Grateful Dead - The Roots of the Grateful Dead

The Roots of the Grateful Dead

The New Album, The Continuing Inquiry


First Appeared at The Music Box, October 2001, Volume 8, #10

Written by Eric Levy


Blair Jackson deserves the most credit for starting the investigation into where and how the Grateful Dead learned their non-original material. The very first issue of Jackson's landmark Dead magazine The Golden Road was published in 1983 and featured an article tracing the histories of all the cover songs the band had recorded up to that point. Jackson included another "Roots" section in each subsequent issue, focusing on cover songs in the Dead's canon that they had yet to record. The article also occasionally delved into the origins of songs from Bob Weir or Jerry Garcia's solo repertoire. It was in these pages that the groundwork was first laid for what has become an ongoing inquiry into the roots of the Grateful Dead.

Sadly, Jackson ended The Golden Road in 1993 after a decade-long run, but just prior to the final issue he published Goin' Down the Road: A Grateful Dead Traveling Companion (Harmony Books, 1992), which collected the best articles and interviews from the magazine's pages. The book also featured a lengthy chapter that compiled most of Jackson's "Roots" articles, listing each song alphabetically for easier reference. While very thorough, the chapter did not include any of the solo performances he had written about in the magazine, and it also had some notable absences. For example, Dark Hollow and I've Been All Around This World were missing despite the fact that both songs were crucial parts of the Dead's acoustic sets in 1970 and 1980, and each of them appear on at least two different albums. Meanwhile, obscurities like Stealin', which is only known to have been performed by the Dead a mere four times in 1966, and Death Letter Blues, which was only performed once in 1968 by the pared-down Dead aggregate Mickey and the Hartbeats, were included. These minor complaints aside, the chapter is invaluable. An excellent scholar, Jackson discovered all sorts of links between the songs he researched and the Dead's interpretations. He even went so far as to hunt down several of the surviving originators of the songs he was investigating — corresponding with Bonnie Dobson (who wrote and first recorded Morning Dew) and actually visiting the venerable Elizabeth Cotten (Oh Babe, It Ain't No Lie) — and then sharing their stories (which in Dobson's case helped to clarify the inaccurate songwriting credits).

Yet for all of Jackson's research, there were some songs into which his discoveries hadn't delved quite deep enough, and here's where this gets interesting. Beginning with its sixth edition, DeadBase (DeadBase, 1992) began to list other recordings of songs the Dead performed. For its first five volumes, the "Songs Played" section merely listed a song's title and author. The new format was expanded to list other artists who had recorded each song — either later covers of the Dead's originals or earlier recordings that may have influenced the band. Most of the research for the section was borrowed from Jackson, but in a few cases new discoveries had been made. A song that Jackson had thought was the earliest was in a few cases preceded by another, though some of these could be considered "related" versions more than actual prototypes. For example, Jackson claimed that Devil with a Blue Dress, which Brent Mydland broke out for a trilogy of performances in 1987, was written and first recorded by Mitch Ryder in 1966 (Ryder was the first to pair the song with Little Richard's Good Golly Miss Molly, as Mydlandalso had done). By the seventh edition, DeadBase architect John Scott (with some help from Randy Jackson) had figured out that the song was an obscure Motown single for Frederick "Shorty" Long in 1964. That's All Right, Mama, a '70s staple for Garcia and performed twice by the Dead, credited by Jackson to Arthur Crudup who cut the song in 1947 (seven years before Elvis Presley scored his first hit with it), was, according to Scott, "inspired by" Big Bill Broonzy's 1932 song Alright Mama Blues. Likewise, The Same Thing, a Pigpen number later revived by Weir and which Jackson correctly stated was written by Willie Dixon for Muddy Waters in 1964, has, by Scott's reckoning, precedents dating back to a 1930 song called Same Thing the Cat Fights About by Bo Chatman.

The next important investigation into the origins of the Dead's songs wasn't something to read, it was something to hear. The Music Never Stopped (Shanachie, 1995) collected 17 mostly original versions of songs the Dead had made famous — from familiar fare like Bob Dylan's It's All Over Now, Baby Blue, Buddy Holly's Not Fade Away, and Marty Robbins' El Paso to obscurities like Rain and Snow by Obray Ramsey and Big Railroad Blues by Cannon's Jug Stompers. Produced by David Gans and Henry Kaiser, this thrilling collection was an excellent introduction to the Dead's extremely varied musical inspirations. Blair Jackson provided the liner notes, most of them straight from the "Roots" chapter of his book Goin' Down the Road.

Another published excursion into the study of the histories of the Dead's cover material was The American Book of the Dead by Oliver Trager (Simon & Schuster, 1997). This encyclopedia-style tome included insightful entries for each band member, including every album by the group, every solo album by its members, and even every album a band member appeared on! And, unlike the earlier and similarly styled Skeleton Key by David Shenk and Steve Silberman (Doubleday, 1994), Trager included entries for each and every song the Dead were known to have performed. Most of that research was drawn from Blair Jackson, but Trager managed to find details on a few tunes that eluded both Jackson and John Scott.

