Greatest Stories Ever Told - “Black Throated Wind”
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!)
Happy birthday, Bob Weir! (October 16.) Cue up “Beat It On Down the Line” with an insane number of opening drumbeats. Seems like a good time to take a look at “Black-Throated Wind,” if ever there was one.
Here’s one of at least three hitchhiker songs in the Dead repertoire. (The others I’m thinking of are …? Your responses welcome. Maybe there are more than I think. ) Does anyone hitchhike anymore? I have a ton of memories about this mode of transportation, dating mostly from the late 1970s when it was the only way, in some cases, to get from point A to point B. Get your hitchhiking stories ready—there are bound to be some good ones out there.
In the case of this particular song, the singer is reminiscing about a failed relationship while trying, unsuccessfully, to hitch a ride—but the cars, the buses, and the semis won’t pick him up. He is, it seems, running away from a situation in which he did not get the better deal. He’s out on the edge of an empty highway…no wait—that’s the other one…no, not The Other One. Oh yikes.
This gets complicated, this stuff about the Dead and songs about being on the road or jumping onto buses or not being picked up by buses. (It has been a long several days, frankly, and I’m winging it here. I apologize for any incoherence in advance.)
Also, as a former hitchhiker, I have to ask: did anyone ever get picked up by a commercial trucker? I know this happens in “Me and Bobby McGee,” but..really? And then in “Pride of Cucamonga,” there’s a hitchhiker getting on board a Diesel Mack—another commercial truck.
John Barlow, in this early lyric written for Weir, which appeared on his “solo album,” Ace, in 1972, makes passing nodes to several icons, including, I would say, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., with his line containing the phrase “Ah, Mother American Night,” (caps Barlow’s) which brings to mind Vonnegut’s novel Mother Night. It’s also been suggested that this is a double nod, and includes the ultimate icon of being on the road, Jack Kerouac, who wrote these lines in On the Road:
"The stars bent over the little roof; smoke poked from the stovepipe chimney. I smelled mashed beans and chili. The old man growled... A California home; I hid in the grapevines, digging it all. I felt like a million dollars; I was adventuring in the crazy American night."
I’ve gotten into a number of disputes, over the years, about the lines
“It forced me to see
That you've done better by me
Better by me than I've done by you”
The meaning seems obvious to me: “done better by me” means “treated me better.” For some reason, some people insist on reading it as “you’ve gotten the better of me,” which is just sort of exactly the opposite of what is being said. Sigh. But, you know, it’s a lesson I seem to need to learn over and over: people will hear in these songs what they need to hear.
So, the singer is stuck in the middle of nowhere, having left his lover in St. Louis, thinking that he may have misbehaved, and maybe he should head on back there, possibly to grovel and ask to be taken back.
I don’t think Barlow was satisfied with the lyric, or maybe Weir wasn’t, because of the fact that the song’s extremely uneven performance history (from The Grateful Dead Family Discography: “‘Black Throated Wind’ was first performed by the Grateful Dead in March 1972. The song was played over 70 times in 1972 and then just under 20 times in each of 1973 and 1974. It was not then performed again until 1990 after which time it was played between 6 and 12 times in each of the following years through to 1995.”) gave rise to an attempt, when the song reappeared in 1990, to use a fairly extensive reworking of the lyrics.
Not sure how many times Weir sang those new words, but I think the attempt was abandoned before long. The newer words don’t seem either more lucid or more evocative than the original lyrics.
It does make me wonder, though, how often it occurred in the Dead repertoire, that there was proposed a significant re-working of lyrics once the song had been in performance for quite some time. It’s easy to find variants among early versions of the songs, and sometimes we come across lines that get changed with the times (“Throwing Stones,” “One More Saturday Night,” etc.), but aside from “Black Throated Wind,” was there another that reappeared in significantly different form?
I know Hunter wrote additional verses to “Truckin’,” but I don’t know that they were ever broken out in a show. Any others? It would be interesting to know. I think Hunter also rewrote “Mountains of the Moon” at some point, but again, I don’t think those new words ever made it into the Dead’s performance—or Furthur’s, when it comes to that song.
