Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about movies and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the movie urban legends featured so far.
MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Bob Dylan co-wrote “The Ballad of Easy Rider.”
Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s 1969 film, Easy Rider, was not just a notable film for its aid in ushering in the age of “New Hollywood,” but also for its impressive soundtrack.
Fonda and Hopper had an interesting approach to requesting licenses from various artists to use their songs in the film. They were using popular contemporary artists of the day (mostly bands that Hopper, the director of the film, enjoyed) and they would actually screen the film for the artists in question and tell them where they planned to use their songs (as Hopper, naturally, had specific songs in his mind when filming different scenes).
Well, for the closing credits, they wanted to use Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” (which, if you recall the ending of Easy Rider, would fit really well for the film).
Dylan said no (I don’t believe Fonda has ever publicly said why and good luck getting an answer from Dylan, but people, including Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, say that it was because Dylan disliked the ending of the film, feeling it was too dark), so instead, Fonda had McGuinn do a cover of the song.
So instead of using THAT song for the shot, Fonda asked if Dylan would write a NEW song for the closing (the only new song they planned on having in the film), with “It’s Alright” being moved slightly before the ending then.
What Dylan did next is the issue here…
Dylan politely denied, but knowing that McGuinn was doing the cover of “It’s Alright,” Dylan wrote the following lyrics on a napkin and told Fonda “Give this to McGuinn.”
The river flows, it flows to the sea/Wherever that river goes, that’s where I want to be/Flow, river, flow
McGuinn then used those lyrics to form the basis of “The Ballad of Easy Rider,” which closed the film.
When Dylan was showed the film before it’s release, though, he was upset. He was listed as the co-writer of the song, credit he did not want. He called up McGuinn to say “Take that off, I told you not to give me any credit. I do things like that for people every day. I just gave you a line that’s all.”
It could possibly be as simple as Dylan not wanting credit he felt he did not deserve, but he also could have had a problem with his name being used to sell the film – “With a new song by Bob Dylan” would be quite a selling point for such a small film as Easy Rider (as they did not know at the time that the film would be such a smash success), or heck, he might very well just not liked the film. I don’t know, and with it being Dylan and all, I don’t know if we’ll EVER know.
McGuinn’s band, The Byrds, would end up doing an album CALLED The Ballad of the Easy Rider, including a version of the song.
The legend is…
STATUS: Basically True
Thanks to Rolling Stone’s David Fricke and Johnny Rogan’s book, The Byrds: Timeless Flight Revisited: The Sequel, for the information about Dylan and McGuinn’s involvement with the song.
Also, a general thanks to Jon Burlingame’s great book, Sound and Vision: 60 Years of Motion Picture Soundtracks, which is a great general resource for movie soundtrack history! Thanks, Jon!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.