• November 20, 2014
    http://www.dead.net/features/greatest-stories-ever-told/greatest-stories-ever-told-casey-jones
    Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Casey Jones"

    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!)

    “Casey Jones”

    In the Charles Reich interview with Jerry Garcia, published as Garcia: Signpost To New Space, Garcia was asked if this song grates on him when he hears it.

    He replied: "Sometimes, but that's what it's supposed to do. It's got a split-second little delay, which sounds very mechanical, like a typewriter almost, on the vocal, which is like a little bit jangly, and the whole thing is, I always thought it's a pretty good musical picture of what cocaine is like. A little bit evil. And hard-edged. And also that sing-songy thing, because that's what it is, a sing-songy thing, a little melody that gets in your head."

    Let’s focus on the typewriter for a minute, because frankly, I think every aspect of this song has been pretty much talked through from beginning to end quite a number of times! Seriously. Upcoming generations will draw a blank when they encounter this typewriter analogy—although the characterization of the vocal mix having a mechanical-sounding split second delay is pretty evocative. Someday, scholars will have to add a footnote to Garcia’s statement, explaining what a “typewriter” was, and what kind of sound it made, and why it is or is not an apt metaphor for the way the vocal track sounds on the song. Maybe someday someone will write a song called “Daddy, What’s a Typewriter?” to go with “Daddy, What’s a Train?”

    Trains. What was it Phil Lesh said about Grateful Dead songs? “Trains, cats, and cards..” or something like that.

    “Casey Jones” is one of the band’s classic story songs, and it utilizes a classic American folk hero as its subject—AND it is about a train. How could things get any better?

    I wrote a fairly complete annotation about the character of Casey Jones, whose story was told in “The Ballad of Casey Jones,” which was, in turn, performed by the Dead at least a couple of times during acoustic sets in 1970. The bare facts of the historical basis for the legend have been pretty well documented. (You can jump on over to http://artsites.ucsc.edu/GDead/agdl/kcj.html#casey if you really want the background.)

    Robert Hunter, it is said, thought of the line: “Driving that train, high on cocaine,” and wrote it down, stuck it in his pocket, and pretty much forgot about it until it struck him that he might write a song around the line. Speculation abounds that Hunter wrote the song as a cautionary tale, with many hidden drug-reference meanings tucked away into the lyrics (including a wonderfully byzantine theory that if “white lady” is a nickname for cocaine, then “lady in red” is a reference to intravenous delivery of cocaine). Some have said that Hunter may have written it during the Festival Express tour, while the band was on a train, possibly high on something or other, making their way across Canada.

    There is the whole thing about the word “jones,” itself, which was later used in the addiction sense by Barlow and Weir in “Throwing Stones.” Could “Casey Jones” be a reference to that sense of the word?

    Did it matter? Does it now?

    Well, I guess I have to think it could matter, depending, or else—why bother to think about the lyrics at all?

    The irony of the song is that it is viewed as a druggy song by a druggy band, when there could be nothing more anti-drug than a song about someone who is involved in a disastrous and legendary accident while under the influence of drugs.

    Double irony: it seems that many listeners and fans also embrace the song as a druggy song—witness the band’s performing it during their November 1978 appearance on the coke-drenched “Saturday Night Live.”

    And, triple irony: band members themselves became embroiled in cocaine use, with Garcia himself arrested for possession.

    Or maybe none of that is ironic in the least. Maybe it’s just coincidence.

    In truth, the song is a catchy, bouncy rocker that, in concert, could gather tremendous momentum and power, especially during the build-up to the final “and you know that notion just crossed my mind.”

    It’s been pointed out that, among the band’s potential top-40 hits, “Casey Jones” joins others like “Uncle John’s Band,” with its airplay-unfriendly “Goddam, well I declare,” and “Truckin’,” with the “living on reds and vitamin C and cocaine” line, as yet another potential hit that would never be allowed on the radio in most markets. “Wharf Rat,” with its groundbreaking F-bomb, was likely never a candidate for the charts, but the others—who knows?

    I found a discussion of the song that claimed Hunter actually did try to clean up the song—substituting lines like “carried propane” for “high on cocaine.” But in the end, it was after all the initial inspiration for the song that did get written.