Dave Marsh's captivating, if condescending, book Louie Louie (Hyperion, 1993) hadn't been published when Jackson first wrote about the famous song, which Brent had sneaked into a handful of late '80s shows, so perhaps he can be forgiven for erroneously claiming that the Kingsmen were the first to record it. Scott followed Jackson's lead, but Trager set the record straight, explaining that it began as an obscure R&B single by the song's author Richard Berry. (Complicating matters further, Berry himself borrowed the famous "duh duh duh—duh duh" from a cha cha called El Loco by Cuban bandleader Renι Touzet.) Jackson's Goin' Down the Road book already had been published when a soundboard recording of the Grateful Dead's performance at the Fillmore Auditorium on July 17, 1966 surfaced and began making its way through tape trading circles. A remarkable document, the cassette featured several tunes that were unique to that era, one of which (a song called In the Pines) was known to have been performed only at that concert. Because of when the tape was discovered, Jackson had no way of knowing about the song when he published his book. Scott listed In the Pines in the DeadBase "Songs Played" section, but does not include any information about it. Trager did his homework and learned that the song dated back to at least the 1870s, and that the earliest known recording was from 1917 (though I disagree with him that the Dead learned it from Leadbelly because theirs is much more similar to Bill Monroe's rendition). For the Pigpen chestnut It Hurts Me Too, Jackson credited the song to slide guitar master Elmore James, and Scott again took him at his word. Trager discovered that the song actually began years earlier with Tampa Red.

Since the publication of Trager's book, most research into and discussion of the origins of the Dead's material has taken place online. Three websites in particular provide insight into the roots of the Dead's cover songs: Alex Allan's "Grateful Dead Lyric and Song Finder" (Editor's Note: Alex Allan's site is defunct.), Randy Jackson's "Roots of the Grateful Dead," and the "Song Titles" section at Deadlists compiled by Matt Schofield. Schofield has clarified some of the confusion regarding the differing accounts of songs in the preceding authors' works. For instance, Scott listed in DeadBase a song called You Won't Find Me from a December 12, 1981 performance the Grateful Dead did with Joan Baez. Oliver Trager listed the song this way too, but Schofield figured out that what tape traders had referred to by that title was in fact a Baez original called Marriott USA (which appears on Baez's box set Rare, Live & Classic [Virgin, 1993] performed with members of the Dead). In the case of I've Been All Around This World, Scott listed the earliest recording as being by Louis "Grandpa" Jones in 1947, an assertion that Trager adopted (I don't have the first issue of The Golden Road so I don't know if this information initiated with Blair Jackson). Schofield challenged this. The earliest version he could find was called Hang Me, Oh Hang Me by Sam Hinton from 1961 (though he also mentions a field recording from 1937). Both Schofield and Allan's sites have the added benefit of including songs that the Dead were known to have performed only in rehearsal or at sound checks, something none of the other authors had done.

For all their brilliant scholarship, there are instances in which these scholars had been trumped by another — Dick Rosemont, who wrote an article called "Originals: The Earliest Recordings of Hits and Classic Songs" for the September 1998 issue of Discoveries Magazine. He followed this with a second article for the same publication in September 2000. While not specifically about the Grateful Dead, several of the songs Rosemont discussed were part of the Dead's repertoire, and the results couldn't have been more fascinating. For I Fought the Law, a too-frequent encore for the Dead from 1993-1995, both Scott and Trager listed the Bobby Fuller Four classic as the original. Rosemont determined that the song began with the post-Buddy Holly Crickets in 1959 (though both Matt Schofield and Randy Jackson also had mentioned this version). All of the earlier authors listed the first Me and Bobby McGee, done as a folksy ballad by the Dead in the early seventies, as belonging to Kris Kristofferson. While it's true that Kristofferson did write the song and that his recording appeared prior to Janis Joplin's definitive rendition, Rosemont learned that the earliest was actually by Roger Miller, best-known for having penned King of the Road. In a similar vein, Bob Dylan of course wrote Mr. Tambourine Man, which the Dead performed once with Dylan in 1987, and his recording preceded the Byrds' hit. But Rosemont discovered that it was first done by the folk group the Brothers Four who had recorded a tame interpretation prior to Dylan (though theirs was released afterward). For The Green Green Grass of Home (which received a handful of Dead performances in 1969 and 1970), Jackson, Scott, and Trager, all cited Porter Wagoner's rendition as the first. Schofield listed a precedent by the song's author Curly Putman, but according to Rosemont the earliest recording was actually by Johnny Darrell. And all of the earlier writers cited George Jones as the originator of The Race Is On, a staple of the Dead's 1980 acoustic sets and a first set rarity subsequently, but Rosemont traced it back to one Jimmie Gray.

The most intriguing origin story, however, belongs to Good Lovin', a Pigpen showstopper in the late sixties and early seventies that was later resurrected by Weir as a tribute to the late singer. Though the song was a huge hit for the Rascals in 1966, Jackson, Scott, Trager, and Schofield all correctly stated that the Olympics recorded the tune earlier that same year. But Rosemont learned that it was recorded in 1965 by the obscure Lemme B. Good. While the song was lyrically different than the later, more familiar renderings (which the Dead adapted), the similarities were unmistakable, right down to the "Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah" chorus. The song originally was credited to Rudy Clark, but subsequent recordings added Artie Resnick as co-author. Rosemont guesses, "…that Resnick salvaged the tune with new words — lyrics far better than Clark's" (Discoveries, September 1998, p. 46).

So what does all this scholarship mean? I see it as a wonderful continuing investigation — co-inquiry at its most democratic. Together, these authors — whom I borrow from liberally below — have helped to unravel some of the mystery surrounding the Grateful Dead, helping to reveal a part, however small, of that elusive X-factor.

This brings us to the recently released album The Roots of the Grateful Dead (the spine of the CD gives the title as The Roots of the Grateful Dead, the front cover expands it to The Roots of the Grateful Dead & Jerry Garcia) on the outstanding British label Catfish. Like its predecessor The Music Never Stopped, the disc collects original (or at least early) recordings of songs the Dead made famous. Unlike the Shanachie collection, it also includes songs that were part of Jerry Garcia's solo repertoire and focuses almost entirely on early blues recordings. What follows is a discussion of the album, including a song-by-song analysis.

