Grateful Interpretations

Part Two: Wake the Dead

First Appeared at The Music Box, June 2001, Volume 8, #6

Written by Eric Levy


Wake the Dead - self-titled

Wake the Dead
Wake the Dead

(Grateful Dead Records)

(Banks of the Lough Gowna-The Reunion-Friend of the Devil/My Marianne-The Wheel/Christmas Eve-China Cat Sunflower-Bank of Ireland-The Bear-Bertha-Cliffs of Mostar/Lord Inchiquin-Sugaree/Coleman’s Cross-Bird Song/Brigid Cruise-Black Muddy River/Touch of Grey-Jack the Lad-Boys of Malin-Trip to Windsor/Row Jimmy)

There has yet to be a straight blues or gospel interpretation of a Grateful Dead song, but the remaining genres that have NOT attempted Dead material shrinks even further with the release of Wake the Dead — a lilting collection of Celtic arrangements of Hunter/Garcia classics. Setting Wake the Dead apart from every other Grateful Dead cover album is the innovative idea to weave traditional Irish melodies into the Dead songs, creating lovely and fascinating musical cross-patterns, reinventing what was once familiar. Listen to the way the simultaneous melodies of the Irish tune Coleman’s Cross is melded with the opening notes of Bird Song. Sugaree is slowed down to ballad-tempo and sung by alternating vocalists, turning the song into a dialogue. Every track shines on the album, making Wake the Dead the most beautiful and relaxing collection of Grateful Dead songs ever!

Shortly after Wake the Dead’s debut was released, I had an opportunity to chat with the group’s masterminds Danny Carnahan and Paul Kotapish:

Danny, you've been recording Grateful Dead songs since 1989. Can you talk about your history as a Dead fan?

Danny: I've been a Dead fan since I bought their first album in 1967. I went to my first Dead show in 1972. I was actually at two of the 1974 Winterland "farewell" shows that ended up in The Grateful Dead Movie. They just leaked into my life and stayed there. By ’89 I’d been touring and recording with my then-wife Robin Petrie for nearly ten years. We felt that Loser was a tremendously powerful folk song. I was starting to write my own stuff, and I was listening to a lot of Richard Thompson. Somehow Loser seemed to dovetail into our repertoire, so we started performing the song at folk festivals and venues, and everybody seemed to like it — even if they didn't know it was a Hunter/Garcia song. So we put it on an album called No Regrets [DNA Records, 1989]. Living in the Bay Area we were able to physically trot over and knock on the door of the Grateful Dead office and say, "Here's our CD, and here's some money for licensing. Thanks a lot." They were really nice folks — we got to know the office crew. The word got back to Hunter and Garcia that we’d recorded one of their songs, and they apparently expressed positive things about the recording, so that was my first contact with the Dead directly.


You even wrote a song with Robert Hunter. How did that come about?

Danny: That’s interesting. I’ve known Tom Constanten for a long time. I met Tom through Henry Kaiser. I was in three of Henry’s bands and he was performing with Tom in some other format, so we got to be friends — we’d go to baseball games together. Then I hired Tom to play on a couple Victorian Christmas albums that we did in the early '90s [Robin Petrie's A Victorian Christmas, Gourd Music, 1991 and A Victorian Noël, Gourd Music, 1993]. He was opening for Hunter at the Warfield in San Francisco in 1993, so we went backstage to visit Tom. This was just after Hunter's book of lyrics, A Box of Rain, had come out. So we met Hunter. He’s sitting there eating a hamburger, and we had him autograph our book. We were kind of star struck and didn’t know what to say. So we finally said, "You know, we recorded one of your songs once, and I think we kind of mixed the words up a little bit." And he looks harshly over the hamburger and says, "Well, what words did you use?" We told him, and he said, "That's okay, it makes sense" and kept eating. So that was our first conversation with Hunter. After that I got back to him, and I asked him if he had any lyrics that I might be able to put to music, because I was interested in doing that, and he said, "Sure any of the lyrics you can find in the book that haven’t been put to music yet, you’re free to use." So I rummaged around the book, and I found a lyric called Laughing in the Dark." We went back and forth trading tapes and e-mails. So I wrote music to that. He liked it and said, "Go for it!" I did and that song is on the album Cut and Run [Red House Records, 1994].

A quick aside since you mentioned Henry Kaiser: I love the version of Cold Rain and Snow you did with him [available on Kaiser's Hope You Like Our New Direction, Reckless Records, 1991 and Eternity Blue, Shanachie, 1995]. There are several verses in that rendition that aren't in the Dead’s version or even in Obray Ramsey's. What is the source for that version?

