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!
There was a raw power and intensity to these words that was best expressed during the first few dozen renditions. Bob didn't let anybody down during 1990 and beyond either. The meaning of the verses themselves show Barlow again at his intrepid best.
This is definitely my favorite Bob & John tune, hands down. Glad I got to hear it once in '93.
I flew across from Australia to LA in 1990, Hitched from Venice to the Sacremento turn off then got picked up by a trucker who was carrying a load of refridgerated canteloupes all the way to downtown Sacremento,
Jumped in a bus a walked to Cal-expo through some leafy suburb until a car stopped and gave me a ride to the parking lot all the way complaining and warning me about the drug addicts who were invading his town!
I've hitched thousands of Kilometres in Australia since I was 16, lots of rides with Interstate (long haul truckers)
Had some pretty strange and scary rides but i'm still here!!
You're right about hitch hiking during the 70's: I relied on my thumb several times, most notably a 26 ride sequence from Colorado to Indianapolis for the 10/1/76 show. There was 1 ride from a commercial trucker, the rest from a variety of cars and pick-up trucks. Luckily, I arrived in time for the show, to meet up with friends from Ohio. No Black Throated Wind in Indy in 1976; however, I did see 5 between 1972 and 1974: Boulder 9/3/72; Watkins Glen 7/28/73; Indy 10/27/73; Cleveland 12/6/73 and memorably in Louisville on 6/18/74. I'm very surprised to realize it never appeared again until 1990. Furthur did an amazing BT Wind at Red Rocks on 9/22/13.
I generally favor Garcia songs, but this is one big exception. This Weir masterpiece hit me like a ton of bricks when I first heard it on, of all things, Steal Your Face. There was even something about that out-of-phase vocal tone that made it better somehow, like it was beaming in on an unsteady radio signal from very far away. It reminded me of the edginess of hitch-hiking of course -- something I was doing a lot of at the time. And no, a commercial trucker never stopped to give me a ride but I always wished they had.
Certainly you are right about "better by me than I done by you". It clearly means the singer is feeling regret for treating someone less well than he has been treated. No argument there. I can relate, and I'm glad that phase of my life is in the distant past.
The 1972 Europe versions are so powerful. That was a time when Weir could do no wrong. His strange chord progressions and barking vocals moved me and they still do every time I hear them. In later years, I was less inclined to buy what he was selling. (I mean moment-to-moment, artistically, as I listened to him.) But I could say this for a thousand other artists. What is it that corrupts their ability to remain vital? It's more common than not that a great musical talent will grow soft. The new lyrics were inferior (although not terrible) and remain an interesting sidebar.