* * *

David Gans and Blair Jackson had hinted that perhaps there would be a follow-up to The Music Never Stopped. This never materialized, and although The Roots of the Grateful Dead is a bit less focused and not as well researched as the earlier collection, it is nonetheless a worthy follow-up to the first collection — essential listening for anyone with an interest in the Grateful Dead or early folk and blues music.

Part of what made The Music Never Stopped such a joy was Jackson's obvious knowledge of and love for all the songs — both the originals and the Dead's renderings. This gave him the opportunity to compare and contrast the Dead's interpretations with their precedents, something sorely missing from the new collection. Even glancing at the order of the songs on The Music Never Stopped reveals a sense of intimacy with the Dead's career: Cold Rain and Snow was the opening track, as it had been for so many Dead concerts. It's All Over Now, Baby Blue was a few tracks in, representing what became known as the "Dylan slot" for so many latter-day first sets. Don't Ease Me In, a few songs later, could be seen as the first set closer. Morning Dew, toward the end of the disc, filled the second set "Garcia ballad" position. Then Not Fade Away precedes Goin' Down the Road Feeling Bad, a frequent second set-closing medley for the Dead, circa 1971. I Bid You Goodnight ends the disc, like it did as an encore for so many Dead shows.

None of that familiarity with the band is evident on The Roots of the Grateful Dead. Indeed, one gets the impression that the compilers merely glanced at the back of a few Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia albums, recognized song titles that happened to be in the Catfish catalog and banged the thing out (the inclusion of Kassie Jones supports this theory). This would be a bother if the collection didn't include so many gems that also provide such insight into the Dead's interpretations. (Of course, the compilers also earn merit points for the appropriately trippy cover graphics.) Catfish Records, by the way, has done similar Roots of albums for Canned Heat, Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, Elvis Presley, and Muddy Waters.

Sitting on Top of the World — Mississippi Sheiks

Blair Jackson stated that in a 1967 interview, Jerry Garcia claimed that he had learned this song from rockabilly legend Carl Perkins' 1958 recording. In a different 1967 interview, Garcia told Ralph J. Gleason, "Sittin' on Top of the World is another traditional song that was copyrighted some time not too long ago by some country and western guy but it's still essentially a folk song" (The Grateful Dead Reader, Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 21). The "country and western guy" Garcia was referring to could have been Bob Wills, whose 1935 take with the Texas Playboys is most likely where Perkins learned it. The Dead's version, on their self-titled debut (Warner Bros., 1967), bears considerable resemblance to Bill Monroe's 1957 recording, the only other I've come across that includes the "I saw her in Dallas and El Paso…" and "Mississippi River so big and wide…" verses (but then I haven't heard Perkins or Wills' versions). Blues master Howlin' Wolf's 1957 hit was the prototype for Cream's 1968 recording. Bob Dylan was the young harmonica player on the adaptation by Big Joe Williams and Victoria Spivey from 1962, and Dylan returned to the song thirty years later on his album Good as I Been to You (Columbia, 1992).

But all of these were preceded by the original 1930 recording by the Mississippi Sheiks, which is included on The Roots of the Grateful Dead. Apart from the line "Worked all summer" and the chorus, the Dead's interpretation bares only a passing resemblance to this slower rendition. None of the complete verses in either version are common to one another. Sittin' on Top of the World was, according to Randy Jackson, recorded nine more times before 1932, including two other versions by the Mississippi Sheiks, and the liner notes to The Roots of the Grateful Dead do not make clear as to which rendition this might be. The song was also the inspiration for Robert Johnson's Come on in My Kitchen, and a slightly different take by the Sheiks is included on a wonderful disc called The Roots of Robert Johnson (Yazoo, 1990—see Walkin' Blues below).

Viola Lee Blues — Cannon's Jug Stompers

After all these years, Viola Lee Blues remains the ideal example of the Grateful Dead's mastery in taking a three-minute blues number and stretching it to epic proportions. Even detractors of the Dead's underrated and misunderstood debut album will point to Viola Lee Blues as an example of the Dead at their improvisational best. Phil Lesh held the song in high enough regard to include a 20-minute 1969 live performance on Fallout From the Phil Zone (GDM, 1997) and has recently revived the song with his new ensemble Phil Lesh and Friends. It's also among the many shining moments of Dick's Picks Volume Eight (GDM, 1997) and Dick's Picks Volume Twenty-Two (GDM, 2001). Yet, it's hard to imagine it all began with this simple prison blues song recorded in 1928 by Cannon's Jug Stompers. "Cannon" was Gus Cannon, who played banjo and jug as well as handling vocal duties. His harmonica player Noah Lewis wrote Viola Lee Blues and sang lead.

Blair Jackson suggested that the Dead probably learned this song from the Jim Kweskin Jug Band's 1966 recording (Garcia acknowledges both Kweskin and Lewis in the Gleason interview [The Grateful Dead Reader, p. 21]). Kweskin is believed to have learned it from the original Victor label 78 recording, but there's some confusion here. Cannon's Jug Stompers actually recorded the song twice, and both are available on an outstanding two-disc collection of the complete works of Gus Cannon and Noah Lewis (Document, 1990). According to the liner notes of that collection, the second take of the song was never issued until it appeared on the compilation. The two differ in one very significant way. The "I wrote a letter, mailed it in the…" verse is sung only on the second, unreleased take. The first, slightly longer take replaces that verse with this one:

Fix my supper Mama, let me go to her
Let me go to bed indeed Lord
Fix my supper, let me go to bed
I been drinking white lightning, it's gone to my head

So where did the Dead (or Kweskin) learn the other—unreleased—verse back in the sixties? Another Grateful Dead mystery. Take one is included on The Roots of the Grateful Dead.

