Back when I was a brash rip of a young lad with a Silvertone guitar playing at high school parties and small coffee houses, I had a mental list of about ten or fifteen songs that I dreaded having people request and pretended if I could not to hear the queries. The list included, Lord have mercy on us, a goodly number of Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary songs - not because the songs themselves weren't good, but rather because I had just gotten tired of playing them again and again and again. "Blowin' In The Wind" and "Puff The Magic Dragon" and "Tom Dooley" were all worthy pieces that had simply developed a bit too much tread wear for me when I was fifteen or sixteen. Heading that list, I am now sad in retrospect to report, was "500 Miles."
It wasn't that I wasn't into melancholy, loneliness, or lost love, either. I am, after all, of primarily Irish descent, and all of the above plus a marked tendency to the love of a good drop of the craythur, as they say ("creature," meaning grain alcohol and by extension any distilled beverage for all the non-Hibernians out there) plus a hot temper, love of poetry and song, and a mouth that for some reason just won't stop chattering are all part of the genetic inheritance of our breed.
No, it was because this simple, four chord song had really, really been done to death by about 1964 or 1965, and what is at the heart of the ultimate charm of the song - its very simplicity and at its core its honest recitation of some very nearly universal emotions - just didn't allow for a whole lot of variation in presentation or arrangement.
Now that I am (considerably) older and perhaps a tad wiser - and at a distance of forty-five or more years - I can see the splendidly if subtly individual ways that the genuinely stunning array of artists below interpreted this truly beautiful composition.
"500 Miles" was written or co-written and copyrighted by the late folksinger Hedy West, whom I would describe as to some degree the female equivalent of Bob Gibson - a truly remarkable and profoundly influential folk artist now all but forgotten. West was an Appalachian girl (born in the mountains of Georgia in 1938, died of cancer in 2003), a frailing five string banjo player good enough to appear frequently with Pete Seeger, and with Carolyn Hester and before Joan Baez, the darling among the young women who performed in the Greenwich Village coffee houses in the late 50s and early 60s. Some have suggested that her composition of "500 Miles" was influenced by the traditional folk song "900 Miles," and perhaps so in a very limited way. (Trio fans would know "900 Miles" as the original uptempo tune that Lord Burgess turned into my favorite Nick Reynolds' solo, "The Wanderer" from Here We Go Again.) There is a slight similarity in the melody and both involve missing a loved one - and trains. Beyond that, "500 Miles" is all Hedy West (and possibly her grandmother, who is alleged to have taught her a now-lost root version of it).
West's own version* of the song stands in distinct contrast to the smooth, mellow, harmonized versions of the pop-folk groups below. Accompanying herself with a five-string banjo only (whose ringing tone is screaming "Vega Pete Seeger longneck banjo with the company's famous Tubaphone tone ring" at us), West's voice, accent, and almost laconic delivery keep the song squarely in the Appalachian tradition from which it sprang:
The first recording of the song that gained attention - meaning that virtually every other version below was derived from it - was by the fabulous Journeymen - Dick Weissman, Scott MacKenzie (of "San Francisco" fame) and soon-to-be Papa John Phillips, who in the best Dave Guard-Jane Bowers tradition claimed a co-copyright for a song that he amended slightly but did not actually write. Here are the Journeymen from 1961:
Apparently the friendship between John Stewart and John Phillips enabled the KT to get the second version of the song out on vinyl - as we know, from College Concert in a fine, understated performance with a great, lonely train-whistle vocal by Stewart:
I think that many people associate the song most with Peter, Paul and Mary, and if you haven't heard them do this one in a while - great vocals:
This is the original studio track from their first eponymous album.
Country legend Bobby Bare had the charting single version of the song (#10 in 1963) with a lyric that he completely re-wrote and copyrighted:
For a really lonesome wailing version, no one beats Hoyt Axton (of "Greenback Dollar" fame):
Roseanne Cash creates a stunning amalgam of Hedy West's original and Bobby Bare's rewrite - haunting and beautifully accompanied:
Every damned female "contestant" on that non-musical cesspool called American Idol should be tied to a chair to listen to the great ladies of 60s folk, Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell - and Joan Baez:
That, children, is what singing is supposed to sound like.
Finally, two slightly rock-ish versions - Peter and Gordon and 80s folk-rock group The Hooters (named after a slang term for a concertina):
* West's version added courtesy of Gary M., who comments below.