Grateful Dead

Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Cumberland Blues"

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!)

"Cumberland Blues"

When the plans for a print version of what had been an online-only resource (the Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics) were first bandied about, it was my wife, Diana, who came up with the idea of using small drawings to provide illustrations throughout, rather than photos. The idea comes from print dictionaries (remember those?), which have traditionally used small drawings sprinkled throughout to add interest to a very dry discourse.

I particularly liked the idea of small, hand-drawn maps to illustrate the locations of geographical references in the lyrics. And I love what Jim Carpenter came up with for “Cumberland.” My annotation for the word “Cumberland” in the song mentions a variety of possibilities for the geographical location of the song, also pointing out that Cumberland, England, the source of the various named sites in America, was a mining region as well. So, Carpenter drew a globe spinning in space and drew a series of arrows, all labeled “Cumberland,” pointing to various spots on the surface of the planet. Very fun!

But all that aside, this is a wonderful story song, with several twists and turns along the way. And since Labor Day was Monday, it seems appropriate to talk about a song from Workingman’s Dead that is, at least partially, about work. And one that contains a reference to unions. (I know from reading Blair’s biography of Garcia that he came from a strong pro-union background.)

The essential question posed by “Cumberland Blues” is one of work / life balance. Our narrator is involved with his sweetheart, Melinda. He is worried that if he keeps staying up nights with her, he’ll be unable to hold his job at the mine. And if he is late, he could easily lose his job, since there are always plenty of workers desperate for the work: “Some other fellow making nothing at all / And you can hear him cryin’… / ‘Can I go buddy / Can I go down / Take your shift at the mine?’ ”

OK, maybe someone can help me here. When I took economics in college, I know that the professor introduced us to a concept that clearly applies to “Cumberland Blues.” Specifically, he spoke of a principle whereby workers who earn more than a certain amount will have the scales tipped and move on to a better location or a better life. “Make any more, I might move away.” There was a phrase for this principle, but I can’t seem to come up with it. Anyone?

The mine is life, in this song. Without the mine, no job: no food. “That’s where I mainly spend my time.”

But there’s a consciousness that there must be something more to life, that the mine traps its workers into a vicious cycle where even finding the time and energy to keep a lover satisfied becomes difficult. (Or, there’s the possibility that Melinda is just plain too demanding—after all, the singer implies that the relationship is one-sided…)

The musical setting by Garcia and Lesh is, once again, perfect for the material. It borders on some out-of-control bluegrass breakdown combined with a 1930’s or 1940’s novelty tune.

I found the following description of one particular “Cumberland Blues,” performed at Universal Amphitheater, June 30, 1973, on the Grateful Dead Listening Guide site:

When Phil kicks it in to Cumberland Blues, we are off to the races. One thing that I have no trouble mentioning is my opinion that I find this to be my absolute favorite, and possibly the best Cumberland Blues I’ve ever heard the band play. It is this very recording that sparked and cemented my theory of thematic undercurrents running through the decades of this band. In this Cumberland, Viola Lee Blues is alive and well. Jerry is clearly allowing all the exploration of that earliest of Grateful Dead “jams” to infuse and distil into his Cumberland solo work. Psychedelic Bluegrass to the highest degree. When his solo begins to cycle into a whirlpooled syncopation leading down a twisting rabbit hole, the already clear Viola Lee tendencies come bursting forth causing us to laugh out loud and shake or heads in stark amazement. It’s molten primal Grateful Dead, splashing in every direction. If you play the game with me about which five Grateful Dead songs would you take to a desert island, this Cumberland Blues would be coming with me. The fire within this version provides an anchor to this show, and it spreads out in every direction.

(By the way—I did try to figure out who the writer was on this post, but had no luck beyond a possible credit to “david.” Anyone know who the writer is?)

Hunter, in his A Box of Rain anthology, adds a footnote to the song: “The best compliment I ever had on a lyric was from an old guy who'd worked at the Cumberland mine. He said, 'I wonder what the guy who wrote this song would've thought if he'd ever known something like the Grateful Dead was gonna do it.' “

So it resonates as an authentic folk song, a true workingman’s ballad about the complexity of life when you have to struggle for each dime.

“Lotta poor man got the Cumberland Blues / He can’t win for losin’…”

Lots of little lyrical touches in the song bring up points of resonance that help with the sense of folk song tradition. It sounds like real people talking, for one thing. “Can I go, buddy…” “Lotta poor man got to walk the line just to pay his union dues.”

And there’s one of my favorite lines: “Little Ben clock says quarter to eight…” I had one of those Baby Ben alarm clocks beside my bed growing up, so it was an early moment of recognition for me, the kind of moment that recurs so often in the lyrics, adding up to a personal relationship with the words, in such a way that, well, means each of us takes a very personal meaning from the songs.

I, for one, am having a lot of fun sharing those meanings (potential meanings or personal meanings…) and hearing from others.

And I have to apologize for the fairly large number of slips I have made over the course of these blog posts—last week’s assertion that the number “one” is never mentioned in the lyrics was just plain ridiculous—the result of relying on a computer search instead of a quick search of my own mind. But you have all been very kind and assiduous in correcting me, so I think it’s ok.