Incidentally, I have no idea what the title of this song means, and whether Viola Lee is a place or a person (or something else). The words appear nowhere in the lyrics. It could be the name of a prison, I suppose, or perhaps a warden. None of the previous authors have ventured any guesses.

Good Morning Little Schoolgirl — Sonny Boy Williamson

Good Morning Little Schoolgirl is a song with a very confusing history, and how the Dead arrived at their version is still more or less unknown. Complicating matters, there are (at least) two different songs called Good Morning Little Schoolgirl. And if that isn't confusing enough, there are also two different blues singers named Sonny Boy Williamson — this song derives from the first.

One rendition of Good Morning Little Schoolgirl was popularized by the Eric Clapton-era Yardbirds in 1964. Theirs bared only the slightest resemblance to the more familiar one and was credited to H. G. Demarais. The writing credit on the Dead's first album incorrectly listed the same name. Subsequent releases Two From the Vault (GDM, 1992), Fillmore East 2-11-69 (GDM, 1997), Dick's Picks Volume Sixteen (GDM, 2000), and Dick's Picks Volume Twenty-Two reinstated John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson as the author. However, in the 1967 interview with Gleason, Garcia offered, "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl is a song that's in the public domain… [It's] a traditional song, but it's only as far as I know maybe 10, 15 years old. Not much older than that" (The Grateful Dead Reader, p. 21), implying that he, at least, was not familiar with the 1937 recording included here. Pigpen was almost certainly familiar with it. His harmonica playing owed an obvious debt to Williamson who, according to Oliver Trager, rescued the instrument from its jug band accompaniment obscurity — turning it into a lead instrument.

But the link between Williamson and the Dead's arrangement is a tenuous one. For example, this verse in the Dead's version:

I'm gonna buy me a airplane, fly all over your town
Tell everybody baby, Lord you know you're fine
Come on now pretty baby, I just can't help myself
You're so young and pretty, I don't need nobody else

could be derived from this verse in Williamson's:

I'm a buy me a airplane (twice)
I'm a fly all over this land (twice)
Don't find the woman that I'm lovin'
And I ain't goin' to let my airplane down.

But apart from the airplane imagery and a reference to a woman, the two verses were not very similar. Musically the Dead's Schoolgirl appeared to be unique. Muddy Waters cut the song in 1963, and his was clearly patterned after Williamson's. Yet both Blair Jackson and Oliver Trager made compelling arguments that attributed the Dead's version to a 1947 recording by the lesser-known Andrew "Smokey" Hogg (with which I am not familiar). Perhaps this was the one that Garcia was referencing.

The liner notes to The Roots of the Grateful Dead state, "The album Two From the Vault had Good Morning Little Schoolgirl as one of the tracks," supporting my idea that the compilers merely looked at the back of a few albums to arrive at the present collection. Did they miss that it's on the Dead's debut album along with Sittin' on Top of the World, Viola Lee Blues, and New Minglewood Blues? Schoolgirl was of course a showcase for Pigpen as the several officially released recordings can attest. As he did with many other Pigpen blues tunes, Bob Weir reintroduced the song later in the Dead's career. Bringing things full circle, the final performances of the song in 1995 returned to Sonny Boy Williamson's arrangement, which Weir still performs with Ratdog.

Kassie Jones Parts One and Two — Furry Lewis

The liner notes this time claim, "Another early [Grateful Dead album], Workingman's Dead included a version of Kassie Jones," suggesting that not only did the compilers of The Roots of the Grateful Dead just glance at a few track lists on Dead albums to choose songs, but they also didn't bother to listen to them. As even the freshest Deadhead can tell you, Casey Jones was a Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia original, not a cover. Nevertheless, the two-part song included here by Walter "Furry" Lewis is a fascinating glimpse into the legend of John Luther "Casey" Jones, whose nickname is spelled various ways in different songs. Hunter's title character was in fact based on the same person that Lewis was singing about back in 1927. (Hunter had a fondness for continuing the tradition of characters that had become legend through American folk and blues music. The Dead's Dupree's Diamond Blues and Stagger Lee each derive from similar folkloric histories.) Regardless — and unbeknownst to Catfish Records I'm sure — the Dead did perform the earlier folk tune (meaning not the eponymous Workingman's Dead [Warner Bros., 1970] classic) twice in 1970, subsequent to the debut of their own Hunter-penned song. Titled Ballad of Casey Jones in DeadBase to avoid confusion, non-tape traders will probably be more familiar with Garcia's acoustic interpretations, which appear on both the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band's Almost Acoustic (GDM, 1988) and Jerry Garcia and David Grisman's Shady Grove (Acoustic Disc, 1996). Both albums credit the song to Mississippi John Hurt, but John Scott, Oliver Trager, and Randy Jackson — as well as the informative liner notes to Shady Grove — all contend that Hurt's version was recorded a year after Lewis'. Still earlier musical adaptations of the story date back to at least 1909, and possibly as early as 1900 — the year of the infamous train wreck.

Lewis' and Hurt's versions were lyrically similar. In Part Two Lewis rendered a verse:

Mr. Kassie said before he died
One more train that he want to ride
People tell Kassie, "Which road it be?"
"The South Pacific and the Santa Fe."

Hurt's (and Garcia's) corresponding verse was altered to:

Casey said before he died
"Two more roads that I want to ride"
People said, "What road Casey, can that be?"
"The Colorado and the Santa Fe."