Danny: Who knows? Both Paul and I have got probably a dozen versions of that song rattling around in our brains.

Paul: Different versions, different melodies, different everything.

Danny: Different verses will come up on different nights. I think we’ve done it a couple times recently, and I’m not sure the verses were even in the same order both nights.

Paul: I know Jody Stecher — who also used to play with Garcia years back — has sung that song over the years and spread some verses around that I think are not in common with the Dead’s version.

Danny: It’s sort of a really eviscerated, "Cliff's Notes" version of the song. The original ballad is incredibly long and incredibly detailed. There’s actual character development. Characters come and do their thing and then leave in a logical way. The way Jody and Jerry and we have done the song, there are all kinds of gaps. I mean, who’s talking at any given time? If you really analyze it rhetorically, it's got holes you can drive a truck through, but it's a great song anyway.

How did your history of recording Grateful Dead songs in the past lead to the Wake the Dead project?

Danny: I’m not sure it did. Why don’t I give this to Paul, because he’s actually got as much a history of performing Dead songs live as I do.

Paul: The harpist on the record is Maureen Brennan. She and I used to have a little band with some other folks that played straight traditional Irish music, but every once in a while we’d weave a little Dead stuff in and not really say anything about it. She had worked up some harp arrangements of various Dead songs.

Danny: She had a really nice solo version of Black Muddy River.

Paul: And a few other things. In the midst of some Irish air, we’d add lines that we stole from Dark Star and what not. So, Maureen and I had that relationship going. Danny and I had known each other for many years, but had only gotten together to play concert dances and so forth, we’d never really worked out songs or talked about anything other than a nodding familiarity with each other's interest in the Dead. After these experiments with Maureen I had this idea. I heard all these connections between traditional Irish music and the Dead’s stuff, and I just thought, that would be a really nice way to treat some of those songs, and it turns out Danny had exactly the same thoughts. And we independently had mentioned this to a recording engineer, who happened to be Maureen's husband, at different recording sessions at different times and he said to Danny, "You ought to talk to Kotapish." And he said to me, "You ought to talk to Carnahan." So we did and shortly thereafter we got together and started hammering things out. Danny had a few ideas, I had a few ideas…

Danny: We sat around the kitchen table and it just happened, just gushed right out.

Paul: Most of the arrangements evolved through playing the songs and trying one thing or another. Most of the things that we really love happened nearly spontaneously while playing.

Danny: Absolutely spontaneously. We’d just sit around the table and one of us would toss a tune in between verses of some song or use another song as an intro, and when we realized that we were grinning stupidly, we knew we were onto something that was really nice. So we would slip the tape recorder on to remember it and go back over it. It was about as much fun as I’ve ever had coming up with a CD concept.

For those of us not familiar with Celtic music, can you say a little about the history of the style and the instruments?

Danny: Holy shit! Paul do you want to try that?

Paul: Sure. Irish music has been happily percolating along for centuries. As a popular phenomenon, it’s only come into the mainstream consciousness-anywhere other than little pubs in Ireland-in the last thirty years roughly. The early '60s saw revival bands such as the Clancy Brothers and the Dubliners bring kind of a general consciousness to a wider audience, but by the late '60s, some of the young players started applying modern arrangement ideas to traditional music.

Danny: Right. They grew into bands like The Chieftains.

Paul: The other seminal bands right after that that had a more direct influence on America — the Chieftains are definitely the big eye opener for international audiences, but also bands like Planxty and the Bothy Band. Prior to that most of the music was unaccompanied, and there was no chordal tradition. You hear a little piano or guitar accompaniment on some of the old fiddle and pipe recordings as far back as the '20s, but chord backup is the exception.

Danny: There’s two things. There’s the dance tunes, and there’s the harp literature, which was a separate and distinct phenomenon. The harp airs went back hundreds of years, but the harps didn’t play with the dance players and vice versa.

So that's a more recent phenomenon, combining the harp with the other instruments?

Danny: It’s in our generation!

Paul: So is the guitar really, and the bouzouki. The use of stringed accompaniment dates only to the mid-'60s.

Could you discuss the other, non-Grateful Dead, songs on the album?

Paul: There’s a couple of harp tunes that go back to Turlough O’Carolan.

