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!
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!
"...there's a Lost Kids Situation has come up via the headphones
that there's a Whole Bunch of Lost Kids down in the Kid Tent Crying
because they haven't seen there Mommies and Daddies for months..."
came the announcement by Ken B. which followed Black Throated Wind at the Creamery Show
This is Just the Right Song for a Kid in a Lost Situation
I always took this to mean that the protagonist felt he treated his ex better than she treated him. That she benefited more from being with him than he did by being with her.
only the Grateful Dead can get away with. "Im bound to the load I've picked up in 10000 cafes and bars..." This is one of them. Sure, the Grateful Dead had a great time traveling around but they traveled all of the time and certain aspects of that must have been pretty hard. Just like everything else or anyone else's trip, the wine often seems sweeter on the other side of the hill. So, life is passing him by...the busses and semis, plunging like stones from a slingshot on Mars. (I just got that lyric, its another world!) Another life is passing him by and his load keeps getting bigger with every cafe, bar, and stop along the way, each place further from home. So, when he says 10000! cafes and bars, it can conjure up a lot of thoughts of what his viewpoint might be, good or bad. But more importantly, its not much of an exaggeration. Even by 1972, they had been all over the U.S. and back and all over again. Around this time, I assume, Stella Blue was written and it has one of those lines thats always popped out at me as being something that only a traveling band like this could get away with (or a traveling salesman). "Ive stayed at every blue light, cheap hotel." Now I know they obviously haven't stayed at them all but its got to be a pretty impressive list, again, even by the early 70's.
I love Black Throated Wind and I love the different lyrics in 1990. Also, I wish that hitching was more prominent in our current world but its a much colder society. Can't help anybody out or they might stab you...really?! What a terrible way to live. I have picked up a few hitchhikers along the way and we didn't stab each other. Score: Good 1 <> Evil 0
I feel that Weir/Barlow songs are just as strong as Garcia/Hunter songs. This song is one of the strongest. I've always wondered how they came up with the melody. It's one that seems hard to make up, I'm surprised they pulled it off. I couldn't ever think up of a song like this in a million years (nor any other songwriter from Hunter to Dylan to Lennon/McCartney)!! Way to go Weir/Barlow!!
Picked up Hitchhikers but never did it myself. 25th anniversary return with Loose Lucy the first night at the Cap Center. Glad they both stayed in the rotation until the end.
I remember seeing Robert Hunter and he did a Terrapin with many " extra" lyrics.