This was written by Pete Seeger, an influential folk singer and activist. He recorded it before The Byrds covered it as a follow-up to their hit "Mr. Tambourine Man."
The lyrics were taken from a passage from the book of Ecclesiastes (3:1-8) in The Bible. They were rearranged and paired with Seeger's music to make the song. In a 1988 interview with Paul Zollo, Seeger explained: "I don't read the Bible that often. I leaf through it occasionally and I'm amazed by the foolishness at times and the wisdom at other times. I call it the greatest book of folklore ever given. Not that there isn't a lot of wisdom in it. You can trace the history of people poetically."
Seeger added: "I got a letter from my publisher, and he says, 'Pete, I can't sell these protest songs you write.' And I was angry. I sat down with a tape recorder and said, 'I can't write the kind of songs you want. You gotta go to somebody else. This is the only kind of song I know how to write.' I pulled out this slip of paper in my pocket and improvised a melody to it in fifteen minutes. And I sent it to him. And I got a letter from him the next week that said, 'Wonderful! Just what I'm looking for.' Within two months he'd sold it to the Limelighters and then to the Byrds. I liked the Byrds' record very much, incidentally. All those clanging, steel guitars - they sound like bells." (this appears in Zollo's book Songwriters On Songwriting)
Before he recorded this song with The Byrds, Jim McGuinn (who later went by Roger) played acoustic 12-string guitar on Judy Collins' 1964 version, which appears on her album Judy Collins #3. He also worked up the arrangement with Collins.
When The Byrds started working on this song, McGuinn and David Crosby devised a new arrangement of Seeger's original, but it took the band over 50 tries to get the sound right.
Dolly Parton covered this on her 1984 album of cover songs The Great Pretender, and again in 2005 on Those Were The Days.
Suggestion credit: Joe - Baltimore, MD
Roger McGuinn teamed up with country artist Vern Gosdin, who was once a member of Chris Hillman's bluegrass band The Hillman and one half of The Gosdin Brothers (who occasionally opened for The Byrds), for a cover of this song on Gosdin's 1984 album There Is A Season. McGuinn played the same 12-string Rickenbacker that he used on The Byrds' recording of the song. In 1994 a previously unreleased version that was originally remixed in 1984 for an anticipated single was included on the The Truly Great Hits Of Vern Gosdin.
Suggestion credit: Mikey - Greene County, TN
This played a major role in the movie Forrest Gump.