9 of David Crosby’s Favorite Songs

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

When David Crosby was around 67, he shared some of his favorite songs from childhood through his days with The Byrds and Crosby, Stills, & Nash—tracks representing more contemporary (Death Cab For Cutie, P!nk), and familiar (Graham Nash), times.

Here’s a chronological look at nine songs that the late singer and songwriter, who died on January 19, personally picked as some of his all-time favorites, along with his own memories, stories, and connections to each.

1. “Strange Fruit,” Josh White (1949)
Written by Abel Meeropol

Originally recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939, “Strange Fruit” was written by Abel Meeropol in 1937 as a protest anthem against the lynching of black Americans. In the lyrics, Meeropol wanted to translate the horror of lynching and racism in America by use of the severe metaphor of strange fruit hanging from the southern tree as the lifeless body of a black man.

“My family used to play a lot of folk and classical music when I was growing up,” said Crosby. “I remember hearing the Brandenburg Concertos a lot because my mum used to play that stuff all the time, but I remember folk music most vividly. She once played me a Josh White recording called ‘Strange Fruit,’ and I couldn’t understand what it was about. When I asked her she started crying and sat me down and explained it was black people being hung from trees in the South.”

Crosby added, “Learning the word “lynching” was my introduction to racism. I was a little kid and it scared me, as I didn’t know human beings did that to each other.

Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of Magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter cry

Read the full American Songwriter Behind the Song on “Strange Fruit” HERE.

2. “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” The Everly Brothers (1958)
Written by Boudleaux Bryant

Written by Boudleaux Bryant of the husband-and-wife songwriting team Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, The Everly Brothers recorded one of their biggest hits, “All I Have to Do is Dream,” in just two takes. When it was released in 1958, the song was the only single to ever simultaneously hit No. 1 on all of the Billboard singles charts and is one Crosby credits with teaching him everything he needed to know about harmony.

“This was one of the things that convinced me I really wanted to sing harmony,” said Crosby. “I learned both parts of the harmony—Don‘s part and Phil’s part—and I used to sing along with this record every time it came on. The Everly’s wrote the book on harmony singing, which this song epitomizes. It really affected me very strongly and made me want to do it.”

Dream, dream, dream, dream
Dream, dream, dream, dream
When I want you in my arms
When I want you and all your charms
Whenever I want you, all I have to do is
Dream, dream, dream, dream

When I feel blue in the night
And I need you to hold me tight
Whenever I want you, all I have to do is
Dream

3.My Favorite Things,” John Coltrane (1961)
Written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II

In 1961, John Coltrane recorded a 14-minute version of “My Favorite Things,” from the 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, The Sound of Music, and used it as the title track of his album. The song became a signature jazz classic and later appeared on Coltrane’s live album Newport ’63.

Speaking on Coltrane’s extended instrumental of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, and the mind-altering experience of once witnessing the musician perform live, Crosby shared:

When I was a young folk player in Chicago, me, an English guy named Floyd and his girlfriend, a little German hooker named The Duchess, went down to a club in the south of the city. We were the only white people there and we were very, very high, we’d taken everything we could find. Coltrane was on stage, and after he’d soloed for a while he walked off stage, still playing to himself. Then the two bass players started playing for a while and finally Elvin Jones started playing a drum solo.

The music and the drumming was so intense that I was pushed right against the back wall of the club, it was that overpowering. I ducked into the bathroom, rested my head against the wall trying to come down from this intense high. As I was trying to do this, the door crashed open and Coltrane busted in, still playing like a demon. My mind ran out my nose into a puddle. That moment is engraved in my brain forever.

Coltrane was a pretty strong influence, and I translated that to Roger McGuinn [The Byrds], which directly influenced that solo on ‘8 Miles High.’ It’s a shame he doesn’t want to work with me again because he and I could do some Byrds stuff and it would be really good.

