The Grateful Dead – Workingman’s Dead – Classic Music Review
It’s been almost three years since I wrote my first and only Grateful Dead review, a piece in The Psychedelic Series covering Anthem of the Sun. I ended that review by saying that while I didn’t care much for the second half of the record, I had “sort of a warm feeling about it.” That warm feeling arose from the superior quality of musicianship I heard on that record, especially when compared to the sloppiness of other psychedelic-era bands. And though I had seen the Dead live in my early teens and had a warm feeling about that experience as well, I ran into an insurmountable math problem:
(warm feeling + warm feeling) ≠ motivation to explore the Dead’s extensive catalog and rich culture
The sheer size of their catalog is more than enough to intimidate all but the most committed Deadhead, but even more challenging is nature of the “long, strange trip” represented in that catalog. It is an eclectic mix of style and sound, a history marked by bursts of intense studio activity followed by long silences, and a discography chock full of live recordings that serve to remind us the Dead were more than a band but the organizing principle of a sustainable culture within a culture.
I carefully avoid the use of the word “sub-culture” when referring to Deadheads, as the prefix “sub” has a connotation of “inferior.” I would argue that Dead culture is far more vibrant and alive than the dominant culture, i. e., “American Culture,” and that Deadheads have greater awareness of self and culture than most Americans. Show me the average non-Deadhead American who can say this about what it means to be an American citizen:
[They] had only one thing absolutely in common: Each had experienced some inner click of affinity, some overwhelming sense of ‘here I belong’ . . . It was the recognition of an essentially spiritual experience that bound them together.
—Dennis McNally, A Long Strange Trip
The Deadheads I’ve met are a far cry from the stoned-out-hippies-who-never-grew-up stereotype. Some of my dad’s best friends in San Francisco often planned their vacations around Dead tours, and that group included one lawyer, one therapist and one welder. When I was working in Seattle, I had lunch one day with our Billing Supervisor, a woman twice my age who spent all day sorting out invoices, payments and immersing herself in other boring, tedious shit. I had labeled her “retired on the job” and the only reason I met with her was utilitarian—I needed to understand our billing system so I could do my job. Somehow the conversation drifted towards “best vacation experiences,” and without hesitation she described a six-month period where she followed the Dead from city to city, often in the company of new friends she’d met along the way. “It started out as a two-week vacation, but after the two weeks was up I knew I couldn’t go back. I’d found something I’d never found anywhere else.” She abandoned a job she’d held for a dozen years, giving up the privileges of seniority and breaking the flow of her résumé to follow the Dead and immerse herself in its culture. “It was the most meaningful experience of my life,” she concluded, and I could not only tell that she meant it, but she was also conscious about it—I didn’t see the glazed stare of a cult member, but a person who had truly found herself.
The solidity and vibrance of Dead culture has been strengthened by its members, who are active participants in sustaining that culture. There are quite a few Deadheads who have spent a good part of their lives documenting, interpreting and discussing The Dead’s music, history and cultural impact. While I’m too much of a butterfly to devote my free time to a single artist, I will say that when the idea for another Dead review crossed my mind, I immediately moved it to the top of the list, largely because of all those wonderful Deadheads and their exhaustive research. Unlike most artists who are limited to a fan website, Wikipedia page and a few tidbits on Songfacts, the research on The Grateful Dead is extensive, accessible and very well-organized. The Grateful Dead Archive at the University of California, Santa Cruz is a treasure trove of Dead history for the serious researcher, complemented by its online companion, Grateful Dead Archive Online. The fan forums are equally valuable, filled with extremely knowledgeable people who have documented their personal journeys with the Dead, sharing their experience and interpretations in an environment marked by respect and curiosity. Because I spend at least ten times more hours on research than on writing, it is a near-orgasmic experience to start the review process with easy access to an abundance of information about the music I’m trying to cover and the people who created it.
The strength of the culture and the accessibility of information helped me overcome both the math problem and the intimidation factor. I decided to approach the Dead in the same spirit they brought to their musical journey: “Hmm. This path looks interesting. Let’s take it and see where it goes.”
So, here we go with Workingman’s Dead.
