Friday, June 1, 2012

Billy Joel: The Ballad of Billy The Kid

Today’s Friday Flipside is neither historical nor autobiographical; however, for years many have thought that Billy Joel’s “The Battle of Billy the Kid” was just that. While inspired by Aaron Copeland’s ballet, “Billy the Kid,” Joel’s song is pure fiction in recounting the life of William H. McCarty alias William H. Bonney alias Billy the Kid.

In the song, Billy was stated as being from Wheeling, WV. While Wheeling was the home of Marsh-Wheeling Stogies, the Wheeling Jamboree, and was bisected by the National Road, it was not the home of Billy Kid. In fact it has been suggested that he was born in New York City, but his actual birthplace is not known.

“Well, he started with a bank in Colorado” – Bonney wasn’t a thief – he, however, was a gunman and a murderer.

“Well, he never traveled heavy; yes, he always rode alone” is inaccurate as Bonney had a small gang of compadres.

“To watch the hangin' of Billy the Kid” – is another piece of fiction as Billy the Kid was shot by Sheriff Pat Garrett.

“But he finally found a home underneath the Boot Hill grave that bears his name” – If Joel was referring to Boot Hill as a cemetery name (which was used for several cemeteries), then the song is wrong as he was buried in Old Fort Sumner Cemetery in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. If Joel was using boot hill as a euphemism for the graves of those who died with their boots on, then his usage was correct.

While a headstone indicated the approximate burial locations for Bonney, Tom O'Folliard, and Charlie Bowdre, his specific marker was stolen in 1950 and finally recovered in 1976. It was stolen again in 1981, but was quickly recovered.

I always thought that the Billy the Kid from Oyster Bay, Long Island was autobiographical of Joel himself; however, he admitted on the liner notes for “Songs in the Attic” that another Billy, who was a bartender, was the final verse’s inspiration.

Despite the inaccuracies in the lyrics, I always loved this song and it shows the breadth of Joel’s literary genius. Today’s version comes from his 1981 live album “Songs in the Attic.” It was the “B” side to “She’s Got A Way.” The “A” side peaked at #23.

Original Studio Version

The song originally appeared on Joel’s first Columbia album “Piano Man.” This version has a string arrangement. Joel plays harmonica on birth versions.

Only 110 more posts until the end of “Reading Between the Grooves.”

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