4. “Deacon Blues,” Steely Dan (1977)
Written by Steely Dan‘s Walter Becker and Donald Fagen 

Off Steely Dan‘s sixth album, Aja, the opening of “Deacon Blues” was inspired by singer Donald Fagen and guitarist Walter Becker’s obsession with sci-fi and is loosely based on Alfred Bester’s 1952 novel, The Demolished Man, and told the story of a man imagining his evolution—spiritually and otherwise. The song was also partly based on the duo’s dreams of becoming jazz musicians. Imagining the narrator of the song as a Norman Mailer-type, the song title was inspired by the late football player Deacon Jones.

“In the depths of my addiction, I let drugs become the most important thing in my life—more so than making music, more so than almost anything,” shared Crosby on his deep connection to the Steely Dan’s Top 20 single, and how the entire album helped him stay alive during his addiction. “But somehow the music hung in there for me and it’s what kept me alive. I was listening to this song an awful lot at that time because it’s spectacularly strong: ‘They call Alabama the Crimson Tide / Call on me Deacon Blue.’ That whole record [‘Aja’] helped me stay alive at that point.”

This is the day of the expanding man
That shape is my shade
There where I used to stand
It seems like only yesterday
I gazed through the glass
At ramblers, wild gamblers
That’s all in the past

You call me a fool
You say it’s a crazy scheme
This one’s for real
I already bought the dream
So useless to ask me why
Throw a kiss and say goodbye
I’ll make it this time
I’m ready to cross that fine line

5. “Delta,” Crosby, Stills & Nash (1982)
Written by David Crosby

Though “Southern Cross” may come to mind first when thinking of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s album, Daylight Again, it was the side A closer “Delta” that stuck most with Crosby. When he wrote “Delta,” Crosby was in a downward spiral with his cocaine addiction. This unraveling is something he said can be heard on “Delta.”

Waking, stream of consciousness
On a sleeping street of dreams
Thoughts like scattered leaves
Slowed in midfall into the streams
Of fast running rivers of choice and chance
And time stops here, on the delta
While they dance
While they dance

I love the child who steers this riverboat
But lately he’s crazy for the deep
The river seems dreamlike in the daytime
Someone keeps thinking in my sleep
Of fast running rivers of choice and chance
And time stops here (And it seems as if time stops here)
On the delta

Elaborating on the song, Crosby shared how his friend Jackson Browne helped him stay away from drugs long enough to get the song out:

It’s possible that this is the last song I wrote. I was in a pretty terrible state at the time, which you can tell from the song; it sounds lost. Jackson Browne came by the house where I was. I didn’t have a piano so I just sang him what I had and he said, ‘Jesus, that’s a really good one David, you need to finish that.’ I was in the middle of a downhill slide involving freebase cocaine. I didn’t especially want to go outside because I didn’t want to bother with anything except taking more drugs, but Jackson really insisted and brought me to Warren Zevon‘s house where there was a piano. He sat me down at that piano and pulled this song out of me. Whenever I wanted to get up to go to the bathroom and take some more dope, he would say ‘No, no, finish the song,’ and he kept me there until I did it. Now when we sing it, I thank Jackson for helping me get it out.

6. “Lay Me Down,” Crosby & Nash (2004)
Written by James Raymond

Written by David Crosby’s son, James Raymond, for his father and Graham Nash’s 2004 double album, Crosby & Nash, “Lay Me Down” was one of five tracks, he wrote or co-wrote for the duo.

“This is the moment where my son James and I are united musically,” said Crosby. “It’s a stunner. Graham and I were getting ready to make a record and James says, ‘I think I’ve got a song for the album,’ and sits down and plays this devil for us. It was mind-blowing, as if he was inside our heads when he wrote it.”

Raymond and Crosby started writing together soon after they reconnected. Put up for adoption shortly after he was born in 1962, Raymond had little contact with his biological father since then, until his adoptive parents reached out to Crosby around the time of his liver transplant in 1995.

