#409: Workingman’s Dead, Grateful Dead
The Grateful Dead made their name as a trippy jam band, but this album is their first one that’s straight folky Americana. But it’s still kind of mystical, especially on opener “Uncle John’s Band,” where they mythologize themselves better than any Deadhead could. Robert Hunter said that the song was “about what the Dead was and could be. It was very much a song for us and about us, in the most hopeful sense.” It does make sense, and it is a hopeful image they paint: a band on the beach, offering to take the children home.
I’m a fake Dead fan (see my review of American Beauty) but I fall in love with them every time I listen. Despite it being filled with what RS describes as simple “spooky blues,” they betray some real genius musicianship here. These harmonies rival CSNY’s — see “High Time” and “Dire Wolf.” And their songwriting is focused, delivering on their promise to sing the song of the working man: “Cumberland Blues” is about working in a mine for pitiful wages, “Easy Wind” is about backbreaking physical labor, and “Black Peter” is about a man laying on his deathbed. Everything/ Led up to this day/ And it’s just like/ Any other day. There’s nothing more everyman than death.
Then there are a few inspired by real events — “Casey Jones” is a cautionary tale about living too fast, but also a real story about a train conductor that crashed into another train. (See Gillian Welch’s own folksy Americana album for more references to Casey.) But the other one, “New Speedway Boogie,” is the darkest song on the album. It’s about the Altamont Free Concert, which the Dead were supposed to play at, but didn’t after it spiraled out of control. Hell’s Angels were hired as security, and the biker group resorted to excessive force rather quickly when the crowd became rowdy. Stephen Stills got stabbed with a bike spoke. Mick Jagger got punched in the face. Finally, a disgruntled fan pulled a revolver out and was stabbed to death. All around horrific. (Though Keith Richards apparently doesn’t think it was so bad.) Things went down we don’t understand/ But I think in time we will, sing the Dead. Attempts to understand were made later on, with the documentary Gimme Shelter. But I don’t know if violence will ever make complete sense to me.
The Grateful Dead is maybe the most enduring American band. In fact, fun fact: my boyfriend is going to see Dead & Company this weekend! I can’t believe he gets to see John Mayer and Bob Weir at the same time. Mayer resurrected them in 2015, and I’ve heard nothing but amazing things. Maybe Jerry Garcia is smiling down on them.