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.
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?
Its amazing to me how strong this song is, the music combined with the evocative lyrics is enough to bring a grown man to cry! Loved hearing Jerry sing this, such emotion. I just watched Dead and Co. do it on Jimmy Fallon and it was a really good version! John Mayer really did it justice, very much worth checking out in my opinion. Sure do miss Jerry........
I've been gobbling up 1971 and 1972 shows lately, so naturally I have been hearing this song quite a lot. Jerry always delievered it with such sincerity and soul. You'd almost believe he lived this story sometimes upon hearing it. The music and the lyrics are a perfect match and compliment each other brilliantly. And another user mentioned that no one captured old time America better than Hunter - oh so true! He's a master at it. So many of his songs are so accessible that you can walk in and experience another time; this is one of them.
Back in 1980-81 I was caretaker for a year of an old ranch between East Glacier, Montana and Marias Pass (Glacier County) on the RWR. I lived in the original building on the place built in 1917 by Joe Halle last of the Montana train robbers. Joe and "Slippery Bill" held up the passenger train near snow slip on the old Great Northern line or the "Hi-line" back in the 20s. The winds blow heavy on the border line. Many a winter night the snow drifted around the old log cabin. It snowed so high I left the Willy's over a mile away out by Highway 2 and would hike, ski or snowshoe in and out. I would sometimes go into the main lodge and tune in the crystal radio set to far away radio stations beaming in anywhere from Churchhill, Manitoba and Albuquerque, New Mexico. So by all means these songs ring true to this old pilgrim. " Snowed so high that the roof caved in." Indeed
Reading your comments ALWAYS brings fresh insight--it's so great to have a community-wide conversation. I especially liked the quote-unquote "mis-hearing" (Hunter, you will remember, claimed that these were actually valid alternative hearings, one reason he was reluctant for so long to see his words on the page): "Did get religion like the other ones had." Just fantastic! And the wonderful notion that the old man who never was the same again was Delilah's god. Thanks for opening up the song in new ways, everyone.
I remember being a 15 yr old looking through the Cassettes for The Album this song was on.. I could only find it on Live albums.. LOL.. They had "The Night of the Living Dead" radio show on a local Baltimore/DC station when I was a teen...Id watch late horror show and then go to my basement smoke a bowl and listen to Live dead shows.. from there i'd search for My favorite songs etc... This was mid 1980...first show in 1988 at 16 yrs old..Still listen every day....
This lyric makes me want to reach for a whiskey. Nobody could put together vignettes of America's past like Robert Hunter. Him and Robbie Robertson.