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Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Brown Eyed Women"
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!)
Continuing the theme from last week of songs from the never-recorded post-American Beauty studio album, how about if we talk about “Brown-Eyed Women”?
I went to Terrapin Crossroads not too long ago with a whole bunch of friends, mostly librarians, to compete in the Trivia Night contest, up against Phil and his team, and about five other teams. We came in third, and actually beat Phil’s team, which was pretty good, I thought. The only Grateful Dead-related trivia was a fill-in-the-blank lyrics question: “Delilah Jones was the mother of twins, _____ times over, and the rest were sins…” I am happy to say our team got that one right.
“Brown-Eyed Women,” a Garcia-Hunter song, was first played on August 23, 1971 at The Auditorium Theater in Chicago, about a month before the release of the Grateful Dead double live album, aka Skull and Roses, among other monikers. (Hey, this is a family blog!) It was last played by the band on July 6, 1995 at the Riverport Amphitheatre in Maryland Heights, Missouri, which made them miss playing it in Chicago by two days—that would have been an interesting symmetry. And it appeared on the Europe ’72 album, along with the most of the rest of the batch of new songs. It was incorrectly titled “Brown-Eyed Woman” on the album, a mistake which took awhile to rectify. It was played in concert 347 times.
Like “Jack Straw,” “Brown-Eyed Women” is set largely in the era of the Great Depression. It tells the story of a family living in a tumbledown shack in mythical Bigfoot County, somewhere back in the hills, it seems, where the family works the land and the father, Jack Jones, makes bootleg whisky. Jack was a ladies man in his youth, but those days are gone. It is a fairly straightforward tale of scraping by in hard times, where the mother, Delilah Jones, bears eight boys (no girls are mentioned, but an early version, on August 24, 1971 - the second performance of the song - mentions 13 children all told), of which four belong to two sets of twins. This is a couple whose attraction to each other is strong, clearly, and this is a woman who has done more than her share of childbearing and rearing. And when she dies, in the snowstorm that caves in the roof of the family home, Jack Jones is devastated - never the same again.
There is something quietly powerful about the bridge that relates this tragedy, with the culminating line: “and the old man never was the same again.” It’s a feeling that resonates with any of us who have lost a loved one, and especially a life partner. Or with any of us who have seen a parent lose a partner, as I did when my mom died, and indeed, my old man never was the same again—he seemed broken by the loss, and I believe he welcomed his own death when it came. Perhaps this is too much a personal story, but it comes to mind when I think about this song: when my dad met with his pastor after my mom died, he asked how it worked, the going to heaven / resurrection thing. Would Mom be immediately in heaven, looking down, and waiting for Dad’s arrival, or would they both be resurrected together with all of the dead when the Resurrection happened? In other words, his only theological concern was—when will I see Suzy again? And is she in heaven now, or do we both arrive simultaneously later?
I think it is the fact that Jack was never the same again after losing Delilah that makes us most able to like him, to step into his shoes for a moment, and to be able because of that empathy or sympathy to understand something about the life Jack Jones led, making moonshine to make it through the Depression - or to get through his own personal depression following the loss of Delilah.
The lines in the song that place it squarely in chronological time are the references to the onset of Prohibition - “1920 when he stepped to the bar” - and to the Wall Street crash of late 1929 - “1930 when the Wall caved in.” (Which always makes me think of “Greatest Story Ever Told,” with the line: “You can’t close the door when the wall’s caved in.”) Prohibition was repealed in 1933, but the art of backwoods whisky making was well-established by then, and surely continues to this day.
There are many other Jacks, and one other Delilah (along with a Delia, which seems close) in the Grateful Dead song repertoire. I love this about Grateful Dead songs—all the names of all the characters. But Jack comes up repeatedly. Someday there should be a little essay just about all those Jacks, from Jack Straw to the Jack who is asked not to dominate the rap, to Jack of Jack and Jill, to Wolfman Jack, to Jack the Ripper, to Jack-a-Roe. More than four of a kind in a hand of jacks, for sure.
Another story, which again, given the all-ages nature of this blog, I must not relate in full, has to do with an occasion featuring a bottle of grenadine and one certain brown-eyed woman….
