Grateful Dead

Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Big River"

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!)

“Big River”

Johnny Cash’s song, “Big River,” is one of those wonderful songs I like to think of as “geography songs.” They offered the Dead the opportunity to sing about many of the places they might show up to play on any given tour. Others include “Promised Land,” “Dancing in the Streets,” and some of the Dead’s originals, too, like “Jack Straw.”

Photo: Joel Baldwin

I was very tempted, following last week’s “Dark Star,” to write about “El Paso,” another geography song by virtue of its title, because of the amazing emergence, in the new Sunshine Daydream release, of “El Paso” from a long and very trippy “Dark Star.” Suddenly, from outer space, we find ourselves in Texas.

But I had a request a few weeks back for “Big River,” so I’m honoring that, and perhaps “El Paso” will emerge, unexpectedly, on its own somewhere down the road.

According to DeadBase X, “Big River” appeared in the Dead’s repertoire on New Year’s Eve, 1971, at Winterland (so, technically, I guess it could’ve been 1972, given that it was a second set tune in that show, following “Black Peter”). Also debuting at that show was “The Same Thing.” The show also featured what may have been Donna Jean Godchaux’s first appearance, on “One More Saturday Night.” They would play “Big River nearly 400 times over their career, rarely dropping out of rotation for more than eight or ten shows, and frequently appearing in many shows running, or with just a couple of shows separating appearances. Its final performance was on July 6, 1995, at Riverport Amphitheatre, in Maryland Heights, Missouri.

Maryland Heights is a suburb of St. Louis, so its performance there was appropriate, given that St. Louis is featured (as “St. Lou”) in the song. That show also featured "Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleloo," done as the opener, with the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers only about ten miles away.

I think the band must have had fun with those kind of opportunities. Sometimes they purposely ignored opportunities like that—perhaps out of a perverse sense of not living up to anyone’s expectations—as in their single performance in Bakersfield, when they expressly did not play “Mexicali Blues.”

So, just for the fun of it, let’s look at how many times the band played at a city mentioned in “Big River,” and see if they played that song in any of those shows.

Saint Paul, Minnesota: 6 (13 shows, if you count Minneapolis) (Twice played—none in Minneapolis)
Davenport, Iowa: 0 (They played a total of 9 shows in Iowa)
St. Louis, Missouri: 21 (plus 4 shows in Maryland Heights) (Six times played)
Memphis, Tennessee: 3
Baton Rouge, Louisiana: 1
New Orleans, Louisiana: 7 (Once played)

Interesting, I think. (By the way, I started this task using the print version of DeadBase, but then my instincts as a librarian kicked in and I was able to quickly execute searches in—“The Deadlists Project.” Thank you so much!

The Mississippi River, evoked by geography but not mentioned in the song by name, occupies a big spot in the American imagination, featuring in literature (Huckleberry Finn, etc.) and song; in commerce and in politics. The river stretches 2,320 miles from its source in the northern reaches of Minnesota to its eventual destination in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s the fourth longest river in the world. Its course meanders—meaning that although it may be just over 1,000 miles, as the crow flies, from St. Paul to New Orleans, it’s considerably further on the lazy river road. Freighters and barges and river queens and rafts…

The Dead’s other big Mississippi song is, of course, “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleloo.” But songs from the river’s banks dot the lyrics—“Canyman,” “Truckin’,” Black Throated Wind,” “Golden Road,” and many songs they covered.

Johnny Cash. A one-of-a-kind musical figure, quintessentially American: able to identify with the outlaw, and vice-versa; craggy, with a voice unlike anyone’s.

Sun Records released Cash’s single of “Big River” in March 1958. It reached #4 on the country charts, and stayed there for a number of weeks.

At a recent “Weir Here,” Steve Parrish and Weir were discussing gold records, and how they used to take them apart—out of their frames, and play them. They reminisced about how the gold record for Europe ’72, when played on the turntable, turned out to be a Johnny Cash record. Which they thought was an ok thing.

And “Big River” is a great choice for the Dead to cover. It’s perfect for Weir’s singing, and somehow Garcia finds a way to do something with it that is unlike anything else—kind of a James Burton effect, but done Garcia style.

The first time I remember hearing the song was in concert at Winterland. It was shortly after the death of one of my closest friends. I was pretty torn up. They played this song with its line about my tears flooding a river, and to me, it was just a song about sorrow. I didn’t hear the entire plot line about the woman he was pursuing along the Mississippi. I just heard what I needed to hear.