Danny: We usually make a distinction-in the band and in our little Celtic subculture-between songs and tunes. Tunes are things that come up through the dancing repertoire, and like 99 and a half percent of them have no words to them. The harp airs are similar. Sometimes they had words imposed upon them in Victorian times, but originally they were mostly wordless. Songs we reserved for the actual Hunter/Garcia songs on the album, and then tunes are the instrumental Irish things.

Paul: So for the melodies we’re playing harp airs, which are the slower pieces, and then jigs and reels. Jigs and reels are the two most common dance forms that are played actually for dancing both in Ireland and this country. There are a slew of those woven through the album. The traditional instruments are playing the airs-the slow pieces-would be either the harp or the flute or sometimes the Uilleann pipes. The jigs and reels would be fiddle, flute, pipes, and tin whistle.

Where did the idea of incorporating the traditional songs-rather than simply doing straight Celtic versions of Grateful Dead songs-come from?

Paul: It was sort of a natural thing. Danny had a particular breakthrough on China Cat Sunflower — he just heard these other melodies floating through the song.

Danny: Yeah. That double guitar riff at the beginning of China Cat — that once you hear you can never forget — I just heard a third line. I realized there was an implied thing happening there which I eventually identified as an Irish reel. I actually just stood there and cranked up the stereo playing the reel over that riff and got high as a kite. I thought, "This is totally amazing! Where can I take this?" The rest of it took a little more thought, but that one just spontaneously popped into the brain.

Paul: The melding of unrelated songs, meaning songs with words, and dance tunes — jigs, reels, hoedowns and so forth — isn't an entirely unique idea, that’s been happening for a while. In much the same way that in a bluegrass band you might play an improvised instrumental break between verses of the song. It's been an idea that’s been floating around for quite a while that you might also string a fiddle tune in there in the place of the break. So that relationship of singing, then playing a dance tune is kind of an old idea, but I don’t think it's ever been explored quite as extensively.

Danny: It's a phenomenon that’s common on both sides of the Atlantic. Some people say, "What possible musical connection could Irish music have with Jerry Garcia?" The answer is: Garcia grew up with bluegrass and old-timey music — he was totally steeped in it. He had what amounted to a Doctorate in old-timey music. The connection between old-timey music and Celtic music is profound. Two hundred and fifty years ago a whole bunch of people immigrated here from Scotland, and they just marched up into the mountains of Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky and didn't come down for two hundred years. By the time they came down they were playing old-timey music. The instruments were the same and the basic shapes of the tunes were the same. They had the reels they brought with them and they just kept writing new reels. So they went from Scottish reels to old-timey reels. So what we call old-timey music which eventually morphed into bluegrass is a direct descendant of the Scottish side of Celtic tradition.

Interesting. Do you suppose that could have had something to do with what you were saying about hearing these kinds of melodies in place already in songs like China Cat Sunflower?

Danny: Absolutely! There's something about the shapes of tunes that Garcia came up with that all have a very definite tip of the hat to the tradition. Even from the Dead’s very first record where they played Cold Rain and Snow — there you go, there’s an old traditional song.

How did you choose these particular Grateful Dead songs?

Danny: Ones we liked. We just kept coming up with more that we liked. We've probably got enough for another album on our performing list.

Paul: And another album after that of stuff we’d like to do.

Which other songs have you been doing?

Paul: We’ve got a new version of Scarlet Begonias that I’m really into right now.

Danny: That one's looking like it’s going to open up into a very interesting and lengthy jam at the end.

Paul: A cool version of The Other One.

Danny: The Other One is now living in a bunch of jigs — where no one ever dared put it before.

Paul: We do Liberty and Robert Hunter's Prodigal Town. I do another traditional song that was associated with Garcia called The Wind and Rain.

So can we look forward to a Volume Two?

Paul: I hope so.

Danny: We would love to do it. If somebody gave us the thumbs up, we'd do it in a hot minute.

How did Wake the Dead end up on Grateful Dead Records?

Danny: Ah! Well, when we went into the studio to record, we had no idea where we'd go with the master — just that we were having such a good time doing it. Henry Kaiser indicated that if we couldn't find anybody else, he'd help us get on his label, Shanachie. So we weren't worried much. When we had the final mixes, we shopped them to a company in Nashville that Paul had connections with, and to a couple others along with Shanachie. I'd been cordial with Alan Trist at Ice-Nine Publishing for a long time, and on a whim I called him up and asked if anybody in the Dead organization might like to hear a copy. He asked to hear it and asked for a copy for Hunter, and said he'd forward one to the powers that be. I'm not sure who heard it in what order, but it was only a few days later that Peter McQuaid called me up and said they wanted to put it out. We never did hear from the other companies, so too bad for them.

