Song of the Week 47: The Pilgrim, Chapter 33 – Kris Kristofferson

kris kristofferson the silver tongued devil and I

This week contains more of that William Blake-esque wisdom derived from excess. We’ll have a look at the characters mentioned in the spoken intro to the Kris Kristofferson song, The Pilgrim, Chapter 33.

“I started writing this song about Chris Gantry, ended up writing about Dennis Hopper and Johnny Cash… Norman Norbert, Funky Donnie Fritts, Billy Swan, Bobby Neuwirth, Jerry Jeff Walker, Paul Siebel… Ramblin’ Jack Elliot had a lot to do with it.”

Johnny Cash seemed to think there was a bit of Kristofferson in there too. Well, the other three members of his band were in there: Norman Norbert, Donnie Fritts, and Billy Swan who all played with Kris during the 70`s.

Maybe Kris was just as much a “walking contradiction” as the others up there.

“I’ve been trying to think of things to tell my kids, something that I could pass down, and it’s like, gee whiz, I maybe never learned anything that didn’t contradict itself.” Kris in an Interview with Esquire, What I’ve Learned

Taxi Driver

I first came across the song in Scorcese’s Taxi Driver. Betsy calls Travis “… partly truth and partly fiction – A walking contradiction.”  Travis goes and buys the album and later gives it to her.

His introduction to The Pilgrim reads like a who’s who? of country music and folk’s wild rovers and ramblers. Kristofferson tips his hat to some of the names that didn’t get so much of the spotlight. Still don’t.

He had no shortage of material. Most of these hard-living fellas are still around. So, let’s do a whistle-stop tour of the troubadours.

Let’s hear them sing their songs for themselves. After all, talking about music is like dancing about architecture, which is no substitute for the real thing. That’s not to say it isn’t a whole lot of fun.

But first…

Kris Kristofferson has worked as a helicopter pilot in the army, a fireman in Alaska, a railroad man, a construction worker, the janitor for Columbia Studios in Nashville and spent time as a beer hall regular before he found fame. Later on he’d become a rebel, an outlaw, a highway man, an activist, songwriter and a successful actor.

He was born into a well-off military family of Swedish and Scots-Irish origin, with an Air Force Major General Father, who pushed Kris towards a military career. He achieved the Rhodes scholarship to go study at Oxford University, where he received and a Masters Degree.

“Never give up, which is the lesson I learned from boxing. As soon as you learn to never give up, you have to learn the power and wisdom of unconditional surrender, and that one doesn’t cancel out the other; they just exist as contradictions. The wisdom of it comes as you get older.” Kristofferson, interview with Esquire

While at college, among other things, he received a Blue for boxing, and began to write songs, while his manager Larry Parnes tried to promote him as “A Yank at Oxford” to the British public. He recorded music there under the stage name Kris Carson. He went along with it, because he thought a singing career would allow him to progress towards his goal of writing novels.

“Once he had a future full of money, love and dreams
Which he spent like they was goin’ out of style”

Under pressure from his family, he signed up for the military, where he became a helicopter pilot and achieved the rank of captain. He would make up songs and play them for the other soldiers, but his love of literature spurred him on to do something deeper with his writing. In 1965, after his tour of duty in Germany had ended, he was turned down to voluntary duty in Vietnam, because he was already assigned to teach literature in West Point academy.

“There are points in your life, especially if you have creative ambitions, where selfishness is necessary.” Interview with Esquire

In the end, he quit the army to pursue his songwriting, and formed a band. His family disowned him, and never reconciled with him again, as they saw this as a rejection of everything they stood for. In spite of this, he’s proud of his time in the army.
However he had been greatly influenced by William Blake during college and in particular the proclamation that if one has a God-given creative talent, then one should use it or else reap sorrow and despair.

“See him wasted on the sidewalk in his jacket and his jeans
Wearin’ yesterday’s misfortunes like a smile

By the time he got to Nashville to Sun Records, Sam Phillips said that his shoes were “falling off his feet.”

Kris Kristofferson had done a whole lotta living by the time he wrote this song. It’s on his second album, The Silver Tongued Devil and I, and he’d met plenty of silver tongued devils. And he had some of them to thank for getting him into the business.

Gaslight_Cafe Greenwich Village

Back in 1964, his friend Ramblin’ Jack stood up to the mic in The Gaslight in Greenwich Village and asked if his friend Kris who’d just got back from England could play a few songs in front of some of the famous names seated there. They loved him.