Workingman’s Dead was the first of two albums where the Dead allegedly “went country.” While there is no doubt that the Dead took inspiration from the Bakersfield honky-tonk take on country music favored by Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and Jean Shepherd—and that Workingman’s Dead arrived at a time when American rock had shifted away from psychedelic styles and British-influenced baroque pop back to “American roots music” thanks to John Wesley Harding, The Band and Creedence Clearwater Revival—to call Workingman’s Dead or American Beauty “country” is both superficial and inaccurate. As lyricist Robert Hunter noted in the foreword to The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics:
Most bands can be copied, but bands that have tried to mimic the Grateful Dead in a creative way, other than note-by-note reproduction, tend to fall short of the mark because there is no specific style to mimic, rather a range of styles that the band members have individually mastered and integrated into the music. Pigpen played blues and was accepted as a regular in the black nightclubs of East Palo Alto in his early teens. Phil studied composition with the great Italian avant-garde composer Luciano Berio to augment his classical training. Garcia’s knowledge and facility with American folk forms and instrumental styles was compendious. Mickey Hart was a titled world-champion rudimental drummer from a family of drummers and studied Indian rhythmic intricacies with Zakir Hussein and Ali Akbar Khan. Several of us were veterans of regular jazz sessions by sterling musicians such as Lester Hellum, Bob Pringle, Rudy Jackson, and Dan Barnett while living at the Chateau.
Free Press (2014-12-16). The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics . Free Press. Kindle Edition. Note: To simplify matters, I will refer to this book as TCAGDL going forward.
These influences are obvious throughout Workingman’s Dead—there are chord patterns, melodies and rhythms you would never hear in classic honky-tonk.
Hunter’s lyrics are another defining feature that distinguishes Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty from traditional country music. A gifted poet who translated Rilke’s Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus, Hunter is also an experienced, knowledgeable musician and multi-dimensional thinker. The foreword cited above is one of my favorite commentaries on music by anybody, ever. Hunter’s integration into the band as full-time lyricist and fellow traveler resulted in richer, deeper lyrics exploring a wider range of subject matter than you’ll find in the work of any of the Bakersfield guys and gals.
Recorded at Pacific High Recording Studio in the City in a little piece of SoMa before it became SoMa, Workingman’s Dead came to fruition during a time when The Dead were attempting to navigate between mountains of debt, a drug bust and management hanky-panky. No wonder Jerry Garcia described the experience as “definitely an upper,” and when you listen to Workingman’s Dead, you get the feeling of listening to a band of temporarily lost souls seeking salvation through music. The version I chose to review is the 2001-2003 release, which includes live versions of six of the original tracks, an alt-take on “New Speedway Boogie” and a radio pitch for the album. The live tracks are particularly interesting because most were recorded before Workingman’s Dead was released, giving the listener the opportunity to get a sense of how those songs evolved.
Workingman’s Dead opens with the clean, clear sound and beautifully-executed three-part harmonies of “Uncle John’s Band.” The song is something of a musical feint, a piece that certainly sounds country but whose melodic origins lie in the Balkans, not Bakersfield. Jerry Garcia had been immersing himself in the music of Bulgaria, Macedonia and Greece when he heard a pennywhistle tune that caught his fancy. “So I stole it,” he confessed, as noted in TCAGDL. I heartily approve of his criminal act, in part because I love Bulgarian folk music, but largely because he had the sensitivity to realize that folk music from different traditions share common threads and themes. When I hear “Uncle John’s Band,” I think, “Gee, this would make a great Mariachi tune.” Great folk music often has a cross-cultural quality about it, and “Uncle John’s Band” certainly qualifies as great folk music.
While the singable melody, sweet guitar fills and engaging harmonies capture one’s attention, the lyrics of “Uncle John’s Band” brilliantly reflect folk traditions. Folk music is often used to teach its listeners important aspects of the culture through stories and pearls of commonly-accepted wisdom. The first verse contains one of those pearls—“‘Cause when life looks like Easy Street there is danger at your door.” Good, comforting advice, yes, but the two lines that follow establish both the theme of the song and what today we would call the “core values” of the culture:
Think this through with me, let me know your mind,
Wo, oh, what I want to know, is are you kind?
