In “Life Without a Soundtrack” I spoke about how integral music is to me. Today I share one of the many songs that my internal DJ plays with some frequency, “Uncle John’s Band”, Grateful Dead, music and lyrics by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, appeared in set lists in 1969, released on Workingman’s Dead, July 14, 1970.
There is a part of me that feels self-conscious writing about this song…a part of me that would rather be writing about a more obscure Grateful Dead song, not this one that is considered by some to be the Dead’s “most accessible song”; not this song considered one of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll; not this song listed in 2001 as 321st (of 365) in the Songs of the Century project list; not this one considered by some to be in the Dead’s Top 10. Why? I don’t really know…just some silly notion that I like to talk about things that might not be so well-known. But oh well, I’m stuck with maybe stating the obvious because this song has been with me since I first heard it in high school when my best friend’s dad brought Workingman’s Dead home one evening when I was visiting. The cover art is still in my memory, I hear the little pop and plastic tear of the clear wrapper coming off, the susurration of the fingernail opening the cardboard sleeve, the sound of the paper sleeve coming off the vinyl, the vinyl quietly placed on the turntable, and the little scritch of the needle as the arm of the record player is set on Side 1, Track 1. The guitar chord strum, the entry of simple percussion, add not quite circular, not quite lilting guitar picking a melody, then the vocals harmonize “Well the first days are the hardest days, don’t you worry anymore…” makes me smile just hearing the memory…
Some of you have probably heard me or seen me quote the odd line from “Uncle John’s Band”. This song speaks to me, sings to me in so many ways, year after year familiar and new and different and true and all at the same time…is that a partial definition for what makes something a classic? It takes me back to me in the ’70s…my 13-button navy surplus pants, my below-the-waist long hair, sometimes with bells braided into microscopic braids framing my face, reading Kerouac, Kesey, Hesse, Heinlein…skipping school to march against the war in Vietnam and freaking out that a march for peace turned into a looting frenzy and even more freaked out to see news crews and to remember that I was wearing a very unusual coat, in an unusual shade of green and feeling the dread that my parents would see that very recognizable coat on the TV news and know what their honor student daughter had been up to that afternoon. Sometimes it is completely new and suits me now, as is. Totally new, but I magically can sing all the words.
Phrasing, pacing, harmonies in perfect concert with the lyrics. I would never presume to break it down, analyze. How could I? It resonates. It goes directly to my heart, my gut, my smile and it makes me sing and gives me solace. It is one of the songs that gives me comfort. It lets me feel OK about feeling a little down or angry or dissident or dissonant. It is on my “antidepressant” playlist. I love it for its turbulence and for its optimism.
And talk about first lines that grab you and reel you in:
“Well, the first days are the hardest days, don’t you worry anymore
‘Cause when life looks like easy street, there is danger at your door
Now think this through with me, let me know your mind
Whoa oh, what I want to know is, are you kind?”
The lyrics read well on their own as prose, yet I can’t help but hear them sung. And never as a cover. It is always the Dead I hear in my head. Sometimes it is those first lines, sometimes these with just slightly different timing and harmony:
“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
Whoa oh, what I want to know, where does the time go?”
It introduced me to a talented poet, James Dickey, a poet I’d heard of but was not familiar with and whom I now admire. I sought him out to read his work “Buckdancer’s Choice” because:
“Now it’s a buck dancer’s choice, my friends, better take my advice
You know all the rules by now and the fire from the ice”
Yeah well, all those accolades and lists I mentioned? Maybe I’m not alone in feeling they are still “playing to the tide”.