Here’s to the working man (and woman)! Happy Labor Day week, everyone.

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ddodd's picture
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Joined: Jun 6 2007
Iron Law

Looks like that might be the correct phrase. Here's the definition from Wikipedia:
"The Iron Law of Wages is a proposed law of economics that asserts that real wages always tend, in the long run, toward the minimum wage necessary to sustain the life of the worker. The theory was first named by Ferdinand Lassalle in the mid-nineteenth century."

ddodd's picture
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Joined: Jun 6 2007
The phrase...etc.

Nope--"Upward mobility" is not the term. It was more of a phrase like "tipping point.." a point at which you earn enough to be able to move away from your location. "Iron law of wages" might be it...but it sounds too ironclad. Where is Professor Gustafson (UC Davis) when I need him?

[Editing this note after looking up my old prof...found he passed away last year in November. Sigh. What a great professor he was.]

Wonderful comments thread on this one! A factoid I noted in the annotated lyrics, regarding Big Ben, is that it lives in St. Stephen's Tower in London.

jbxpro's picture
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Joined: Dec 4 2012
Little Ben/Bill Monroe

I echo the comment made below, that every comment I've been thinking of has been said by others! What a wonderful statement about this most accessible of songs, that we all share affections for it.

I also had a Baby Ben clock next to my bed when I was growing up, and that's the first thing that caught my ear about this song, long, long ago.

I love bluegrass and think this is a great example of how flexible the genre can be. I've heard it said that everything is a bluegrass song. Look at the many covers of other genres done by Joe Val, The Seldom Scene, Hot Rize, and others.

And I love the story of Garcia and Sandy Rothman (I think), in Jackson's biography, making a pilgrimage to Kentucky (Indiana?) in the early sixties, all dressed up as bluegrass boys, hoping to catch Bill Monroe's eye. They didn't but were fulfilled by the experience according to Jackson. In Garcia's case so much so that when he returned to SF he let his friend Ron talk him into changing course and doing a blues/jug thing.

mustin321's picture
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Joined: Aug 12 2011
upward mobility

This song usually takes me to a better place...

Hunter obviously knew how to get into the mind of a working man and that is why this song (as well as many others) cheers me upward. I think most of us are stuck in "Cumberland" at least until our NIGHT JOB PAYS!

JonJll's picture
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Joined: Jun 22 2007
upward mobility

The phrase that indicates when you make more money it allows for moving to a better place

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Joined: Nov 8 2010
Little Ben Clock

Coming from the land of Big Ben, I didn't know about the smaller versions. I always thought the line was 'Little bent clock...'. It still works, but in a different way. Instead of being a nostalgia trigger, it adds a little layer of reality: a poor miner isn't going to throw away a working clock just coz its case is a little damaged, is he?

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Joined: Aug 17 2007
Cumberland Blues

one of the great American songs

and embodies Hunter's expressed interest in and inspiration from phenomenology for his approach to gathering and presenting the material in his songs

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Joined: Jan 13 2010
"the sun is getting high"

that would be a sight to see

"five dollar bill keep him happy all the time"
five dollars was enough to buy a little square of "refreshment"

"gotta get down to the cumberland mine that's where I mainly spend my time"
makes me think of people going on tour, or at least listening to the GD a lot

"You keep me up just one more night I can't sleep here no more Little Ben clock says quarter to eight You kept me up till four"
some refreshments make it difficult to sleep

"Lotta poor man got to walk the line Just to pay his union dues"
think of the ticketless hordes, searching for a "miracle"

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Joined: Aug 4 2013
yet another Cumberland mine

One of my favourite Dead tunes strikes a resonating chord in my family which settled throughout southwest British Columbia 5 generations ago in the late 1880's. Coal was discovered on Vancouver Island in the 1860's & by 1890, land baron Robert Dunsmuir established a coal mine at Cumberland in the Comox Valley. My great-grandfather found work there & eventually made enough money to move his family to the small but growing town of Vancouver, where they purchased property, logged & farmed in what is now a prestigious neighbourhood in that city. I've always envisioned my ancestor, dirty, gritty & blackened, when listening to "Cumberland Blues" & haven't yet heard a version I don't like. Today, Cumberland BC has retained & restored many of the turn-of-the-century early-1900's houses & buildings in that town & there is a wonderful museum that tells the stories of the Cumberland mine& the families that were drawn there. Generations later, my family still populates southwestern BC & Vancouver Island. Thanks for pondering this most wonderful piece of country/bluegrass, undoubtedly one of Hunter's most accessible lyrics

Canoncito's picture
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Joined: Nov 1 2010
Fun with a sharp edge

This song was always one of the most fun for me, musically; just glorious electric bluegrass. The lyrics, though, I always took as a very sharp commentary on the malicious economics of company towns; the Malinda tales added a rich day-to-day humanity touch, but were secondary.... Pay your miners just enough to cover the rent and supplies at the company store; if you pay any more, they might move away....keep 'em dependent on ya. (and even the unions could be a double-edged sword for workers) And yup, always many looking for extra shifts, so they might just get ahead and find a way to jump off that vicious wheel. And no doubt, most of them every day faced the question that the song ends on.....

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