    This is one of their “disaster impending” songs, as opposed to the “disaster narrowly averted” songs of the “Monkey and the Engineer” variety. (Are there other disaster narrowly averted songs? I’ve wondered idly at times.) Some songs are simply disasters described—“Jack Straw,” or “Me and My Uncle.” “Candyman” feels like disaster impending. But I can’t, offhand, think of others of the “narrowly averted” variety.

    “Casey Jones” does have one of those aphorism-rich lyrics, though, and those can come in handy at the best and worst of times. “Trouble ahead, trouble behind.” “Better watch your speed.” “Trouble with you is the trouble with me” (similar, perhaps, to “Can’t talk to you without talking to me” from “Althea”). “Take my advice, you’d be better off dead.” Well—maybe not that last one….

    How does this song resonate for you? Do you have kids, and do you, like I did, sing it to them and change the words just a little bit? I’m pretty sure I managed to sing it as a lullaby at some point, cradling a small one in my arms.

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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!)

“Casey Jones”

In the Charles Reich interview with Jerry Garcia, published as Garcia: Signpost To New Space, Garcia was asked if this song grates on him when he hears it.

He replied: "Sometimes, but that's what it's supposed to do. It's got a split-second little delay, which sounds very mechanical, like a typewriter almost, on the vocal, which is like a little bit jangly, and the whole thing is, I always thought it's a pretty good musical picture of what cocaine is like. A little bit evil. And hard-edged. And also that sing-songy thing, because that's what it is, a sing-songy thing, a little melody that gets in your head."

Let’s focus on the typewriter for a minute, because frankly, I think every aspect of this song has been pretty much talked through from beginning to end quite a number of times! Seriously. Upcoming generations will draw a blank when they encounter this typewriter analogy—although the characterization of the vocal mix having a mechanical-sounding split second delay is pretty evocative. Someday, scholars will have to add a footnote to Garcia’s statement, explaining what a “typewriter” was, and what kind of sound it made, and why it is or is not an apt metaphor for the way the vocal track sounds on the song. Maybe someday someone will write a song called “Daddy, What’s a Typewriter?” to go with “Daddy, What’s a Train?”

Trains. What was it Phil Lesh said about Grateful Dead songs? “Trains, cats, and cards..” or something like that.

“Casey Jones” is one of the band’s classic story songs, and it utilizes a classic American folk hero as its subject—AND it is about a train. How could things get any better?

I wrote a fairly complete annotation about the character of Casey Jones, whose story was told in “The Ballad of Casey Jones,” which was, in turn, performed by the Dead at least a couple of times during acoustic sets in 1970. The bare facts of the historical basis for the legend have been pretty well documented. (You can jump on over to http://artsites.ucsc.edu/GDead/agdl/kcj.html#casey if you really want the background.)

Robert Hunter, it is said, thought of the line: “Driving that train, high on cocaine,” and wrote it down, stuck it in his pocket, and pretty much forgot about it until it struck him that he might write a song around the line. Speculation abounds that Hunter wrote the song as a cautionary tale, with many hidden drug-reference meanings tucked away into the lyrics (including a wonderfully byzantine theory that if “white lady” is a nickname for cocaine, then “lady in red” is a reference to intravenous delivery of cocaine). Some have said that Hunter may have written it during the Festival Express tour, while the band was on a train, possibly high on something or other, making their way across Canada.

There is the whole thing about the word “jones,” itself, which was later used in the addiction sense by Barlow and Weir in “Throwing Stones.” Could “Casey Jones” be a reference to that sense of the word?

Did it matter? Does it now?

Well, I guess I have to think it could matter, depending, or else—why bother to think about the lyrics at all?

The irony of the song is that it is viewed as a druggy song by a druggy band, when there could be nothing more anti-drug than a song about someone who is involved in a disastrous and legendary accident while under the influence of drugs.

Double irony: it seems that many listeners and fans also embrace the song as a druggy song—witness the band’s performing it during their November 1978 appearance on the coke-drenched “Saturday Night Live.”

And, triple irony: band members themselves became embroiled in cocaine use, with Garcia himself arrested for possession.

Or maybe none of that is ironic in the least. Maybe it’s just coincidence.