The differences actually were more of tempo and cadence than lyric. Lewis' Kassie Jones, which was divided in two because the song was longer than a master recording could accommodate back then, was included on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music (Smithsonian Folkways, 1952; CD reissue, 1997). Unlike the Hunter-penned Grateful Dead tune, both Lewis' and Hurt's dealt explicitly with Jones' death. One factor common to all versions, and something Hunter retained, was the attention to the time of day (obviously something very important to train personnel). Lewis' Part One included the lines:

He left Mexico at quarter to nine
Got Newport News, it was suppertime

Now compare the opening verse of the Dead's version:

This old engine makes it on time
Leaves Central Station at a quarter to nine
Hits River Junction at seventeen to
At a quarter to ten you know it's trav'lin' again

A side note: Lewis' Kassie Jones Part Two includes the line, "I'm a natural born easeman on the road again" which the Memphis Jug Band would adopt (or perhaps more precisely, re-employ) a year later. For more on the history of Casey Jones — the song and the person — see Randy Jackson's account.

It Hurts Me Too — Tampa Red

Elmore James was not only one of the greatest slide guitar players of all time, but he also was one of the cleverest musical bandits. His signature tune Dust My Broom was lifted wholesale from the Robert Johnson song of the same name. The Dead learned It Hurts Me Too — a thrilling Pigpen rave-up included on Europe '72 (Warner Bros., 1972), Ladies and Gentlemen, the Grateful Dead (GDM, 2000), and Dick's Picks Volume Twenty-Two — from James' 1957 recording. He was even given writing credit on the Dead albums, but James quite liberally "borrowed" the song from Hudson Whittaker (or possibly Woodbridge), better known as Tampa Red, who recorded what is believed to be the original in 1940. What James did — with the Dead following suit — was to retain the chorus, while changing all of the verses and slowing the tempo considerably, although the protagonist, who doesn't want to see the woman he loves get hurt, is retained. Compare Red's verse:

He wrecked your life Mama right at the start
And if you ain't careful, he will break your heart

with James' similarly themed:

You say you hurting, you almost lost your mind
The man you love, he hurts you all the time

The Dead may have been familiar with Tampa Red's It Hurts Me Too (and its appearance here is certainly most welcome), but the lyrics, tempo, and attitude were taken directly from Elmore James.

On the Road Again — Memphis Jug Band

From a historical perspective, none of the Grateful Dead's archival releases has been as significant as the Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions CD (GDM, 1999), which featured a very young Garcia, Weir, and Pigpen playing in a jug band in 1964 — a full year before the birth of the Grateful Dead. Representing the true roots of the band, the album is a musical joy and a privileged peek at the group before they went electric and changed the face of rock and roll forever. Only a handful of songs from those days made the transition to the Dead's repertoire: Jesse Fuller's Beat It on Down the Line and The Monkey and the Engineer, Lightnin' Hopkin's Ain't It Crazy, and two songs by the Memphis Jug Band — Overseas Stomp (better known as Lindy), which the Dead retired by 1966 and On the Road Again, which was revived for the group's 1980 acoustic sets as documented on Reckoning (Arista, 1981).

In contrast to the vast reworking Viola Lee Blues received, the Dead stayed surprisingly close to the original On the Road Again, right down to the background call and response hooting. One noteworthy change took place in the third verse. Memphis Jug Band lead singer Will Shade (who was Black) sang:

I stepped right back, I shook my head
A big black nigger in my folding bed
Shot through the window, broke the glass
Never seen a little nigger run so fast

Both Garcia, who sang the song in Mother McCree's, and Weir, who took over vocal duties with the Dead, had the sense to change "nigger" to "rounder" (which is slang for drunkard or criminal). One of the more puzzling aspects of the song — the meaning of the phrase "natural born easeman" (or "eastman"), which is also heard in Furry Lewis' Kassie Jones Part Two — had been cleared up thanks to Alex Allan's site. An "easeman" is "a man who lives on money earned by a woman" or "a hustler who lived by his wits, most often as a pimp."

The Memphis Jug Band recorded three other songs with a Dead connection: Cocaine Habit Blues (another tune from the Mother McCree's days), Stealin' (which appeared as the b-side to the Dead's first single in 1966 and later resurfaced on Garcia and David Grisman's Shady Grove), and K.C. Moan (a staple of Weir's solo repertoire). For more on the history of the Memphis Jug Band see Randy Jackson's online essay.

Deep Elem Blues — Prairie Ramblers

This song was another "unplugged" number for the Dead, played during both the 1970 and 1980 acoustic sets — in drastically differing arrangements (cf. Dick's Picks Volume Eight and Reckoning). It was also a standard for the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band and appeared on Almost Acoustic. Blair Jackson has stated that the earliest version he could find was from 1933 by the Lone Star Cowboys. Dick Rosemont made the same discovery. John Scott went on to list the precedents Elm Street (Woman) Blues by Ida May Mack in 1928, and a 1929 reading by Texas Bill Day. Matt Schofield pointed out the similarities to songs called Deep River Blues, Coal Tipple Blues, and Georgia Black Bottom. So this is yet another tune with a peculiar history. The Dead's 1980-era adaptation is extremely similar to the Lone Star Cowboys', which is most likely where they learned it. However, this version by the Prairie Ramblers from 1935 is pretty similar too, so it also could have been the Dead's inspiration. Both the Lone Star Cowboys' and the Dead's versions included the lines:

When you go down to Deep Elem put your money in your pants
The women in Deep Elem they don't give a man a chance

On the Prairie Ramblers' Deep Elem Blues, "women" was replaced with the more specific "redheads," a variation Garcia adopted (as on Almost Acoustic). A striking aspect of popular music in the thirties was the lack of clearly defined genre boundaries, which dominate the musical culture today and sadly have become an unavoidable part of marketing. Back then, the lines that separated blues from jazz and country from pop were much more blurred. This rendition of Deep Elem Blues is the perfect example. It features not only fiddle and mandolin — both of which would soon become bluegrass staples — but also a clarinet, which is more commonly associated with jazz or classical. Nevertheless, here all the instruments join together, effortlessly blended for a joyous and genre-less whole.