Over to you all: family stories from the Great Depression (or from today’s parallel Great Recession)? Coping with the loss of a partner? Making it through hard times by hook or by crook? Women with brown eyes? Looking forward to your stories and reflections.
Just some thoughts and comments after the bridge. "I cut hickory just to fire the still, Drink down a bottle and you're ready to kill". As some have mentioned the depression of Jack's father after losing Delilah and of course the Great Depression time period, this line has stood out to me. To me it’s the moment in the song that isn’t the past but the present. Jack being the youngest and the other 12 siblings either have moved on or died leaving Jack to care for his depressed father. Being that desperate to make a living post-depression & prohibition by willing to burn the furniture (assuming that it is made of hickory) he made for Delilah and his then 13 kids. Had to be a tough time for the both of them but Jack persists to get his dad on his feet. Whereas during the depression Jacks father made decent wages selling "red grenadine" and delivering the whiskey to the burlesque houses and hidden bars where the Brown-Eyed Women and "Red Grenadine" flowed thanks to Jacks soon to be depressed but talented shiner of a father. There is a moment in time where he quits making the shine after the house comes a part during the winter storm that kills his wife Delilah. I'd like to believe this is when he gives up, "Gone are the days". Jack being the one to get his dad back on his feet but having to sacrifice a lot to rebuild. You can buy a bottle of Whisky for cheap and legally now but as Jack sells the product in the song, “Cost two dollars and it burns like hell” they are “getting on”.
Side note: The worst feeling ever picking and a grinnin this song to folks is not nailing the bridge... It happened the last time at a local venue where I was able to play some Dead tunes to some friends before Hurricane Florence. Damn song was going great and my hands stopped working right at the bridge. It was a bummer and I recovered but that bridge is so important to the story and you’d hate to lose your audience to rusty fingers. I have practiced and won’t do it again.
I take this as an unconscious dream state blending of emotions and thoughts working their way into consciousness from the edges of the synapses of memory (This dawned on me after the latest King Crimson concert in San Francisco in 2017 - that your unfinished thoughts get parked at the edge of your awareness and re-assemble through pattern recognition and appear as dreams for possible resolution) and back into recognition - i.e. waking up in the tent after the "Sound Check" the first night at the Further Festival in Angel's Camp. You're in, for the sake of the argument, a hung-over state and ears still ringing from the show, and you're in an old mining town and the unconscious of the area and the crowd influence your perceptions before you wake all the way up and go analytical. Not that particular place, just the analogy to old-time Bigfoot County. These songs often have various interlinking meanings on different levels, and I have been thinking about this one since driving to LA and back for the recent Dead & Co. Dodgers Stadium show.
Not much has been said about Owsley's past, but he was from a political family in Kentucky. His grandfather, A. Owsley Stanley, a member of the United States Senate after serving as Governor of Kentucky and in the U.S. House of Representatives, campaigned against Prohibition in the 1920s. Remember that George Washington himself led federal troops to put down the Whiskey Rebellion where the Kentucky whiskey men did not want to pay Federal tax on one of their few means of making good money - so the moonshine gene ran deep in that family. Hence Bear's indifference to "moonshining" LSD in the modern era. So there's your Prohibition era link.
Bear ordered a good supply of Sandoz LSD before it became illegal in California, and if I remember right, he stashed the supplies to make more against future troubles. So, if "The bottle was dusty, but the liquor was clean", it seems like a reference to some good "old" lsd coming out of deep storage,compared to what came along later made by other people. "Cost two dollars and it burned like hell" - seems like I recall hearing that a hit did cost $2.00 in those days.
Further, "I cut hickory just to fire the still", seems like a reference to Jerry carrying on the fire with his "axe" (guitar) and in a bit of a stretch, "wood-shedding" to hone his musical skills. In other words, the band played on while Bear was in prison, and "the old man" (born in 1935) was "getting on." There's also Andrew Jackson, aka "Old Hickory" from Tennessee as a reference. This could lead into Tennessee Jed (Kentucky doesn't rhyme as well) and remember Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters up in Oregon as another backwoods presence in the mythos. "Since I came down from Oregon", etc..