That happened a lot with me, and the way I heard songs at Dead shows. I heard what I needed to hear. Sometimes the words would morph, or get changed around by my brain chemistry, perhaps, but I always felt I could find meaning in the music and words coming from that stage. Maybe it was inaccurate hearing, maybe I was deluded, but the comfort from that song that night was real.

Reading the lyrics, now, even when I thought I pretty much knew the words, I come across the phrase “cavorting in Davenport.” It’s not something you’d expect—and I am so glad to know it.


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peetstr50's picture
Joined: Jun 25 2009
Big River in '88 And The Man In Black at my HS Graduation 1976

Two live versions of Big River in my tape collection that stand out, both from 1988: Friday, September 30th at Shoreline, and one of my all-time favorites was Sunday, 31 July 1988 at Laguna Seca in Monterey. The Laguna Seca Big River is fast, tight and chock full of brilliant lightning -quick Jerry G. guitar work. A real 'off-to-the-races version!

Because I went to school with Cindy, one of the daughters of The Man in Black, I had the honor of having not only my parents at my high school graduation from Saint Bonaventure in Ventura, California in 1976. Johnny Cash was there, too.

After the ceremony was over, I turned around to look for my parents and waved to them with a big "Achiever" smile on my face. After I did that I looked around the stands in the gym to see if he was there. Johnny Cash was sitting up at the top of the bleachers. Dressed in black.

Now how cool is that?

tennessee john's picture
Joined: Jul 29 2013
If this was an overplayed song?

I wish I would have heard it more. That means I would have made more shows. Is your glass half full or half empty?

claney's picture
Joined: Jul 20 2007
Song for da haters

This is one of the songs I play for people who say things like "Jerry Garcia was an overrated guitar player." It's short (because those people also tend to think the Dead just "noodled," grrr), and he plays non-stop bubbling lead the whole time, and it's in a good singing key ...

Most of my friends and family don't like the Dead, so I can't go with my first choice --> (not hanging out with them).

Joined: Jun 26 2013
Cry Me A River

I agree with the comment that the Dead are an American Band.
I love how their songs reflect so many varieties of Styles and Tastes found in American Society.
Not unlike how a ride down the Mississippi will expose you to a Multi-cultural experience.

The Dead were not too proud to play a Cover Tune or two and its really a beautiful thing. It makes me enjoy and appreciate more the music made by Johnny Cash and Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly and a host of others. It gives me a feel for what life is like in different places in America.

I can only Wonder and never figure out Why the Dead chose to sing the songs they'd choose to sing.
That's a big part of the Fun to see which songs get chosen at the various shows.

But why- of all of Johnny Cash's songs- is Big River the One they Chose?

I sure can't figure out Why - and from the comments I can see it is not very popular. Yet Some Love It.

Ain't That America.
( I wish the Dead would have covered some Meloncamp!)

The best thing I can say about Big River is that this a a song the Grateful Dead chose to play. That gives it a Ton of Credibility.

It really is a sad and depressing song.
"I'm going to sit right here until I Die"
What kind of Resolution to a problem is that?

Come on now...lets sing "I Will Get By" instead
or "Won't You Try Just a Little Bit Harder..."

Yet-there is comfort for a troubled soul to be found in a sad song like this.
I guess when you find you're not the only one feeling "so lonely I could die" then you don't feel so lonely any more.


beatingthelilies's picture
Joined: Nov 10 2007
Watch that language, Bobby!

I was just listening to Dick's Picks Volume 6 and am pretty sure the F bomb was dropped here, too. To be honest, I was never a big fan of the GD doing this song. I think I overplayed Cash's version as a youngster and it burned me out.I'd rather hear; El Paso, Mexicali Blues or even Black-Throated Wind in its place.

Joined: Jan 13 2010
pretty sure it was a Golden Road interview

about the "no more BR would be okay with me".

on another note: talking about the f/ubr thing got me to listen to 5/21/82 over the weekend. very tasty show. the entire run would be welcome on official release.

no time wasted in the 5/21/82 second set with a smason or sihp or RLL or whatever. Playin > UJB is all quality stuff.

Joined: May 4 2009
Love Big River and Johnny Cash

But I recall reading somewhere that Jerry offered up Big River as the answer to a question of what song he could do without in the rotation.

uponscrutiny's picture
Joined: Jan 18 2010


Thats_Otis's picture
Joined: May 12 2011
One of my favorite cover tunes as well!

...and I think the version on disc two of One from the Vault is one of the hottest versions of the song that I have heard. That ending, with the run up to the big A/E ending, while predictable, is so classic GD! Thanks for the great post!

tennessee john's picture
Joined: Jul 29 2013
You dirty bird

It must have been dirtier when you posted it Anna. :)


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