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!)
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 deadlists.com—“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.
My post gets deleted saying the same thing two or three others have alluded to here. Yeah, it sure did sound like they were saying f*** y** Big River.
11/24/78: keith plays a lick that has stayed with me all these years, plus the whole thing is great.
5/21/82: I am pretty sure they drop an f/u bomb in there
was Jerry singing Big River on 5-16-72. Another superb version. Well, I have a question - how many times did Jerry sing this song?
Williworx: I have had several friends over the years tell me that is what they think they are saying...so, over time, Ive got to the point where I sing it that way too just for kicks.
Thanks David. I was listening to the Winterland 73 box recently and I was blown away by how good those three performances were. Big River was played all three nights. They really had that song perfected in 73 and they played it better than most. I love it and I don't think I'll ever tire of it.
To me this is one of the GREAT GD country covers and I haven't yet heard a version I don't like, including the Johnny Cash original. I always wondered why they never segued into "Cumberland Blues" from "Big River" - the tempo, rythym and song key seem to always suggest this in my mind. A country classic I hope Bob will play solo/acoustic sometime soon with one of his many musical friends. One of my favourites!
When I'm looking for a nice first set CD to listen to, I sometimes like to close my eyes and pick the first one that doesn't have Big River on it. And that can take a lot longer than you might think. This song was fabulous the first ten thousand times and they literally played the hell out of it, but after that it should've been mercifully consigned to the Ring of Fire for safekeeping. Jeez. I've long entertained a sneaking suspicion that they were bound, in a Robert Johnson Crossroads kind of way, to pay regular homage to the Cash-man for continued fortune and luck and that this was the only song he gave them, like a Child's Garden of Grass "un-yella-man", as their personal secret mantra. He was richer than god, you know, and all songs are essentially incantations. The Kundalini guys asked for wealth all the time with one of theirs and though you don't hear much about them any more, mantras were practiced everywhere in the 60s and 70s. Could be some hoodoo going on here, because you just never can trust anything about that ol' black muddy when it comes right down to it. You sure won't catch me down in New Orleans ever again. 'Cuz I can smells 'dat hoodoo on 'da wind...
Cash starts off by saying that he's a-gonna sit right there until he dies. Then he says "screw this" and chases her across the country through Huck Finn's America ... that's so much in the tradition of American thought.
Another great "chase her down the river" song is Tom Russell/Dave Alvin's "Down the Rio Grande." Check it out.
When I'm talking to country music friends about the Dead's bona fides as an American band, the fact that they covered this song as well as Hank, Haggard, Jones, Loretta Lynn, Marty Robbins, Dolly, etc. blows their minds.
rather late in his career if I remember correctly - if there were any songs he was really tired of playing. After some deliberation he told the interviewer that he wouldn't mind not playing 'Big River' ever again!
Not that it kept him from doing amazing things with it, like D.D. says.
I wonder if the Man in Black was ever on the same bill with the Boys over the years. Always loved Jerry's guitar on this song, it sounded bubbly just like a quick flowing river.
Great Chorus and Great Story song; I can see why the Boys liked it so much.