Part of what I love about the album is how well integrated all the songs sound. Something like Friend of the Devil or Bird Song would have maybe been conceivable in a Celtic music context, but even given what you’ve said, the successful arrangement of a psychedelic song like China Cat Sunflower seems almost surprising.

Danny: You’ve got to release yourself from pre-conceptions and labels and realize that the Dead were throwing all kinds of disparate ideas together, whether we choose to call them psychedelic songs or whatever. There are all kinds of amazing little elements hidden in there. If you're alert you can hear them and then take them in new directions. And that's what it's all about in the Grateful Dead: taking things in new directions. It's like they salted all their songs with innumerable little clues for different doors you can open and walk through and take them off into new areas.

Black Muddy River is one of two songs that’s common to all three albums I'm discussing here, so I'm asking everyone: Did you pick Black Muddy River because it was the last song Jerry performed live?

Danny: Short answer: no.

Paul: Maureen brought that to the table for me. I was sort of vaguely familiar with the song, just as a track on an album.

Danny: Robin and I had performed it for a couple of years.

Paul: But Maureen had done this wonderful harp version that made me more aware of it, and when Danny and I started getting together I said, "What about this one? I know it fits well on the harp." Maureen was cognizant of that as something that made the leap between idioms.

Are you familiar with Norma Waterson's version of Black Muddy River [on Norma Waterson, Hannibal, 1996]?

Danny: I am. It's very interesting. It sort of harkens back to what I was saying about the direct connection between the British Isles tradition and what it evolved into in the U.S. three hundred years later. It's like she took it back a couple of steps. That's what it might have sounded like had Jerry and crew never left the British Isles.

When I spoke to Rip Rense about the Persuasions version, he said the lyrics could have been written five hundred years ago.

Danny: Oh yeah. But I could probably name another dozen of the Dead's songs that are the same way. Hunter's lyrics tend to be very multi-layered and visually evocative. The stories may be a little bit weird, but they're stories nonetheless, and again that's a tradition that came from the British Isles.

Black Muddy River in particular seems to have some real staying power lately. I've been writing about other artists covering Grateful Dead songs for almost two years now. Norma Waterson's was the first in 1996. There have been five more since-everyone is doing that song. It's on Bruce Hornsby's new album too.

Danny: It's becoming what it deserves to be: a standard. In every real sense of the word, a folk song — a song that ceases to exist in a particular setting and becomes public property, or general cultural property. We're not doing a "tribute" to the Grateful Dead. What we're doing is saying, "We love the Dead and what they did, but in addition to that, they wrote these drop-dead gorgeous songs that exist on their own. The songs are so good and so filled with potential that fifty competent musicians can take one song in fifty glorious directions. This was just the direction we chose." It was great fun to perform with the Persuasions a couple weeks ago and see the directions that they've taken. We overlapped in our shows on about three or four songs, and it's totally different takes on these songs but yet the songs survive — not just survive, they glow! This is what it's all about. And people who have never heard the Dead — wouldn't have known the Dead from Adam — they hear these songs and go, "Geez, that's a great song, why haven't I heard it before?" Well, because it was locked up in a cultural niche they didn't have access to or they had made some decisions not to listen to. My mother likes this stuff, and God knows she never listened to the Dead.

Sugaree sounds like the familiar vocal melody sung over an entirely different song, yet it works so perfectly. Was that a deliberate arrangement?

Paul: The thing that's so different is we play it in a waltz rhythm, in 3/4 time, and that's why it sounds different. The melody and the chords are actually identical to the original version, but instead of having a shuffle behind it, it's a waltz. It's not the most common rhythmic form in Irish music, but there are hundreds if not thousands of Irish waltzes, so we melded that with another of those O'Carolan tunes called Lord Inchiquin, and it just sort of fit together. As it happens Lord Inchiquin was not one of the O'Carolan tunes I had been playing much. I just had to learn it for a wedding or something that month, and it was on my mind, so I said, "Do you guys know Lord Inchiquin?" and everybody kind of knew it. We fooled around with it, and it just sort of melded into Sugaree.

Danny: We discovered the connection on the fly. It started with Inchiquin and there's a little ascending line between the first and second parts of Inchiquin, that we suddenly realized was note for note exactly the opening riff for Sugaree. That was one of those things where we just started singing it and everybody's eyes got real big-hey, we're onto something here.