“There’s a lot of wrong directions on your lonesome way back home.

In 1965, after leaving the army, he moved to Nashville, and worked a series of odd jobs, while struggling to make it in the music business. The burden of paying medical expenses put pressure on his marriage and he and would get divorced a few years later.

“If you can’t get out of something, get into it. If you can’t fix it, fuck it.” Kris, What I’ve Learned

Quonset-Hut Nashville

He got a job sweeping floors in Columbia Studios, where he met Johnny Cash, who accepted some of his songs, but decided not to record them. While he was there Bob Dylan was recording the landmark album Blonde on Blonde. He watched some of the sessions, but never approached Dylan lest he get fired for doing so.

He was also working as a commercial helicopter pilot during that time in Lafayette, South Louisiana.

“That was about the last three years before I started performing, before people started cutting my songs … I would work a week down here [in south Louisiana] for PHI, sitting on an oil platform and flying helicopters. Then I’d go back to Nashville at the end of the week and spend a week up there trying to pitch the songs, then come back down and write songs for another week … I can remember ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’ I wrote sitting on top of an oil platform. I wrote ‘Bobby McGee’ down here, and a lot of them [in south Louisiana].”

In 1966, Dave Dudley had a hit with Viet Nam Blues, a Kristofferson song. By 1967 he’d been signed up to Epic Records and released his own single Golden Idol/Killing Time, which was unsuccessful, but in the next few years his songs started hitting the charts for other performers.

By late 1969, his apartment had just been robbed, he’d got fired from his job. His family had already disowned him and now he owed  child support to his wife. He was living in a hotel that he described as like something out of Psycho, “a filthy place, just sitting there with this neon Jesus outside the door, in the swamps outside of Lafayette, Louisiana.”

Feeling like he’d hit rock bottom, he…

“…went to Nashville and called this friend of mine, Mickey Newberry, and told him I’d just got fired, and he said, “Great. Johnny Cash is shooting a new TV show. Come up, and we can pitch him some songs.” The next moment, they cut three of my songs, and they were hits. I never had to go back to work again.”

Sounds easy, but Cash hadn’t really paid much notice to Columbia Studios new janitor at first, and it wasn’t until Kris landed a helicopter in his back garden without prior notice and handed him some tapes that he got his attention. It’s one way of getting your point across.

Cash introduced Kristofferson to the crowd at the Newport Folk Festival in 1969, and the endorsement helped Kris gain a following of his own.

His first album, titled Kristofferson, was released in 1970, featuring many of those hits: Sunday Morning Coming Down and Me & Bobby McGee to name just two.

Still, the janitor job allowed him to meet a lot of artists who would go on to record his songs. Once Johnny Cash took interest, others soon followed, and as the 70s wore on, Kris would also find fame as an actor.

His second album, That Silver Tongued Devil and I, which features this week’s Song of the Week was a success, and established Kristofferson as a recording artist in his own right.

“The closest I’ve come to knowing myself is in losing myself. That’s why I loved football before I loved music. I could lose myself in it. Music and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll — all of it is for you to lose yourself.”

So, let’s get lost. Two of those freewheelin´ loose-livered fellas he mentioned in that song, who took pleasure in taking “every wrong direction” are first up.

Here they are on that same TV Show in the early 70s. Lovely to see Dennis (fresh from directing The Last Movie – Kristofferson’s debut acting performance) and Johnny laughing it up and singing it together. Priceless clip. A young Dennis gets all serious afterwards and recites Rudyard Kipling´s If.

Johnny Cash will feature in his own Song of the Week pretty soon, so stay tuned country music fans!

“Dennis Hopper playing golf is one of the first signs of the apocalypse. It’s true — he’s become a Republican.” Kris, from the Esquire interview

ramblin jack elliot

Here’s Kris on Ramblin´Jack, who “had a lot do with it” and his “good buddy” Johnny Cash, from an interview with Aiyana Elliot, who filmed a documentary A Daughter’s Devotion to try to come to terms with her wayward father.

“Before I knew Ramblin’ Jack, I thought they called him Ramblin’ Jack because of his travels — which he does, God knows — but it’s because of the way he talks. I’ve never heard anybody that was so enchanting on subjects that I didn’t give a damn about.

“I got him up on the stage one time — he took so long to tune up, I said, “Listen I know you don’t hold a pistol up to Picasso’s head and say ‘Paint!’ but you gotta get started!”