These lines describe a culture that values and respects individual choice, and recognizes kindness as a prerequisite to successful dialogue. The next verse introduces the symbolic presence of the buck dancer, the man who can choose to dance alone, with a partner or with the group (as in square dancing). The reference in the second line to Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice” is a gentle reminder that we’re all fucked anyway due to the limits of mortality, a condition of existence that should encourage the individual to embrace life and its essential quality of free will (see Koestenbaum’s “The Vitality of Death”). When the singer poses the question, “Will you come with me? Won’t you come with me? Wo, oh, what I want to know is will you come with me?” he is welcoming the person with open arms while at the same time respecting the right of the individual to make that choice.
Respecting choice doesn’t mean we can’t put up a strenuous argument in favor of our position, and the opening line of the third verse bursts through the speakers with a tone of delightful incredulity: “Goddamn, well I declare, have you seen the like?” One of the great belt-out lines of all time, ranking right up there with Roger Miller’s plaintive cry of “I ain’t got no cigarettes,” the expression of frustration in that goddamn is as universal as universal gets. What causes the frustration is the unveiling of one of the cultural choices under consideration:
Their walls are built of cannonballs, their motto is ‘don’t tread on me’
So, one choice is the defensive warrior culture of the USA; the other is a kinder, more timeless version of life, centered around music and nature:
Come hear uncle John’s band playing to the tide,
Come with me, or go alone, he’s come to take his children home.
The choice within a choice—“Come with me or go alone”—reinforces the importance the culture places on free will. It is what H. G. Wells referred to as “community of will” as opposed to a “community of obedience.” The last two verses and the opening lines of the final rendition of the chorus reinforce the themes of the fragility of life, of kindness to one’s fellows and of conscious, active participation in the culture:
It’s the same story the crow told me; it’s the only one he knows.
Like the morning sun you come and like the wind you go.
Ain’t no time to hate, barely time to wait,
Wo, oh, what I want to know, where does the time go?
I live in a silver mine and I call it beggar’s tomb;
I got me a violin and I beg you call the tune,
Anybody’s choice, I can hear your voice.
Wo, oh, what I want to know, how does the song go?
Come hear uncle John’s band by the riverside,
Got some things to talk about, here beside the rising tide.
So, what is this culture and who the hell is Uncle John? My take is “Uncle John’s Band” is a vision of the counterculture that emerged during the 1960’s in response to the war-mongering Establishment. If that is the case, it’s certainly the clearest and most coherent vision of the counterculture in existence; most attempts to describe it come across as vague, ethereal propositions that haven’t been thought through. As for Uncle John, David Dodd uncovered the mystery in this piece on dead.net: Uncle John is John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers, a string band launched at the dawn of the Folk Revival of the 1950’s that also featured Mike Seeger and Tom Paley. The reference is symbolic, of course; the vision of this new culture is one where we take the time to celebrate life, music and each other, where every act is a conscious choice and where respect and kindness guide behavior instead of rules, regulations and dogma.
A comparison between “Uncle John’s Band” and “St. Stephen,” the song that opened their preceding release, Aoxomwoxoa, is instructive. “St. Stephen” begins as a boisterous honky-tonk number and in less than a minute transforms itself into a gentle, psychedelic ballad. “Uncle John’s Band” follows a straightforward chord pattern through most of the song, inserting a brief Spanish flair in the instrumental with a key change from G to D minor providing a nice change of pace that fits perfectly into the overall flow. All the songs on Workingman’s Dead display a discipline that had eluded the band in many of their previous recordings; here deviations from established patterns are beautifully integrated into the mix. It’s also important to note that the shift to more of a “roots sound” was not a 180 but a natural result of the groundwork laid in Aoxomwoxoa. “Dupree’s Diamond Blues” features a banjo, and if you change the tempo a bit and eliminate vocal effects and organ, “China Cat Sunflower” isn’t all that different from “New Speedway Boogie.”
“High Time” is a fresh take on the honky-tonk torch song, notable for more sweet harmonies and Jerry Garcia’s masterful performance on the steel guitar. What makes the song fresh is the unusual chord pattern; the song resolves to the key of E major, but the route to get there is like trying to navigate the streets of Florence without a map. Despite the numerous key shifts, the song is as smooth as silk, thanks in large part to Phil Lesh’s subtle but complex bass patterns—a clinic on how to make the extraordinarily difficult sound so goddamned easy. When faced with a song with the complexity of “High Time,” most bass players would say, “Fuck it, I’ll just stick to the root notes.” Phil does that and a whole lot more, throwing in some unexpected fills from time to time that simply blow me away.