In truth, the song is a catchy, bouncy rocker that, in concert, could gather tremendous momentum and power, especially during the build-up to the final “and you know that notion just crossed my mind.”

It’s been pointed out that, among the band’s potential top-40 hits, “Casey Jones” joins others like “Uncle John’s Band,” with its airplay-unfriendly “Goddam, well I declare,” and “Truckin’,” with the “living on reds and vitamin C and cocaine” line, as yet another potential hit that would never be allowed on the radio in most markets. “Wharf Rat,” with its groundbreaking F-bomb, was likely never a candidate for the charts, but the others—who knows?

I found a discussion of the song that claimed Hunter actually did try to clean up the song—substituting lines like “carried propane” for “high on cocaine.” But in the end, it was after all the initial inspiration for the song that did get written.

This is one of their “disaster impending” songs, as opposed to the “disaster narrowly averted” songs of the “Monkey and the Engineer” variety. (Are there other disaster narrowly averted songs? I’ve wondered idly at times.) Some songs are simply disasters described—“Jack Straw,” or “Me and My Uncle.” “Candyman” feels like disaster impending. But I can’t, offhand, think of others of the “narrowly averted” variety.

“Casey Jones” does have one of those aphorism-rich lyrics, though, and those can come in handy at the best and worst of times. “Trouble ahead, trouble behind.” “Better watch your speed.” “Trouble with you is the trouble with me” (similar, perhaps, to “Can’t talk to you without talking to me” from “Althea”). “Take my advice, you’d be better off dead.” Well—maybe not that last one….

How does this song resonate for you? Do you have kids, and do you, like I did, sing it to them and change the words just a little bit? I’m pretty sure I managed to sing it as a lullaby at some point, cradling a small one in my arms.

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In the Charles Reich interview with Jerry Garcia, published as Garcia: Signpost To New Space, Garcia was asked if this song grates on him when he hears it.
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Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Casey Jones"
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I wrote a fairly complete annotation about the character of Casey Jones, whose story was told in “The Ballad of Casey Jones,” which was, in turn, performed by the Dead at least a couple of times during acoustic sets in 1970. The bare facts of the historical basis for the legend have been pretty well documented.
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I wrote a fairly complete annotation about the character of Casey Jones, whose story was told in “The Ballad of Casey Jones,” which was, in turn, performed by the Dead at least a couple of times during acoustic sets in 1970. The bare facts of the historical basis for the legend have been pretty well documented.