“I can remember when Johnny Cash recorded this song, he said, “I wanna have Jack Elliott’s guitar. If Jack isn’t on it, I wanna have somebody playing what Jack Elliott plays.” … God damn I’m having a senior moment — I can’t think what the song was …”

Aiyana offers, “Carpenter?”

“Yes. Exactly — Carpenter. It was the one and it was the way that Jack did it … and I think John and June had a hit on it  with Jack’s lick. But that’s the story of his life: was other people having hits on stuff that he might be responsible for.”

Well, let’s have a listen to the way Jack did it, with his first appearance on, yes, you guessed it The Johnny Cash Show. The song is If I Were a Carpenter by Tim Hardin. Looks like quite a character. His eccentric demeanor and rambling delivery cracks Johnny up.

Ramblin’  Jack Elliot has been called “the major link between the late Woody Guthrie and modern folk music”. That’s some accolade. He was friends with Woody, and hung out with him and was a self-confessed admirer and student.

By Bob Dylan’s first gig in Greenwich Village, Jack was already something of a sensation on the scene, and the young pretender, Bob (a Guthrie fanatic at the time), was billed as the heir to Ramblin’ Jack. Jack’s career never did take off, and we all know what happened to Bob’s.

When Ramblin’  Jack came back to America in 1961, from Europe, Bob had just arrived in New York they met in the hospital where Woody Guthrie was holed up. Here’s Jack on his first impressions of Bob.

“He was still doing a lot of traditional songs, great old Jimmie Rodgers songs, railroad blues. Most everybody couldn’t stand his voice, because it was way out of control. And he was going through puberty. Couldn’t even grow a beard. He was a cute kid, though. He looked like a poet.”

But it was a two-way-street. Elliot was influenced greatly by Bob down the years and Dylan’s own hospitalisation for a heart problem inspired Jack to write one of his few original songs.

“I don’t know how to start writing…I never even gave it a try. I noticed that every guitar player had (printed lyrics for) 50 to 100 songs they wrote in their guitar case. I was the only one I knew that never wrote his own.” Elliot

“As far as Bobby knew, Jack Elliott was absolutely good coin goyisha cowboy. In the course of the conversation it came out somehow that he was Elliott Adnopoz, a Jewish cat from Ocean Parkway, and Bobby fell off his chair. He rolled under the table, laughing like a madman… We had all suspected Bobby was Jewish, and that proved it…” Dave Van Ronk

He’s still alive Ramblin’  Jack and he got to see the movie his daughter made about him.

“It’s a great tribute to a life badly lived.”

Next up is Nashville tunesmith Chris Gantry, who wrote Dreams of the Everyday Housewife for Glen Campbell and Sundown Mary for Billy Walker.

“Some writers can use words like film, and their songs become very much like movies that run in the theatres in our own minds. Their songs are not only for singing, they’re also for seeing, for they’re like windows into our own experiences. Such a writer is our next guest…” Cash

chris gantry

I don’t know much about Chris (there doesn’t seem to be that much information about him), so I’ve let Johnny introduce him, but let’s go back to the Johnny Cash show and let his music do the talking. I’m just hearing this song for the first time. It wasn’t a hit in the musical sense, but it’s hit me over the head like a musical sledgehammer… in a good way. Nice to have this clip. Would have liked to have posted some more.

Who’s next on that list? Bobby Neuwirth. Well here’s that crazy cat clicking his fingers and hanging out with his friend Bob Dylan in Pennemaker`s documentary Don’t Look Back.

He put together Bob’s backing band for 1975’s Rolling Thunder Revue.

Still going strong  these days at 73. Here’s a song from his album 99 Monkeys, which incidentally was co-written with Kris Kristofferson. This one is called For the Sake Of A Song.

Bob Neuwirth co-wrote the song Mercedes-Benz with another hell raiser Janis Joplin (and poet Michael McClure), and introduced Kris Kristofferson to Janis. Kris was dating her at the time of her death. The posthumous release of Me & Bobby McGee from her album Pearl went straight to number 1 and stayed there for weeks.


The song came from Kristofferson’s first album, which had flopped even though it contained many hits for other artists who covered his work. Kristofferson changed the name of the eponymous album to Me & Bobby McGee and sales started to take off.

donnie fritts prone to lean

After Joplin’s death, Kristofferson and his keyboardist Donnie Fritts wrote the song Epitaph (Black and Blue) for her. Donnie was a session musician and songwriter and is still the keyboardist for Kristofferson to this day. They first met in 1965. Kristopherson co-produced Fritts´ 1974 album Prone to Lean. Here’s Epitaph, the last song on the album The Silver Tongued Devil and I:

Next up is one-time Greenwich Village regular from the outlaw country scene, Jerry Jeff Walker who wrote a song that became a standard of the American Songbook, Mr Bojangles, which was written about a friend of his: an obscure, alcoholic, tap-dancing drifter.