"Elem," by the way, is a variant of "Elm," and refers to Dallas' notorious Elm Street red light district.

New Minglewood Blues — Noah Lewis' Jug Band

The peculiar history of this song already has been written about quite eloquently by Blair Jackson, Oliver Trager, Alex Allan, Matt Schofield, and Randy Jackson, and, as a result there is very little to add to the conversation. I highly recommend reading the research that these scholars have put into the song (especially those by Randy Jackson, who actually made the trek to find the Minglewood lumber camp outside Memphis, Tennessee — see: Roots of the Grateful Dead: Minglewood Blues and Roots of the Grateful Dead: In Search of Minglewood). So here I offer simply a brief synopsis of the story.

In 1928, while still a member of Cannon's Jug Stompers (see Viola Lee Blues and Big Railroad Blues), Noah Lewis wrote, but did not sing, a song called Minglewood Blues. By 1930, Lewis had left the Stompers to form his own band (possibly the first example of a band's singer "going solo"), where he wrote and sang a new, completely different song in response to his earlier effort — this tune was titled New Minglewood Blues. Bob Weir, who was a fan of the early jug band scene, brought the latter song to the Dead for their first album adding a verse of his own and — continuing the wordplay — calling his New, New Minglewood Blues. The song stayed in the Dead's repertoire through 1971 (the final performance of that earlier incarnation is preserved on Ladies and Gentlemen, the Grateful Dead). In 1977, the group then revived the song, changed all the lyrics save for the first verse, and recorded it again for their Shakedown Street album (Arista, 1978) under the title All New Minglewood Blues. Before long, yet another verse was added and the song title was returned to simply New Minglewood Blues, as it appeared on Dead Set (Arista, 1981).

Incidentally, Noah Lewis' Minglewood Blues was included on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. That song, its sequel Big Railroad Blues, and both recordings of Viola Lee Blues can be found on the two-disc Gus Cannon/Noah Lewis Document collection. Be sure to get the whole picture.

Walkin' Blues — Son House

This is an odd choice to include on The Roots of the Grateful Dead. The Grateful Dead's Walkin' Blues, which first appeared on Without a Net (Arista, 1990), is derived — quite faithfully — from the 1936 original by the song's author, the legendary Robert Johnson. Son House, who first recorded the song in 1941, was another famous blues singer raised in the Mississippi Delta and is said to have been a mentor to Johnson. Further investigation revealed that Johnson had in fact borrowed the vocal melody and style for Walkin' Blues from a 1930 House song called My Black Mama. So what we have here is Son House covering (and largely rearranging) a song by Robert Johnson, which itself was a remake of a Son House song. Though, when talking about old blues songs, determining an "original" can be a tricky endeavor. Johnson's line, "Worst ol' feelin' I ever had" is borrowed — cadence and all — from a 1935 song called The Cockeyed World by Minnie Wallace. Randy Jackson lists no less than nine songs called Walkin' Blues that precede Johnson's version, so this story has more layers than an onion.

I'm not sure why Catfish Records chose to include House's version rather than Johnson's. I suppose it could be because of publishing rights, but other Johnson songs appear on different Catfish albums. Muddy Waters' Walkin' Blues is clearly patterned after Johnson's, but Catfish included House's on their The Roots of Muddy Waters CD (2000) too.

For anyone who does not yet own Robert Johnson's The Complete Recordings (Columbia, 1990), it should definitely be your next purchase. His reputation is well deserved. Yet for all his innovation and influence, he didn't simply spring up from nowhere. A 1990 album on the Yazoo label called The Roots of Robert Johnson provides ample evidence that Johnson had his own influences, just as he would go on to inspire so many others — Bob Weir among them. Recently, The Rolling Stones were successfully sued by Johnson's estate for not crediting him or paying any royalties for their recordings of Stop Breaking Down and Love in Vain. For the latter, they should have perhaps presented in their defense Leroy Carr's When the Sun Goes Down, the melody of which Johnson copped for Love in Vain. Carr's song — along with House's My Black Mama, the Mississippi Sheiks' Sitting on Top of the World, plus eleven others — are included on the Yazoo collection, which is a must for serious blues fans or Johnson scholars. For a Grateful Dead-related Walkin' Blues that's even closer to Johnson's, listen to the version on Bob Weir and Rob Wasserman's Live (GDM, 1997).

Blue Yodel No. 9 — Jimmie Rodgers

The solo repertoire of Jerry Garcia was, if anything, even more varied than the Grateful Dead's. As Bob Dylan famously said, "There are a lot of spaces between the Carter Family, Buddy Holly and, say, Ornette Coleman — a lot of universes — but [Garcia] filled them all without being a member of any school." It's true. Garcia was equally comfortable incorporating a rocker by Chuck Berry or the Rolling Stones as he was tackling a Motown classic, a Dylan ballad, a doo-wop nugget, or an Irving Berlin standard — and that's not even dipping into his acoustic bag. Yet for all of the research and scholarship that have gone into investigating the roots of the Grateful Dead's non-original material, barely any has gone into finding the sources of the songs that Garcia performed in his solo career. A few issues of The Golden Road (notably number 12, which delves into the history of all nine cover songs on Garcia's Compliments [Round/GDM, 1974]), Alex Allan's website, the liner notes to Shady Grove, and, more recently, Matt Schofield's "Grateful Dead Family Discography" are about the extent of the published inquiry. Even the otherwise thorough The Jerry Site is conspicuously missing any information about the songs in Garcia's repertoire. An entire CD (or three) could easily be filled with original versions of songs associated more closely with Garcia than the Dead, but the seven tunes included here (including Kassie Jones) are an exciting beginning.

