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!)
Jerry Garcia’s first solo album, Garcia, yielded quite a set of songs for the band’s repertoire over the years. “Deal,” which opens the album, is a perfect example, a perfectly-crafted gem of a song that kicks off a set of songs with a character who may be the same as the one in a number of other songs, including another one on Garcia, “Loser.” Are they the same character?
A certain subset of Grateful Dead songs seems to be set in the same time and place—the American West pre-automobile, but well-enough settled to have plenty of bars and houses of ill-repute. (Did I really just use the phrase “houses of ill-repute”?) The characters may or may not be cowboys, but they do seem, generally, to be gamblers, or thieves, or both. “Me and My Uncle.” “Jack Straw.” “Candyman.” “Mexicali Blues.” “El Paso.” The songs generally referred to as “cowboy songs,” and those generally in the “gambler” category.
There’s something appealing for a singer about settling into this kind of narrative persona—getting fearlessly inside the head of a bad person. It’s a challenge, first—like taking on an acting role in a part that goes against one’s natural type. I remember an interview with Bob Weir in which he talked about this—how difficult it was for him to sing songs in which he was a gunslinger or a criminal. And yet, there he was, doing it over and over again. Did the band assign him these songs?
When Garcia sings these roles, he sounds older than he was at the time he recorded them. He was 29 when Garcia was released, but his voice was of some indeterminate age. I don’t think he was trying to sound old, but I wouldn’t necessarily have pegged him as a 20-something, I don’t think, if I was hearing the song for the first time. He was likely only 27 or 28 when he actually wrote the song, since the band’s first performance noted in DeadBase X took place on February 19, 1971 at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, New York. It remained steadily in the repertoire from then on, with its longest absence from the rotation being a string of 29 shows over October 1988 to April 1989, for a total of 422 renditions. Plus the countless (or, not countless…I’m sure someone can come up with a number) performances with the Jerry Garcia Band.
Hunter’s lyric opens with the cryptic statement, “Since it cost a lot to win, and even more to lose…” Well, of course it costs more to lose than to win. And is it a choice, if we win or if we lose? Not usually. But there you have the first verse.
The chorus brings forward that particular aspect of Grateful Dead wisdom that I so often point out: “Goes to show, you don’t ever know…”
Hunter beautifully catches vernacular American speech in the second verse in particular, with a novelist’s each for dialogue:
“I been gambling hereabouts for ten good solid years. If I told you all that went down it would burn off both your ears.” Voila. Another verse, and straight back into the chorus, in the same way as in “Friend of the Devil.”
And then, in the final verse, I have always heard an echo, or, really, a foreshadowing of Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue,” in which the singer says “I must admit, I felt a little uneasy, when she bent down to tie the laces of my shoe…” in the line: “Since you poured the wine for me, and tightened up my shoes.” What’s all this? It’s an image, for sure, of someone kneeling to tie up your laces—either an image of caretaking, or subservience. I’m wondering if there’s a motif elsewhere, perhaps in folk music, of tying someone’s shoes. There is the line in the folk song “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down”: “Who’s gonna shoe your pretty little feet?”—but that seems like a long shot connection at best.
Interestingly, “Deal” lacks one of the hallmark characteristics of the best Hunter / Garcia work: a bridge. Instead, it bounces along, a solid ragtime number, with plenty of space between verses for solos, until the rave-up ending of “Don’t you let that deal go down.”
Dennis McNally, in his biography of the band, tells the story of Garcia’s recording the album as a way to raise some badly-needed cash—for a home purchase, I seem to recall. And he links the opening and closing songs on Garcia: “Deal” and “Wheel,” to the wheeling and dealing necessary to raising the cash. I dunno, that just never sounded right to me somehow…but it’s a fun story.
In looking for sources for the song in the folk music canon, I first located the folk song “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down,” which, aside from the chorus and its repeated admonition not to let the deal go down, bears little in common with Hunter’s lyric. There are many variants, but here is one that gets at most of the content of the song as sung by a wide range of performers over the years, from Charlie Poole to Woody Guthrie to the Flying Burrito Brothers:
I've been all around this whole wide world,
Way down in Memphis Tennessee.
Any old place I hang my hat
Seems like home to me.
Don't let your deal go down.
Don't let your deal go down.
Don't let your deal go down, sweet mama
Till your last gold dollar's gone.
When I left my love behind,
She's standin' in the door;
She throwed her little arms around my neck and said,
"Sweet daddy please don't go!"
Now it's who's gonna shoe your pretty little feet?
Who's gonna glove your hand?
And who's gonna kiss your ruby lips
Honey, who's gonna be your man?
She says, "Papa will shoe my pretty little feet,
Manma will glove my hand.
You can kiss my rosy lips
When you get back again."
Where did you get them high-heel shoes.
And that dress you wear so fine?
Got nry shoes from a railroad man
Dress from a driver in the mine.
More interesting, pointed out to me after the publication of the Annotated Lyrics book, was a snippet found in the Library of Congress “American Memory” website: a recording of Zora Neale Hurston (author of Their Eyes Were Watching God) performing “Let the Deal Go Down,” dating from her involvement in the WPA Writers Project in 1939. You can listen to her recording, in which she sings the song in and amongst her recitation of a story—noted as a recording of a gambling game called “Georgia Skin,” here.
(Zora Neale Hurston, playing drumz…!)
Whether heard as an album opener or as a first set closer, “Deal” sets us up for the further adventures of the amazing cast of characters to be found throughout this zany set of songs known as the Grateful Dead repertoire.
And as an admonishment, “don’t let that deal go down” works well in everyday life—I hear it as “don’t let this opportunity or chance pass you by—it could be the best thing ever to happen to you!” A good approach to life. Although, you don’t ever know…