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driving that train... JJ Cale's song is also anti drug, but that didn't matter either...
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My mother has told me how I embarrassed her singing the chorus of Casey Jones while being pushed around the supermarket in the grocery cart. My older brothers and sisters had taught me the song shortly after workingman's came out. I ain't ready yet to go to bed.
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Back in 70-71 when the Dead would play at the Capitol Theater the balcony would shake during Casey Jones. I think it's still shaking. Cocaine is a train wreck.
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If Sugaree grants the request to "please forget you knew my name" that could be a disaster (or as Bob would say "a tradgedy") narrowly averted.
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What to say about Casey Jones? There hasn't been a lot said about it so far, so let me try to blunder forward. To me this song was always confusing. As a white suburban teenager, I'd never heard many songs about drugs, when this became a titillating sensation back in the days when the world was changing rapidly. Sure there were the bad boy Stones, and Cream's cover of Spoonful, but wasn't music supposed to be about happiness? And to me, cocaine was never a happy drug. Sure I've enjoyed it, but it was always about intensifying an experience rather than improving it. So what were the Dead singing about? Was it an objective account of a train wreck? Hard to believe since I'd heard the ballad often (the New Christy Minstrels, etc.) and there was nothing in their renditions except heroism. Was it a commentary on cocaine? That was hard to believe too when there were so many moving parts to the song besides just the drug, like the Lady in Red. And were they coming down on the pro-cocaine or anti-cocaine side ... or what?? Finally it comes down to having two good eyes but still not seeing. The fireman screams and the engine just gleams. Maybe it is about cocaine ... in the sense of commenting on how it intensifies experiences but doesn't lead to enlightenment. Enough rambling. Let me say that I've always really enjoyed this song (though some Deadheads I know groan at it, because of its sing-songiness and because many pseudo-heads have seized on it as a glorification of irresponsibility/drug culture) because the bridge is such a great setup for a ripping Garcia lead. I've always been vastly entertained by it. As touched on above, this is also a great song for fueling people's misunderstanding of Dead culture. As evidence, look at the infamous cartoon where a guy says to his dog, "Play dead" and the dog whips out a guitar and starts singing this song (Google it man). BUT what he sings is "Riding that train ...." There's a huge difference between riding and driving, especially when it comes to understanding what this song means.
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“Cocaine is God’s way of telling you that you make too much money.”
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Love the sniff in the beginning. Kind of an anti drug song from a long time user. Lady in red, better off dead, I believe this is Hunter at his best, is this line about a lady, or the Lady in the syringe, in red from the pull before the boot, or a hooker, better off dead, either way... for sure. Switchman sleeping, sometimes you nod from a bit too much, on the wrong tracks and headed for you, sometimes you do really stupid stuff when you're too high. Driving that train, well, we all know how that feels, especially after a snoot full. Watch your speed, maybe you had too much too fast, kinda the same story there. Trouble ahead, trouble behind, the life of a drug user. And u know that notion just crossed my mind...sure could use a little bump. The second verse, this old engine, the user's body and soul or the train engine. Hits river junction at seventeen to at a quarter till ten you know it's driving again, that's a fast turn around, you better be fast for that one. Trouble with you...trouble with me got two good eyes still don't see, one junkie to another not seeing the light. Come around the bend you know it's the end, sounds like coming down hard and seeing the lady there, beckoning you, screaming at you, and there's your rail, gleaming in the candle light. Yes, antidrug song, from someone who can't put it down. Richard Pryor once said: "Cocaine addictive? no way man, I've been doing that shit for 20 years and I ain't addicted."
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A friend of mine from school always took the "two good eyes but we still don't see" line to be a reference to the psychedelic side of things, not cocaine; "You gotta open up that Third Eye, man." I don't know how much I buy into that interpretation myself, but that notion always crosses my mind when I hear the song. Definitely a hard song to sing when you're walking around town trying to seem like a trustworthy guy who likes the Dead. I've tried substituting other lines, but nothing rolls off the tongue as naturally as "drivin' that train, hiiiigh on cocaine!"
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What are the anti-drug lyrics of cocaine? I think I know all the words...the entire song sounds like a celebration of cocaine to me. I can't find any negative connotation in there. "Down on the ground" maybe? I don't know...it all sounds good to me. I'd like to get down on the ground with a nice pile of cocaine. Who wouldn't? I look at Cale's "Cocaine" as a pro-drug song. Kind of like AC/DC's "Have a Drink On Me." It's a celebration of drinking, isn't it? Even with that great line, "Forget about the check, there'll be hell to pay".
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I've heard J J sing "She don't lie, she don't LIKE, she don't like.... cocaine..."
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I've heard JJ sing she don't last, she don't last, she don't last.... don't get me wrong, "Evil" is what I call it, and Robin Williams was right, but if you get into it, it will break you, financially and emotionally so you won't have too much money for long.