Row Jimmy is the only tune that's not combined with a Celtic standard.

Danny: It's sort of dressed up in Celtic clothes. It's got lots of the wonderful Uilleann pipe texture in it. I'm not an Irish singer, I don't sing in what I would call "greenface" — we don't put on accents. But the opening to our setting of Row Jimmy is as close as we get to sean nos or ancient-style unaccompanied Irish singing, that goes back a thousand years in the old language. So singing over the pipe drone and the bowed bass was a little tip of the hat to the really old Irish style.

And in the case of Coleman's Crossing/Bird Song, the beginning sounds like both songs being played simultaneously.

Paul: Yep.

Danny: Paul's very good at that.

Paul: We were fooling around with Bird Song and in the middle of the jam another tune came out, because something else accidentally reminded me of it, and I just started playing it. Again, that's one of those minor epiphanies: that song says a lot about this tune and vice versa.

Danny: One of the nice things about this particular group of people is that we were able to pull a lot of this stuff out of thin air because every one of us has been playing Celtic music for over twenty years. We probably have thousands of tunes communally rattling around in our brains. A newcomer might not have as many available tunes to pull out of a hat, but we kept talking things out as they occurred to us. That's sort of how it works in a club session. Somebody may be playing a reel three or four times and then shoot a glance over to the next guy, as if to say, "Have you got a tune?" And you've got to figure out a tune that the last one reminded you of, and then on the downbeat, blast into it. So that's the phenomenon we were bringing to this.

Were the other musicians in Wake the Dead familiar with the Grateful Dead’s music prior to making the album?

Danny: Well, yes and no. Joe Craven of course performed with Garcia in the acoustic band and now tours with David Grisman, so he's right in there. He probably knows more about the Dead’s material than we do.

Paul: Four out of the seven were familiar with the Dead. Cindy Browne, the bass player, had a nodding acquaintance with the Dead’s music. Kevin Carr, who plays pipes and fiddle and whistle, also had a nodding acquaintance. I don't think our singer, Sylvia Herold had any familiarity with it, but ironically she totally made those songs her own.

Danny: When she sings it gets the biggest visceral reaction from audiences. When we opened for RatDog at the Fillmore, it had not been promoted as a Wake the Dead event. We were just this strange band that showed up and performed for the RatDog audience, but they loved our stuff. As soon as they realized what we were doing, they started dancing. As soon as Sylvia opened her mouth, these whoops erupted from the audience — they just went for it. So we're delighted that this band managed to assemble itself this way. Everybody is equally fired up, and everybody is a crucial link in the whole.

What was the reaction of the band members who weren't familiar with the material, once you started rehearsing and recording?

Paul: They really dug it!

Danny: Sylvia was the first one to say, "These are beautiful folk songs. Why haven't I heard them before?" She's been recording and performing for many years. She's got a tremendous, beautiful solo album called Bowl of Crystal Tears. So she's known equally in the Celtic and the swing jazz communities here in Northern California. She had never sat down and learned these songs. No one ever bothered to suggest that she should, and she's got a huge repertoire, but this was something that she’d missed.

Paul: I think part of the reason this idea seemed surprising to everyone except Danny and Maureen and me is that there's such a general lack of overlap between various idioms for most people. People who think of themselves as into Grateful Dead music or jam band music or rock music might occasionally hear a traditional music record and make the little leap of faith to understand what’s going on, but in general they say, "Well, it's not my thing. It might be cool, but it's not part of my thing." And even worse, on the other side, people who are only into traditional music or acoustic music, often become quite rabid in their commitment to that, to the exclusion of anything that might be plugged in, so they miss the opportunity to hear all kinds of wonderful music in other idioms. One of the great things about the times we’re living in is that mindset is crumbling, but it has been predominant: the jazzheads will dismiss everything that's not jazz, Celticheads only want to hear fiddle music and so forth, but that’s all breaking down.


Part One: The Grass Is Dead  Part Three: The Persuasions


Eric Levy would like to thank Jean Petrolle, Marty D'Ambrose,
David Gans and John Metzger for all their help.
Special thanks to Corey, Billy, Bubba, Danny, Paul, and Rip
for their time and enthusiasm.

Eric Levy saw the Grateful Dead over 60 times between 1982
and 1995. Since 1999 he has been a writer for Relix Magazine, where
he published three articles about other artists covering Grateful Dead songs.
He lives in Chicago.


Copyright © 2001 The Music Box