By David Dodd
Here’s the plan—each week, I will blog about a different song, focusing, usually, on the lyrics, but also on some other aspects of the song, including its overall impact—a truly subjective thing. Therefore, the best part, I would hope, would not be anything in particular that I might have to say, but rather, the conversation that may happen via the comments over the course of time—and since all the posts will stay up, you can feel free to weigh in any time on any of the songs! With Grateful Dead lyrics, there’s always a new and different take on what they bring up for each listener, it seems. (I’ll consider requests for particular songs—just private message me!)
Two songs with words and music by Robert Hunter appear in the Grateful Dead repertoire. The first of these was “Easy Wind,” sung by Pigpen. Influenced by Robert Johnson’s blues, Hunter decided to write a song for Pigpen, and it fit like a glove. The band debuted it August 20, 1969, at the Aqua Theater in Seattle, and then played it 45 times, with the final performance on April 4, 1971, at Manhattan Center in New York.
According to Hunter, in an interview in 1993 with Blair Jackson, “my arrangement was a little bit closer to one of those slippin’ and slidin’ Robert Johnson-type songs because it was just me and a guitar. Then when the whole band got a hold of it, it changed a bit, as they always do. Still, a lot of that original style crept over into the band’s version.”
The song appeared on Workingman’s Dead, released in June 1970.
At the risk of reading too much into very few words, I am, nevertheless, intrigued by Hunter’s use of the phrase “easy wind.” It’s not necessarily an obvious phrase, so I am inclined to think of Robert Frost’s use of the phrase in his poem, “Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening” (1923):
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Could the tone of this poem be further removed from that of the “Easy Wind” lyric? And yet, there’s that phrase.
To continue for just a moment in this vein, I think there is more evidence for Hunter’s utter familiarity with Frost, and other New England poets. Witness his use of another Frost phrase / concept in “Uncle John’s Band” on the same album:
Fire and Ice (1920)
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
(And, of course, there is the Emily Dickinson phrase “no time to hate” in the same song.)
It seems an odd grouping, a mix of the three Roberts: Hunter, Frost and Johnson.
I found a version of the song on YouTube from August 30, 1969, at the Family Dog on the Great Highway. Now, that is a wonderful thing, given the line in the song about chippin’ up rocks for the Great Highway. (Other sources show that date as a KQED studio session. Looks to me like they did both—there are entries on Archive.org for both venues on that date, each containing a version of “Easy Wind.” Busy day!)
So, getting to the story in this song, I’ve always faced the conundrum of a bayou setting, which would imply Louisiana, coupled with the construction of a “Great Highway.” And there’s a river. Now, I’m not familiar with the region, but I can’t locate a “Great Highway” anywhere near the Louisiana bayou, so I’m assuming we’re dealing with the great big America of Hunter’s imagination, which we so often run across in the songs (think of Big Foot County).
Hunter conjures up a narrator, a perfect character, and perhaps the character of the Working Man in Workingman’s Dead, who is a construction worker helping to build the roads. He drinks (again, perfect for Pigpen), sings about his Rider (see “Operator,” and other songs with this term), and can’t help but notice all the ladies “out in red on the streets today.”
Pigpen variously sang this line as "Out dressed in red ...", "Out on the streets in red today" and "Out in red that way,” according to the Grateful Dead Lyric and Song Finder. Somehow I doubt that Hunter would mind. (Another variant I heard today in listening to the two versions from August 30, 1969 was “picking up rocks” instead of “chipping up rocks.” Fun!) Pigpen was not one to sing a song exactly the same way each time, that is certain.
So the overall story is implied by these outlines, and there is nothing spectacular, adventurous, or special about it, but it is, nevertheless, worthy of a song. That, to me, is the essence of the song, and of many of Hunter’s songs—he is seeking all that’s still unsung, after all, which means giving voice, and recording for our memory, that which is unremarkable otherwise. It elevates the everyday, and that’s something any of us can do at any time with our lives that may seem all too normal. There’s nothing about life, Hunter seems to be saying, that is not worth taking note of.
That’s something you find over and over again in the body of lyrics found in blues songs, and I think Hunter has achieved a perfect addition to that repertoire with “Easy Wind,” in both words and music.