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" " Eric Clapton describes "Cocaine" as an anti-drug song. He has called the song "quite cleverly anti-cocaine", noting: It's no good to write a deliberate anti-drug song and hope that it will catch. Because the general thing is that people will be upset by that. It would disturb them to have someone else shoving something down their throat. So the best thing to do is offer something that seems ambiguous—that on study or on reflection actually can be seen to be "anti"—which the song "Cocaine" is actually an anti-cocaine song. If you study it or look at it with a little bit of thought ... from a distance ... or as it goes by ... it just sounds like a song about cocaine. But actually, it is quite cleverly anti-cocaine. —Eric Clapton " "
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I for one am glad that the lyrics were never changed. It may have cost the band top Billboard ratings but they have shown,over time, by sticking to what they felt the song should sound has sold and continues to sell far greater volumes of recordings than Billboard could ever count.
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trouble with you is the trouble with megot two good eyes but we still don't see and "seen" them as a wonderfully accurate description of being human. "Happiness lies within one's self, and the way to dig it out is cocaine." -Aleister Crowley, Diary of a Drug Fiend
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Hunter doesn't write in code, where each image stands for one specific thing - his symbolism has layers of meaning you can't simply translate like a word-substitution cypher. Anytime you say "this stands for that" you're limiting your understanding of the full depth of meaning in Hunter's or any poetic writing. Having said that, trains are a traditional metaphor for sex.
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recently where My girlfriend, her 6 year old daughter, and myself were riding in the car and she was kind of staring out the window singing along to this song and I was wondering what she was gonna do when it got to the "high on cocaine" part... well, I don't remember what happened. Cocaine is a helluva drug! Just kidding. Like the good mother she is, she changed the lyrics.
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"This Old Engine" has got No Soul as it "Comes Round the Bend" "The Fire Man Screams and the Engine Just Gleams" That line captures the whole Tragic Moment The Engine feels nothing. Its a Machine but the Fire Man Screams... The machine just does what it does, and is unaware and non responsive to the Terror caused by Human Error that's the "Trouble with You and the Trouble with Me" sometimes we just don't See until its too late
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I just came across this poster from World War II and wondered whether it might have inspired Hunter to write that line. He was only 4 when the war ended, but he might have seen an old one still hanging around somewhere when he was a little older. Or maybe he just bought one from a scrap dealer, as he was obviously a cataloguer of Americana (as this song shows). Perhaps he subconsciously recalled the words as he was writing down the initial quatrain.
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At my one of my first Dead shows in 1989 I remember asking someone if they were going to play Casey Jones and was told since Jerry had been recently arrested for smoking crack in GG park and with all the Reagan drug war hysteria the band wasn't playing it anymore. So when I heard it for the first time I felt like it was a sign that the band felt attitudes towards drugs had changed a little in America. In hindsight maybe it meant Jerry was using it again or something. The reason I say this is that in 95-96 I actually said to my wife I think Jerry is on smack or something because the groove was slower than I had ever felt at the shows and the sets were really short. I said it seems like Jerry is really wanting to get off stage like he is Jonesing to fix or something. I didn't really take my comment seriously at the time but when he died and I learned the circumstances I realized what I thought was a totally random speculative comment really was deadly accurate insight. Back to Casey, does anyone know offhand the length of the period that they did not play it and does anyone think that Jerry might have been influenced to play Casey when he was on Coke and visa versa?
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"This Old Engine" has got No Soul as it "Comes Round the Bend" "The Fire Man Screams and the Engine Just Gleams" That line captures the whole Tragic Moment The Engine feels nothing. Its a Machine but the Fire Man Screams... The machine just does what it does, and is unaware and non responsive to the Terror caused by Human Error that's the "Trouble with You and the Trouble with Me" sometimes we just don't See until its too late
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    hernandez6
    2 years 5 months ago
    "This Old Engine" has got No Soul
    "This Old Engine" has got No Soul as it "Comes Round the Bend" "The Fire Man Screams and the Engine Just Gleams" That line captures the whole Tragic Moment The Engine feels nothing. Its a Machine but the Fire Man Screams... The machine just does what it does, and is unaware and non responsive to the Terror caused by Human Error that's the "Trouble with You and the Trouble with Me" sometimes we just don't See until its too late
  • bchar
    2 years 9 months ago
    Thank you!
    Thank you!
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    Vapour
    3 years ago
    Casey Jones in the 80's
    At my one of my first Dead shows in 1989 I remember asking someone if they were going to play Casey Jones and was told since Jerry had been recently arrested for smoking crack in GG park and with all the Reagan drug war hysteria the band wasn't playing it anymore. So when I heard it for the first time I felt like it was a sign that the band felt attitudes towards drugs had changed a little in America. In hindsight maybe it meant Jerry was using it again or something. The reason I say this is that in 95-96 I actually said to my wife I think Jerry is on smack or something because the groove was slower than I had ever felt at the shows and the sets were really short. I said it seems like Jerry is really wanting to get off stage like he is Jonesing to fix or something. I didn't really take my comment seriously at the time but when he died and I learned the circumstances I realized what I thought was a totally random speculative comment really was deadly accurate insight. Back to Casey, does anyone know offhand the length of the period that they did not play it and does anyone think that Jerry might have been influenced to play Casey when he was on Coke and visa versa?