Last, but not least here’s Paul Siebel; a musician’s musician; a folk blues artist who’s probably better known for others cover versions of his tunes. His first two albums were classics, but he remained unknown to the wider public. He became depressed and developed drug problems after 1971 and stopped writing. Here he plays one of the best known of those, Louise:

“If God made anything better than women, I think he kept it for himself.” Kristofferson, interview with Esquire


So, back to Kris. He’s been married three times and has eight children. He also dated Janis Joplin, Barbara Streisand, who he starred with in A Star is Born in 1986. I mentioned the song Evergreen in SOTW 45,because Paul Williams penned the lyrics. Barbara takes the lead while Kris sings the harmony. For what it’s worth he also had a fling with Joan Baez around 1970-71. Scandal, romance, gossip, you get it all here! 🙂
Here’s a clip from the movie of the couple singing together.

“I was a slow starter. I mean, I grew up in the fifties, and, jeez, I wasn’t even laid in high school. Looking back on it, I didn’t know anything, which was kind of unfortunate for my first couple of wives. When I found out that girls like sex as much as guys, I was, for many years, feeling like that was my function. I mean, I wasn’t as bad as Clinton, but I was led by the pecker.” from the interview with Esquire

Willie and Kris
In 1984, Kris starred in the movie Songwriter with Willie Nelson. The soundtrack to the movie, featuring songs by Kristofferson and Nelson became a massive success, and out of this was born The Highwaymen, a country music supergroup that also included Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash.
They recorded two very successful albums for Columbia Records and one for Liberty Records. The song The Highwayman hit number 1 in 1985.
UPDATE: Here’s the Kris Kristofferson Story by Steve Earle, which has just been uploaded to youtube. Enjoy..
Kristofferson has said that when he dies, he would like the first three lines of Bird on a Wire, by Leonard Cohen, on his tombstone.

“Like a bird on a wire
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free”

So, let’s end today’s country music carousel with some words of wisdom from our outlaw hero:

“Tell the truth. Sing with passion. Work with laughter. Love with heart. ‘Cause that’s all that matters in the end.”


See him wasted on the sidewalk in his jacket and his jeans
Wearin’ yesterday’s misfortunes like a smile
Once he had a future full of money, love and dreams
Which he spent like they was goin’ out of style

And he keeps right on a-changin’ for the better or the worse
Searchin’ for a shrine he’s never found
Never knowin’ if believin’ is a blessin’ or a curse
Or if the goin’ up was worth the comin’ down

He’s a poet, oh, he’s a picker, he’s a prophet, he’s a pusher
He’s a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he’s stoned
He’s a walkin’ contradiction, partly truth, partly fiction
Takin’ ev’ry wrong direction on his lonely way back home

Well, he has tasted good and evil in your bedrooms and your bars
Has traded in tomorrow for today
Runnin’ from his devils, Lord and reachin’ for the stars
And losin’ all he’s loved along the way

But if this world keeps right on turnin’ for the better or the worse
And all he ever gets is older and around
From the rockin’ of the cradle to the rollin’ of the hearse
The goin’ up was worth the comin’ down

He’s a poet, he’s a picker, he’s a prophet, he’s a liar
He’s a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he’s stoned
He’s a walkin’ contradiction, partly truth, partly fiction
Takin’ ev’ry wrong direction on his lonely way back home

There’s a lot of wrong directions on your lonesome way back home
From the rockin’ of the cradle to the rollin’ of the hearse
The goin’ up was worth the comin’ down

12 thoughts on “Song of the Week 47: The Pilgrim, Chapter 33 – Kris Kristofferson

  1. Loved this piece, informative, well researched, worthy of more rereads and follow-ups on the numerous artists/songs mentioned. jz

    1. Yep, I write songs too, and that´s most often the case. If he could have put himself on the list, I´m sure he would have. A Rhodes scholar who lands a helicopter in Johnny Cash´s garden definitely qualifies you as a bit of a walking contradiction. A flying contradiction if you like. 😉

Leave a Reply to padraigoconnor Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s