Lyricists have a lot of leeway in their craft.
Owsley showed up at the Alembic store the day he was released from prison, and asked where all the money had gone? Some hard words were spoken (This from a first-hand account), and some further analogies can be drawn from that. Finally, Jerry had had some scrapes with the law which led to his enlistment, and he escaped "the lickings the other ones got" - a common practice in the 60's.
I know this is a bit of a musicologist's stretch, but driving from NorCal to LA non-stop with station number 23 on the satellite dial can lead to such musings. Feel free to disagree - just my take on the song, and yes, it is a very good one indeed!
I don't think that Jack is the Old man's name. I think Jack Jones, is any farm-hand.
Gone are the days when the ox fall down
take up the oak and plow the, fields around
Gone are the days when the ladies said "clays,
gently Jack Jones won't you come to me?"
Gone are the days when the Dead didn't know what they were doing. (sweating working and drinking)
That girl wants it in the ass from any intimidating black man.
Brown bottle, brown-eyed women. Red grenadine would bite through, to the dusty bottle. If you could rub away, the dust, and the bottle, you'd have the valuable portion.
Jerry likes to say, the trick's out of the bag, with "the old man's gettin' known".
I don't have any more planned comments on this song, other than I think it is one of the best Grateful Dead songs, if not, the best.
Hickory might actually influence the flavor of the whiskey. They use peat smoke in scotch and that changes the flavor.
"The “peaty” flavor in Scotch comes from the malting process, where the dried barley absorbs the smoke odor from the burning peat used in the drying.”
Brown? Eyed women...
I think about this song a lot. One line: cut hickory just to fire the still. Have you ever cut Hickory? Very tough to do so. Also, it's valuable wood that is used to make fine custom furniture, so why cut it "just" to burn it? Implication That valuable wood burning makes better hooch? Does it? I doubt it but another great great Hunter lyric...a lot of hazy meanings in a simple phrase.
Gonna move there someday. Been living there all my life.
I always felt that this song evokes some strong imagery. It was such a rough time to be poor in America. Perhaps all those kids, some illegitimate (sins) were highly disciplined by those lickins, keeping them in line. That's a lot of people to live in one shack. But the narrator, who turned "bad," did not get these said lickin's. I've always wondered why he's bad, what he does that makes him bad? To me it sounds like he worked his ass off. There really is no clue in the song about any trouble he got into. Perhaps the story is told from way in the future and he's reminiscing about his life. Maybe he went astray.
Also, what might be the meaning of the title, Brown-Eyed Women?
Edit: I just thought, maybe, he drank down a whole bottle and did do some killin...
I wonder if Robert Hunter was inspired by Van Morrison's "Brown-eyed girl", written a few years earlier?
still missing him, after all these years
When exploring the lyrics of this song, I can't help but hear that Delilah's youngest son (or one of the youngest) is the narrator of the story. He begins the song by reminiscing then goes progressively further into past accounts of how his father got started in the bootlegging business and how he lost his mother before she could properly rear him; or possibly because his father lost the will to do it after losing her. ("Raised eight boys, only I turned bad; Didn't get the lickings that the other ones had.") He continues to talk about cutting hickory with his father to help the family get by on making whiskey, partaking in drinking to add to his vigor out of the hardship and upbringing. This is why he keeps going back to commenting on how his "old man's getting on" through all that they've been through. I also feel that the way he keeps alluding to his mother as Delilah and calling his father Daddy or Old Man infers that the death occurred before he properly knew her, making him among the youngest of the kids.
To take it a step further, I would also like to propose the rash concept that that Jack may not actually be Delilah's husband but rather her son and the narrator himself. Only Robert Hunter knows for sure, so I'll leave that up for debate.
I hope you will listen to the lyrics from this viewpoint and that it brings on a whole new world of beautiful meaning for you. Would love to hear your comments/retorts, as it's definitely one of those lyrical rabbit holes!
my favorite version of this song.....
I miss 1977 and I miss Jerry...
Can I get a witness?