“They told me they knew I might not make it, but if I did, would I meet my son,” shared Crosby. “As soon as I could stand up and walk, I did. There could be others out there. I have six children that I know of, but I think there might be a seventh one, a girl, but I have no way to find out.”

Driving out through the windmills
And some of them were still
Sometimes it’s hard to catch the wind
And bend it to your will
Even though it’s hard to know
Just how the story ends
The road is long and it takes its time
On that you can depend
Lay me down in the river
And wash this place away
Break me down like sand from a stone
Maybe I’ll be whole again one day
Lay me down, lay me down
Maybe I’ll be whole again

7. “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” Death Cab for Cutie (2006)
Written by Ben Gibbard

The third single off Death Cab For Cutie‘s fifth album, Plans, the acoustic ballad was written by singer Ben Gibbard and recorded with a single microphone and little editing. Though the song didn’t chart very high, it’s one of the band’s best-selling singles and was certified as double platinum. “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” has been covered by everyone from Evanescence’s Amy Lee, Amanda Palmer, Ingrid Michaelson, Natalie Imbruglia, and Everclear, among others.

“I love Ben Gibbard’s writing,” said Crosby. “I wasn’t so keen on that eight-minute-long single, but I heard this song on the radio. It was just so compelling, simple, and amazing that it was on the radio. Such a beautiful statement: I will follow you into the dark. Simplicity like that is rare now, everything is so overproduced but this is direct and strong.”

If Heaven and Hell decide that they both are satisfied
Illuminate the “no”s on their vacancy signs
If there’s no one beside you when your soul embarks
Then I’ll follow you into the dark

8. “Dear Mr. President,” P!nk (2006)
Written by P!nk and Billy Mann

Released during the George W. Bush administration, and prior to Barack Obama being voted president in 2008, P!nk released her open letter song to the president in song. In the same vein of his more politically charged songs like “What Are Their Names” or “Someone Other Than You,” Crosby felt P!nk best captured the disillusionment and uncertainty of the times in her song.

“If you listen to the radio now you won’t hear any protest music,” said Crosby. “You used to be able to get some—songs like ‘Ohio’ or ‘For What It’s Worth,’ but you won’t hear anything like that now. This song of Pink’s is a strong anti-war statement, a strong anti-George Bush statement.”

Crosby added, “If you go to Neil Young’s website there’s something like 2,500 protest songs on there, all written by fans, by the public. People are still writing them but they’re mostly being excluded from the mainstream. This song by Pink is a rare thing: a mainstream pop song that’s also a protest song.”

Dear Mr. President
Come take a walk with me
Let’s pretend we’re just two people and
You’re not better than me
I’d like to ask you some questions if we can speak honestl

What do you feel when you see all the homeless on the street?
Who do you pray for at night before you go to sleep?
What do you feel when you look in the mirror?
Are you proud?

9. “Cold Rain,” Graham Nash (1977, 2009)
Written by Graham Nash

“This one of Nash’s has particular significance for me,” said Crosby. “In that song you hear how this kid said to himself that life in this gritty, industrial city of Manchester just wasn’t going to be good enough for him and he was going to find a way to play and sing his way out of there. You can hear exactly where he came from and how he decided to lift himself up by his own bootstraps and get out of there.”

Written and sung by Graham Nash, “Cold Rain” was first released on Crosby, Stills, & Nash’s 1977 album, CSN. Nash later released another mix of the song on his 2009 solo compilation, Reflections.

“It’s a revealing song and if you really understand it, it makes you love Graham,” added Crosby. “Nash and I can read each other’s minds, when we’re singing harmony we’re like a pair of spitfires doing stunts. We’ve had arguments before but it’s very, very rare. I argued a lot with Joni [Mitchell]. She’s easy to argue with, but Nash has always been a true gentleman.”

When he thought that there was more
Than cold rain and nowhere to go
Many people share
Sad dreams and hopes that are stained

By the sulphur in the air
Don’t I know you?
Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?
You seem to be like someone I knew

Photo: Anna Webber / Republic Media

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