There’s something very quirky about the song. Looking at its musical notation in Grateful Dead Anthology II, I wonder at the contortions the transcriber had to go through to get at Weir’s melody line, which is often triplets sung over the four-four time signature (“alone with the rush of the drivers that won’t pick me up…”). And the chord progression is not exactly straightforward, either, with a song ostensibly in the key of E incorporating C major, G major, and D7 chords.
It’s the kind of strangeness, musically, that is quintessential Weir. He seems to manage, throughout his songwriting career, to challenge himself to not be happy with the easy answers when it comes to the music itself, and I really like that. Someday I will have to write about “Victim or the Crime,” which is perhaps the strongest example of this. Or even “Easy Answers” itself. There’s lots to play with in his songs—lots to challenge the ear and to make us, in a strange way, pay more attention to the lyrics than we might if the music was simpler, more straightforward.Am I making any sense whatsoever?
Over to you all, for your thoughts on this song, which I hope will be more clear than my own. Topics: hitchhiking; the song’s plot line; reworked lyrics; Bob’s birthday. Go!
Rorschach to me.
or Mobil Oil?
Black-Throated Wind Keeps on pouring in!
Gotta say for a hitching song this is a brilliant, brilliant line.
“It forced me to see
That you've done better by me
Better by me than I've done by you”
I think the schism we're seeing about the meaning of that line reflects two equally reasonable ways of interpreting the word "better" in this context.
Specifically, does "better" mean "more right" or "more well"?
The base phrase, if you will, could be either "you've done right by me" or "you've done
well by me". The former is about ethics or fairness, while the latter is about degree of benefit.
I suggest people in David's camp assume the base phrase is "you've done right by me", so "you've done better by me" conveys you've treated me [more right].
The way I've always heard it assumes the base phrase is "you've done well by me", so
"you've done better by me" conveys you've [benefited more from] me.
Upon scrutiny, I think Barlow probably intended "better" to be mean "more right", but it is vague so it is not surprising that some of us hear "more well".
I'm truthfully a bit puzzled by the interpretations of this line, with only jbxpro seeming to get it. I've always thought it clear that he is simply expressing his feeling that she got more out of the relationship than he did, i.e. that she did better by the relationship than he did. He's come to realize that neither were honest going into it, and is disappointed in himself for both doing so, and not seeing it happening. Possibly she wanted the things that come with a relationship, while he wanted just the relationship itself? But they both lied their way into it, so nobody is really to blame. Live and learn. It's good poetry, with a lot of tangible metaphors, but it's a bit awkward, and the buried meaning becomes hard to see. Blind in the light of the interstate cars...
I suppose one man's Clunker is another man's Gem.
"Plunging like stones from a Slingshot on Mars"
just takes this song Up into a Cosmic Perspective for me.
I Love it.
From the "Highway" to the "Moon" back down to the "Clouds" then all the way to the "Stars" we are Catapulted into the Grand Scheme of Things.
Right away we are transcending this Mortal Coil.
Likewise the imagery of a "Black Throated Wind" as an Antagonist and the "Light" as a Protagonist and our Lonely Hitchhiker trying to make sense out of the illusions and lies and finally being able see the "Light"
Our Lost Boy is having to re-evaluate things and concludes he needs to get back to the place he was running from.
First we find him "Blind in the Light"
Then he is " Lost from the Light"
and finally "Here comes the Light" which transforms his whole point of view and gets him turned around.
Finally...One of my FAVORITE lines ever...
"so I Give you my Eyes and all of their Lies
please help them to Learn as well as to See
and Capture a Glance and make it Dance
( poetic Genius...A Dancing Glance..WoW)
of Me Looking at You Looking at Me"
If more people would be willing to live that line... What a Wonderful World it Would Be
Also...I've always heard the last reference to the Black Throated Wind as
"Speaking a Lie that Could Almost be True" (instead of "Life")
The most effective Lies will look very Believable until seen in the Light.
Then the Ferocious Conclusion of "Coming back Home- That's What I'm Going to Do"
as the Music and Energy Build and Build.
"'Cause You've Done Better by Me than I've Done by You"
that Yingy Yangy Line we've been wrestling with.
It seems to me At First He left home feeling like He'd done Better and She done him Wrong.
Then he gets Turned around and see's it Completely Opposite.
She's done Better than He's done.
( I am picturing Ralph Cramden at the end of Every Honey Mooner show - Ha!!)