“Dire Wolf” combines modern and ancient mythologies in a riveting piece of poetry supported by a contrastingly relaxed musical background. The dire wolf is an extinct species that trucked around North America eons ago until climate change sent it into fossil land. Before slinking off into oblivion, this wolf was the all-time bad ass wolf, with the highest bite force in mammalian history. Using this motherfucker as the model intensifies the evil darkness of the wolf myth—the sneaky animal who dresses in sheep’s clothing and then gobbles you up for dinner. The wolf is the projection of our darkest fears, and during the years leading up to Workingman’s Dead, the entire Bay Area felt preyed upon by a maniac known as the Zodiac Killer, a serial murderer who taunted police and public through occasional letters to the San Francisco Chronicle. In TCAGDL, Jerry Garcia described what everyone feeling during the Zodiac’s reign of terror, and how it influenced the song:
I wrote that song when the Zodiac Killer was out murdering in San Francisco. Every night I was coming home from the studio, and I’d stop at an intersection and look around, and if a car pulled up, it was like, ‘This is it, I’m gonna die now.’ It became a game. Every night I was conscious of that thing, and the refrain got to be so real to me. ‘Please don’t murder me, please don’t murder me.’ It was a coincidence in a way, but it was also the truth at the moment.’
When I showed the quote to my parents, who lived in the City during that period and beyond, my usually unflappable mother shivered with the memory. My dad stepped into explain, “There was some ugly shit going down back then. After the Zodiac went into hiding, the Zebra murders started, and everyone who didn’t have black skin was a target. We spent a lot more evenings at home during the early seventies, and when we went out, we were always on our guard.”
What’s curious about the song is that it’s not dark at all—on an album loaded with songs that are fun to sing along to, this is my favorite. The song features a snappy rhythm, more superb steel guitar and clean spot harmonies that communicate a sense of joy in contrast to the frequent appearance of the dire wolf in background and foreground. We’ve got wolves hanging out in swamp, a wolf showing up at the door, a wolf waiting for the right moment to strike—and there’s still an eerie sense of joy about the song, a sort of “Well, I’m fucked, but since there isn’t a goddamn thing I can do about it, I might as well play along.”
I sat down to my supper, ’twas a bottle of red whisky,
I said my prayers and went to bed, that’s the last they saw of me.
Don’t murder me, I beg of you, don’t murder me. Please, don’t murder me.
When I awoke, the Dire Wolf, six hundred pounds of sin,
Was grinning at my window, all I said was “Come on in”.
Don’t murder me, I beg of you, don’t murder me. Please, don’t murder me.
The Wolf came in, I got my cards, we sat down for a game.
I cut my deck to the Queen of Spades, but the cards were all the same.
Don’t murder me, I beg of you, don’t murder me. Please, don’t murder me.
“Dire Wolf” is another affirmation of our human condition: we’re all living with the fear of death, but it’s silly to let that fear dominate our lives. Pour me another whiskey and let’s get on with it! The live version, recorded at Santa Rosa Veterans’ Memorial Hall several months before the release of Workingman’s Dead, features Bob Weir on lead vocal and lacks the extensive spot harmonies. I’m good with that—I love the sound of Bob Weir’s voice and the song just fucking works no matter who’s singing it.
“New Speedway Boogie” starts with one of my favorite Dead couplets: “Please don’t dominate the rap, Jack/If you’ve got nothing new to say,” originally directed at Chronicle music critic Ralph Gleason but applicable to any person who yaps just for the sake of yapping. Jerry Garcia is in fine voice in this finger-snapping delight integrating Chaucerian references with the tragedy at Altamont and the classic gospel song, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
Now, I don’t know, but I was told
In the heat of the sun a man died of cold.
Keep on coming or stand and wait,
With the sun so dark and the hour so late.
I love that classic folk phrase, “I don’t know but I’ve been told . . . ” and the respectful uncertainty it communicates: “I could be wrong but let me run this past you.” Dylan used it to humorous effect in “I Shall Be Free No. 10,” but here it’s used as a reminder not to jump to conclusions when you hear a piece of news—good advice in the modern era of alternative facts.
