wonderful hymn, about eternal life and flying away “to that home on God’s celestial shore,” is one of the most popular gospel songs of all time.

    There are a number of great versions of “I’ll Fly Away.” The song has appeared in several movies, including in nice a version by Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). Doc Watson played an instrumental version of “I’ll Fly Away” in his last public performance.  And the song appeared in The Waltons.

    Here is a great live version by Gillian Welch.

    “The Prisoner” Inspired the Song that Inspired a Prisoner

    When Schad referenced the song on the death gurney in Arizona, he likely did not know that his invocation of the song inside prison walls sort of brought the hymn home. When Brumley began writing the song while picking cotton, he was inspired by a song called “The Prisoner’s Song.”

    Brumley thought about that song regarding a prisoner thinking of leaving his love behind.  And he used a brilliant analogy using prison to represent life on earth.

    Brumley was inspired by specific lyrics in “The Prisoner’s Song.” The line “Now, if I had the wings of an angel,/Over these prison walls I would fly” led to Brumley’s theme about flying away.

    In this video, Johnny Cash sings “The Prisoner’s Song” on a January 20, 1971 episode of his TV show.

    During the introduction, Cash refers to the popularity of “The Prisoner’s Song.” Vernon Dalhart initially recorded the song in 1924 as a B-side to his version of “The Wreck of the Old 97.” “The Prisoner’s Song,” which likely was written by Dalhart’s cousin Guy Massey and/or Guy’s brother Robert Massey, became a big hit for Dalhart.

    In “I’ll Fly Away,” Brumley also retained the prison theme, using it as representing life on earth: “Like a bird from these prison walls I’ll fly.” It is not hard to see how Brumley’s wonderful song might bring some comfort to someone like Schad, strapped down on the execution gurney facing certain death. Music soothes both saints and sinners.

    What is your favorite version of “I’ll Fly Aawy”? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Best Gospel Songs by Pop Singers 4: Morning, Flying & Mystery

    In response to popular demand, Chimesfreedom continues its periodic discussion of the best gospel songs by pop singers. In this Post, we consider one gospel song overwhelmingly identified with one pop singer, another gospel song that is recorded by many singers, and finally, a beautiful song about being an agnostic that deserves a place next to other songs of faith.

    “Morning Has Broken,” Cat Stevens.

    This song is so associated with Cat Stevens — now Yusaf Islam — that for a long time, I thought it was one of his original songs. But the Christian hymn first appeared in 1931, and the music goes back even further to the nineteenth century as a traditional Gaelic tune, “Bunessan.”

    “Morning has Broken” is a simple song with a simple message of being thankful for each day: “Praise with elation, praise every morning / God’s recreation of the new day.”

    “I’ll Fly Away,” Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch.

    Alfred E. Brumley wrote “I’ll Fly Away” in 1931. He was picking cotton when he came up with the song. As he later explained: “I was dreaming of flying away from that cotton field when I wrote I’ll Fly Away.” Many believe the song is the most-recorded gospel song of all time. If true, it is not surprising because it is a beautiful song.

    A number of country singers have recorded the song, including Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Charley Pride, Jim Reeves, and Alan Jackson. Etta James does an uplifting version. Kanye West does an excellent version too. I especially like Alison Krauss’s version, and in particular this version with Gillian Welch from the film O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000).

    “Let the Mystery Be,” Iris DeMent.

    One might dispute including “Let the Mystery Be” from Iris DeMent’s Infamous Angel (1993) album in a discussion of Gospel songs because the song reflects DeMent’s agnosticism rather than faith in a higher power. Yet, the song only could have been written by someone who was raised in a religious environment.

    DeMent grew up in a Pentecostal family where she was not allowed to listen to non-gospel music, and the song brings out the division between her upbringing and her adult beliefs. But “letting the mystery be” takes a leap of faith too. And, as in many of the best gospel songs, it highlights a beautiful struggle in a beautiful song.

    Some say they’re goin’ to a place called Glory and I ain’t saying it ain’t a fact.
    But I’ve heard that I’m on the road to purgatory and I don’t like the sound of that.
    Well, I believe in love and I live my life accordingly.
    But I choose to let the mystery be.

    See our other posts in our series of Gospel Songs by Pops Singers.

    What is your favorite Gospel song by a pop singer? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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