Jimmie Rodgers shares with the Carter Family the honor of more or less having invented what we now call country music. He was instrumental in turning what was marginalized as "hillbilly" music into an extremely popular form of entertainment beginning in the late 1920s, and his influence can't be overstated. Unlike the Carters, who for all their talent never strayed from the "tradition," Rodgers was extremely experimental, incorporating folk, blues, and gospel influences into his songs. He recorded with an orchestra as early as 1929 and with a Hawaiian band the following year — at the time, both practices were unheard of in popular music, much less country. For the 1930 tune Blue Yodel No. 9 (also known as Standing on the Corner), Rodgers dipped into jazz. The trumpet on the song was by none other than Louis Armstrong, whose wife Lillian provided piano. That Rodgers, a skinny 33-year-old white boy from Mississippi, did this was a testament to his boldness — interracial recording was extremely rare back then. Of course, Blue Yodel No. 9 — like Deep Elem Blues — is also an excellent example of the genre melding that was more common at the time (Is it country? Is it jazz? Some amalgamation of the two?). The title, by the way, was no accident. This song was the ninth in a series of thirteen Blue Yodels. Blue Yodel Number Eight was Muleskinner Blues, another song that was a big influence on the Dead and has turned up in Bob Weir's solo repertoire.

In contrast to Rodgers' trumpet and piano accompaniment, the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band's Almost Acoustic rendition of Blue Yodel Number Nine, with its fiddle and mandolin solos, was unabashedly country. (Hearing Garcia yodel is beyond adorable.) Just a few weeks before he died, Garcia revisited the song again — with David Grisman and John Kahn in tow — and it appeared on the album The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers—A Tribute (Egyptian/Columbia, 1997). This turned out to be Kahn's final recording as well. Returning to the jazzier feel of Rodgers' take, this version, which also appeared on the Acoustic Disc: 100% Handmade Music Volume IV sampler (Acoustic Disc, 1998) as a bonus track, featured not only trumpet, but also trombone, tenor saxophone, and clarinet — effortlessly mixing genres just as Rodgers had some 65 years earlier. Garcia's satisfied "Yeah" as the song fades out was an appropriately beautiful ending to such a distinguished recording career.

Spike Driver Blues — John Hurt

This is another plaintive ballad by Mississippi John Hurt that Garcia covered very faithfully on the Almost Acoustic album — right down to pronouncing Colorado as "Coloraydo." Though Garcia's version is fleshed out a bit by the full band arrangement, its tempo and use of high lead guitar over a lower rhythm are directly from Hurt's 1928 original rendition. Garcia also recorded Hurt's Casey Jones and Louis Collins, which appeared on the Shady Grove album. Spike Driver Blues — one of many songs about another famous train legend John Henry — is included on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music.

Going Down the Road Feeling Bad — Cliff Carlisle

In the liner notes to The Music Never Stopped, Blair Jackson related that for all the rich history of this song, Garcia "… says that the spark that got him to bring Goin' Down the Road to the Dead came from Delaney Bramlett (of Delaney & Bonnie fame) during the Dead's fabled trans-Canada rock 'n' roll train trip in [June,] 1970." The Dead debuted it that October. Garcia was more than likely familiar with some of the earlier renditions of the song, which were recorded by many of his heroes: Bill Monroe in 1960, Elizabeth Cotten in 1958, and Woody Guthrie in 1940 (included on The Music Never Stopped).

This rendition preceded all of those. The liner notes to The Roots of the Grateful Dead state, vaguely, that Cliff Carlisle recorded the song in the "mid 1930s." His is significant in that it featured Jimmie Rodgers-style yodeling between each stanza — something that was unique to this adaptation. In addition, I've never encountered verses like these:

Down in the jail on my knees (three times)
And I ain't gonna be treated this-a way
They feed me on cornbread and cheese (three times)
And I ain't gonna be treated this-a way

The "Goin' where the climate suits my clothes" verse, familiar from the Dead's rendering, was present on Carlisle's recording, though he sings "weather" instead of "climate." Another fun aspect of early folk and blues music was the penchant of many singers to verbally instruct their accompanists. "Play, Boy" was often heard at the start of a song or during an instrumental break. Carlisle wins the prize with his plea to "Get nasty over it, Boy" as the song begins.

The exact origins of Going Down the Road Feeling Bad remain muddy. It's generally believed that the song began in the 19th century and was popular among both blacks and whites. Isolating the earliest recording has proven to be even more difficult. Matt Schofield discovered one by Henry Whittier from 1923. DeadBase lists a precedent called Lonesome Road Blues from 1931 by Sam Collins. This is inaccurate, though it is an understandable mistake as there are versions of the song with that title (including one by Bill Monroe). Collins' song bore no resemblance to Goin' Down the Road as we know it, however it did include a verse about a decapitation in a train accident — an incident common to most recordings of the song In the Pines. As Schofield pointed out, some of the precedents for Goin' Down the Road also included this stanza. It's possible that what began as one song, eventually became two, or conversely, that two different songs were welded together as the adaptations varied.