“Cumberland Blues” is a snappy little number about a guy whose unsatisfying love partner keeps him up too late with her tales of woe, jeopardizing his status as a wage slave to the coal mine. Featuring a lead vocal shared between Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir marked by interwoven harmonies, the song feels like a stream-of-consciousness rap about the existential death awaiting our hero every day, hundreds of feet underground. He takes some solace in the fact he’s not alone (“Lotta poor man got the Cumberland Blues”) but like the character in The Kinks’ “Get Back in the Line,” the poor soul has to “walk the line just to pay his union dues.” The annotations in TCAGDL make reference to the Springhill Mine Disaster, but there is no reference to tragedy in this song except that of the existential variety. My response is “Goddamn it, Melinda, give this man what he wants so he can get his head on straight and figure out how to get the fuck out of that mine!”
In contrast to the hootenanny feel of “Cumberland Blues,” the tone of “Black Peter” is barren and bleak, as befits a dramatic monologue of a poor man on his death-bed. The background music is understated, largely a lazy-day duet with guitar and bass, with cold touches of organ and front porch harmonica to add some color. As noted in TCAGDL, the sad realization that Donne’s “death’s dateless night” is a day “just like any other day” is a recurring theme throughout literature, and the reference that resonated most with me was to Beckett’s Endgame, easily the bleakest piece of theatre I’ve ever seen. “Black Peter” is a challenging piece of poetry, but it does describe the way I want to go out when the time comes—conscious, reflective and close to those who made my life worth living:
Just want to have
A little peace to die
And a friend or two
I love at hand
The live version of “Black Peter,” also recorded long before The Dead entered the studio, is even more compelling than the recorded version, with greater variation in dynamics. The extended jam at the end adds a blessed shot of power to the piece, allowing Peter to leave this world with one last burst of energy before fading into sweet sleep.
“Easy Wind” is the strongest “workingman” song on the album, featuring a superb lead vocal from Pigpen as he takes the role of a guy whom David Dodd accurately labeled “perhaps the character of the Working Man in Workingman’s Dead.” Robert Hunter composed both words and lyrics, but more importantly, he captured the attitude, spirit and conversational style of the hard-working stiff facing the capitalist paradox in which all working people are trapped in one way or another: I have to work to survive, but I ain’t gonna survive too long if I have to work like this:
I been balling a shiny black steel jack-hammer,
Been chippin’ up rocks for the great highway,
Live five years if I take my time,
Ballin’ that jack and a drinkin’ my wine.
I been chippin’ them rocks from dawn till doom,
While my rider hide my bottle in the other room.
Doctor say better stop ballin’ that jack,
If I live five years I gonna bust my back, yes I will.
The use of the phrase “ballin’ the jack,” a phrase most people connect to the elegant fox trot number once popular in ballrooms filled with well-heeled dancers, accentuates the social chasm between workingman and those who reap the benefits of his work. Instead of chilled champagne served on a tray, all this Louisiana boy asks for is a bottle of country wine and a woman willing to shut up and serve it:
Gotta find a woman be good to me,
Won’t hide my liquor try to serve me tea,
Cause I’m a stone jack baller and my heart is true
And I’ll give everything that I got to you, yes I will.
The man’s obsession with female loyalty and fear of betrayal is echoed in the chorus with the line “There’s a whole lot of women out in red on the streets today,” a likely reference to the woman in red who ratted out Dillinger to the FBI. So . . . this asshole either is a sexist pig who bought into the modern version of the Delilah myth and is bent on reminding the woman he has wage-enslaved just how lucky she is to have a guy like him providing for her simple, trivial needs . . . or he’s your typical average guy trying to make it through the game of life with the shitty hand he’s been dealt. I think both are true, but the second explanation is more consistent with the character’s acceptance of the Sisyphus role. Instead of pushing boulders up hills, he’s crushing boulders to make roads he’ll never be able to ride—largely because he sees no way out of the capitalist paradox:
And the river keeps a-talkin’,
But you never hear a word it say
At this point in the Dead’s history, Pigpen was fading into the background, but goddamn, did he ever nail this vocal.