Now She is some one to be Loved and no longer someone to be Blamed
or so it seems to me...
that is a scary hitchhiking tale!
I think the key here is the previous line. It's the black-throated wind that has forced our protagonist to see the truth. It seems that the hitchhiker would be forced to see the relationship the way that David interprets it, and not the other way around.
I like this song. Can't say it's one of my favorites, but it is solid enough. I don't connect much with the lyrics except for "I left St Louis, the City of Blues", possibly because St Louis seems like an overlooked city that deserves a mention now and then. It seems like a song Johnny Cash might have written, although Cash's version would have been cleaner, leaner, and meaner. I enjoy something about its feeling of urgency and desperation. The rising intensity of Bob's singing towards the end of this one works for me somehow. But on the downside, I have to say "the buses and semis plunging like stones from a slingshot on Mars" is the worst klunker of a simile in any dead tune, and probably one of the worst in the history of the English language.
I could write many pages about my hitchhiking (mis)adventures, but not one of my stories involves a commercial trucker. My worst experience with hitchhiking was the time I picked up a deadhead who wanted to go from Berkeley into the city. He looked like a typical longhair vegetarian peacenik bliss boy. The dead were doing a series of shows in SF that week, and bliss boy quickly started telling me was going to every show using the free tickets he had because he was fast friends with everyone in the band, and how Mountain Girl would always give him big bags of the best weed. I figured he was full of shit but harmless. But by the time we were onto the bay bridge he was explaining to me that he was studying law so he could be the one who finally gets Manson out of jail, because "Charles Manson is Jesus Christ, you know". He was not joking. I played along and said things like, "yeah sure that sounds right....wow, good luck with that man!", because I was scared shitless that at any moment he was going to pull a giant hunting knife out of his duffle and commence with some stabbing. I was ready to jump out of my car right there half way across the bridge. Yikes!!
I interpret "you've done better by me...than I've done by you" to mean "you have benefited from being with me more than I have benefited from being with you". It's a common sort of expression, isn't it? Sorry, but I don't have the scholarly chops to find support for that perspective.
I again wanted to contribute a few disconnected thoughts here:
When Barlow songs started popping up in the Dead’s repertoire I loved it, but he was so *different* from Hunter (whom I saw in Boston the other day, a fantastic show). Here he contributes a straight-ahead blues song rather than the free-range(ing) play on perceptions and emotions. There’s a single symbol in it (the titular wind of course) rather than the multitude cascading through Hunter songs, and a single emotion. The guy feels like crap (can I say "shit" in this forum?), and after standing there staring at the sky and the cars that won’t pick him up, he just turns around and goes home. End of simple, and marvelously worded, story.
Good call to highlight the "you've done better by me" line, which immediately stands out to the listener. The first occurrence of it is the turning point of the song, and it makes you think about what it means and why the guy is shouting that over and over in his head. What happened in that relationship?
I've always interpreted that line and the relationship in a different way than Mr. Dodd lays out. I feel that he was dumped by her. He tried to tell himself that it ended because she was no longer the woman he fell in love with. But actually ... he realizes ... she was *always* the same woman: interested in what she could get out of the relationship before she left it rather than being interested in him. So that's what "you've done better by me" means, that she’s managed to get what she wanted out of him and he’s left with nothing. "Please help them to learn," means that he needs to keep his eyes open next time so this doesn't happen again (has it happened before?). That black-throated wind is a symbol for a lie (the relationship) that could almost be true but isn't.
And "going back home?" ... it doesn't mean that he's going back to her, it's the classic line that he's going back to something simple and which he understands. Anyway, that's my interpretation and I'm sticking to it. And thanks again to the great lyricists ... let’s do Cucamonga next! :)
I agree with David that the "Better By Me" line is saying She treated Him Better than He treated Her. The whole story is about him recognizing that fact and wanting to get back to her.
Another line that I found hard to wrap my brain around is this one...
" I can't deny the Time's Gone By
when I never had Doubts or Thoughts of Regret
and I was a Man when all this Began
who Wouldn't think Twice about Being There Yet"
...quite profound the more it sinks in!
hope y'all don't mind -but I will be posting more
This is one of those songs that gets better and better the more I listen and ponder on it!