Someday Baby — Sleepy John Estes

The Dead-related version of this song appeared on the Live at Keystone LP by Jerry Garcia, Merl Saunders, John Kahn, and Bill Vitt (Fantasy, 1973, also on CD as Live at Keystone, Vol. 2, 1988). The tune later turned up on the Jerry Garcia Band's How Sweet It Is (GDM, 1997). Both albums credited the song to Lightnin' Hopkins. Hopkins apparently recorded it in 1947. The liner notes to The Roots of the Grateful Dead don't mention the song at all or anything about Sleepy John Estes (probably an editing error), so I'm not sure when his was recorded, though it sounds like it's from the thirties. (Estes began his career as the guitarist for Noah Lewis' Jug Band). I haven't heard Hopkins' version so I can't compare the two, but I can tell you that Garcia's slowed-to-a-ballad rendition was radically different than Estes' faster take. Lyrically, however, they were largely similar. Estes' featured an entire verse that didn't appear on Live at Keystone, and Garcia dropped two more verses by the time of the 1990 performance on How Sweet It Is. Elsewhere there were smaller changes. A verse in first person from Live at Keystone goes:

Just one thing
Really give me the blues
I wore a hole
In my last pair of shoes

which corresponded to this verse in third person in Estes' rendition:

It ain't but one thing
That give a man the blues
He ain't got no bottom
In his last pair of shoes

Whether these changes derived from Lightnin' Hopkins, I can't say, but Muddy Waters reworked the song in 1955 into Trouble No More, altering the chorus from "Someday baby, you ain't gonna worry my mind anymore" to "…you ain't gonna trouble poor me anymore." The Allman Brothers Band adapted the Waters song in 1969.

Louis Collins — Mississippi John Hurt

This is another Mississippi John Hurt tune (dating back to 1928) to which Garcia gave a very faithful rendering. As the liner notes to Shady Grove explained, Hurt "was not strictly a blues singer like his contemporaries Robert Johnson and Son House. His music reflected the songster tradition that predated the blues style that crystallized in the 1920s." Hurt's meditative ballad was tailor made for Garcia whose adaptation first appeared as a bonus track on Acoustic Disc — 100% Handmade Music Volume I (Acoustic Disc, 1993) as performed with David Grisman and Tony Rice. The same version later was released on the trio's The Pizza Tapes (Acoustic Disc, 2000). A different, yet equally plaintive, reading by Garcia, Grisman, Joe Craven, and Jim Kerwin appeared on Shady Grove.

Big Railroad Blues — Cannon's Jug Stompers

This is the only song common to both The Roots of the Grateful Dead and The Music Never Stopped, so there's not much I can add to Blair Jackson's research as documented in the liner notes to the earlier collection (which I assume Catfish was not familiar with). Given the vast differences between an acoustic jug band and an electric rock band, the Dead's interpretation of this song was surprisingly similar to the Stompers' — a verse out of order here and there notwithstanding.

The Fields Have Turned Brown — The Stanley Brothers

This was a curious choice for this collection as Garcia was known to have performed this song on only three occasions — once in 1973 with Old & in the Way and twice in 1992. His only recording of the song was as guest guitarist and vocalist on the self-titled one-shot album by Bluegrass Reunion (Acoustic Disc, 1992), and their version of this song was religiously patterned after this enchanting original. Nevertheless, banjoist Ralph Stanley's influence on Garcia was immeasurable, and the Stanley Brothers along with Bill Monroe founded the "high lonesome sound" that defines bluegrass to this day.

Katie Mae — Lightnin' Hopkins

Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins' influence on Pigpen was far-reaching. Ain't It Crazy was a staple of the band's electric sets (such as on Ladies and Gentlemen, the Grateful Dead), and he attempted Hopkins' She's Mine for a trio of acoustic performances. The real tip of the hat to Hopkins, however, was always Katie Mae, which became immortalized on History of the Grateful Dead, Vol. 1 (Bear's Choice) (Warner Bros., 1973). Pigpen's playing and singing were very close to the 1946 original, if pared down a bit. The piano on the original was dropped, and the following verse from Pigpen's rendition:

And she walk just like her daddy got oil wells in her backyard
You know she walk just like she got oil wells in her backyard
You know every time she get to workin'
That woman never have to work to hard

was derived from this elaborated stanza in Hopkins' original:

Yeah you know I try to give that woman everything in the world she needs
That's why she don't do nothing but lay up in the bed and read
You know she walks just like she got oil wells in her back yard
Yes you never hear that woman hoot and holler and cry
And talkin' 'bout these times being too hard.

Being a gorgeous song in any rendition, this was not only a perfect vehicle for Pigpen but also fitting way to close Roots of the Grateful Dead.

Most lists of recordings of Katie Mae mistakenly name a 1962 track by Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup. His song's resemblance to Hopkins' ended with the title. Whether Hopkins' was the very first, however, is debatable as well. Randy Jackson listed Guitar Slim's 1937 Katie Mae — Katie Mae, and Matt Schofield cited a predecessor called You Call Yourself a Cadillac. Once again, the true origins remain as elusive as ever.

* * *

It is my hope that the present article has been enjoyable and helpful in gaining a fuller understanding of the roots of the Grateful Dead as well as their mastery at adapting other writers' material. The Roots of the Grateful Dead celebrates these songs and is a welcome addition to any CD library. Let's hope that there are similar compilations in the works. For all the wonderful tunes on both The Music Never Stopped and The Roots of the Grateful Dead, these collections merely are the tip of the iceberg. May the inquiry continue. starstarstarstar

* * *

Many thanks to John Metzger and David Gans for their encouragement and friendship (and John for his patience). Thanks also to Jean Petrolle, Lisa Alspector, and Alan Botts for their feedback. Special thanks to Alex Allan, Blair Jackson, Randy Jackson, Dick Rosemont, John Scott, Oliver Trager, and especially Matt Schofield for all their help and support. Without their research, this article would have been unthinkable.

The Roots of the Grateful Dead is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!

The Music Never Stopped is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!



1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!


Copyright © 2001 The Music Box