It’s more than appropriate that the album closes with “Casey Jones,” like “Cumberland Blues” a fascinating masquerade of a song where the upbeat music masks a more serious message. Before we begin looking at the song, let’s review the story of one Jonathan Luther Jones, aka Casey Jones, a real human being who was sort of the Captain Sullenberger of his day. Casey was by all accounts an honest, hardworking railroad engineer who sometimes broke the rules (the speed limit in particular) in order to meet the railroad’s demanding schedules. One night Casey and a pal went on a late night run from Memphis to Canton, Mississippi on the No. 1 train, their start delayed by over an hour due to its late arrival at the station. Using all his smarts and experience, Casey had made up the time and then some when new orders came in to wait for a train to pass and hook up with another train in a town called Vaughn. Once again, Casey found himself behind schedule, but felt confident he could get the No. 1 train to Canton on time. Unbeknownst to Casey until he turned a blind curve just before Vaughn, the rear cars of parked train were sitting smack dab in the middle of his track, due to a slowly-executed track switching maneuver. What happened next was reported in a Jackson, Mississippi newspaper article preserved by The Water Valley Casey Jones Railroad Museum.
The south-bound passenger train No. 1 was running under a full head of steam when it crashed into the rear end of a caboose and three freight cars which were standing on the main track, the other portion of the train being on a sidetrack. The caboose and two of the cars were smashed to pieces, the engine left the rails and plowed into an embankment, where it overturned and was completely wrecked, the baggage and mail coaches also being thrown from the track and badly damaged. The engineer was killed outright by the concussion. His body was found lying under the cab, with his skull crushed and right arm torn from its socket. The fireman jumped just in time to save his life. The express messenger was thrown against the side of the car, having two of his ribs broken by the blow, but his condition is not considered dangerous.
Casey saved the life of the fireman riding with him by ordering him to jump, and the lives of his passengers in the rear cars by slamming on the airbrakes to reduce the speed of the train before impact, giving up his life in the process. Now, let’s look at the Casey depicted in the first verse of “Casey Jones”:
Driving that train, high on cocaine,
Casey Jones you better watch your speed
Trouble ahead, trouble behind
And you know that notion just crossed my mind
Since there is no evidence in the historical record that Casey Jones was a cokehead, we can assume right off the bat that Hunter and Garcia are using his mythological persona to communicate something more relevant to modern listeners who couldn’t give a fuck about some dead railroad guy. Casey Jones is the modern metaphor for the undisciplined drug user, the one who combines coke, speed and whatever else is handy to experience the thrill of a chemically-induced ride, and can’t see far enough ahead to know when to stop:
Trouble with you is the trouble with me
Got two good eyes but you still don’t see
Come round the bend, you know it’s the end
The fireman screams and the engine just gleams
The lady in red makes another appearance here, emphasizing the seductive nature of stimulants and the simultaneous danger they present. Essentially, “Casey Jones” is as much an anti-drug song as Paul Revere & The Raiders’ “Kicks,” but instead of the preachy and paternalistic tone of that still-great song, The Dead, consistent with their values, present the choice and the consequences while allowing the listener to decide for her or himself.
From a musical perspective, “Casey Jones” is a tightly-played, well-arranged number with solid harmonies and a cleverly faked key change in the first line of each verse (C to D, then back to the C major key). That little musical head fake really makes the song, breaking up the very simple chord pattern and encouraging the singer (Garcia) to amp it up a bit in the vocal.
Workingman’s Dead, a 1970 release consisting of nine songs recorded in nine days, was something of a game-changer for the Dead. The album’s commercial success redefined their audience and expanded their reach. Shedding the limited stereotype associated with psychedelia while still retaining the explorer’s spirit that drove that movement, The Dead gave us a series of timeless songs that qualify as quintessentially American in the most positive sense of that cultural label. In a time when both Americans and non-Americans look at the country as place that is quickly losing its mind and its soul, it’s nice to remind ourselves that during an equally divisive and dangerous era forty-seven years ago, there were artists willing to sing openly about the virtues and defects of American culture, and offer a vision of a safe place to ride out the storm . . . there, by the rising tide, sharing each other’s company and the timeless regenerative power of music.