The 1937 Flood Watch
The 1937 Flood Watch Podcast
"500 Miles Away from Home"

"500 Miles Away from Home"

#224 / June 23 Podcast

Sixty years ago this summer, Ironton, Ohio, native son Bobby Bare started work on his debut album for RCA Victor. The LP’s title track — “500 Miles Away from Home” — would turn out to be one of the best-selling singles in the 88-year-old Bare’s long career.

Composition of the song is generally credited to folksinger Hedy West, who is said to have put it together from fragments of a melody she heard her uncle sing to her back in her native Georgia. One of Hedy’s influences was a traditional tune called “Railroaders’ Lament.”

In 1961 West copyrighted the song, which many of us first heard the following year as the second track on Peter, Paul and Mary’s wildly popular self-titled debut album for Warner Brothers.

Enter Bobby Bare

In 1953, an 18-year-old Bobby Bare left Ohio, getting a ride to California and playing music along the way to earn tips to help pay for the gas. In Los Angeles, Bobby struggled to break into country music or rock and roll as a performer and/or songwriter.

He had little luck with his recordings, finding more success playing in nightclubs, until he was drafted into the Army in 1959.

After his military service, Bare’s big break came in 1962 when Chet Atkins signed him to record country music for RCA. His first single for the label was 1962's "Shame On Me,” followed by the Dennis Dill/Mel Tillis composition, “Detroit City,” which charted and won him a Grammy for best country & western recording of the year.

It was after that Grammy that Bare recorded his 500 Miles Away from Home album.

For the title track, Bare and his friend Charlie Williams wrote new lyrics to the melody that he characterized as “an old campfire song.” Years later, talking with interviewer Gary James, Bare remembered creating his version when he was living in North Hollywood down the street from Glen Campbell, his sometimes drinking buddy.

“I was driving back from San Diego one night,” Bare told James, “and I was surfin' the radio and I heard Peter, Paul And Mary singing the old campfire version of ‘500 Miles’ and I thought, boy, that's great!

“Soon as I got home I got Glen's album and it was an instrumental. There were no lyrics. I called Charlie Williams up. I said, ‘Hey Charlie, come over and let's write some lyrics to this.’”

“500 Miles” put Bobby Bare firmly on the musical map. His version became a Top 10 hit on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, as well as a Top 5 hit on both the Country and Adult Contemporary charts.

The Song’s Incredible Legs

“500 Miles” has been extraordinarily popular with singers all around the world. In America, it was covered by everyone from the Kingston Trio and the Country Gentlemen to Sonny & Cher, the Brothers Four and Elvis to Reba McEntire, Jackie DeShannon and Johnny Rivers.

Beyond these shores, versions of “500 Miles” have been recorded in Albanian, Assamese, Bengali, Chinese, Czech, Finnish, French, Germany, Hebrew, Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Slovenian, Spanish and Vietnamese. Whew!

Our Take on the Tune

When we play our monthly gig at Sal’s Speakeasy in Ashland, Ky., we often like to have a salute to local folks who’ve made it big in music. For instance, we regularly perform “When You Say Nothing at All,” the song generally associated with Kentucky’s late Keith Whitley.

At our next show, we intend to offer “500 Miles” as a tribute to Bobby Bare and to all our Ironton, Ohio, friends.

Incidentally, “500 Miles” also has a tiny West Virginia connection too. Composer Hedy West was the daughter of Don West, Georgia poet and coal mine labor organizer of the 1930s.

Don co-founded the famed Highlander Folk School in New Market, TN, and later ran the Appalachian South Folklife Center in Pipestem in West Virginia’s Summers County. Don died in Charleston, WV, in 1992 at age 86.


Here’s a video of “500 Miles” from a Flood rehearsal a few weeks after this article was posted:

The 1937 Flood Watch
The 1937 Flood Watch Podcast
Each week The 1937 Flood, West Virginia's most eclectic string band, offers a free tune from a recent rehearsal, show or jam session. Music styles range from blues and jazz to folk, hokum, ballad and old-time. All the podcasts, dating back to 2008, are archived on our website; you and use the archive for free at: