Grateful Dead

Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Deal"

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…


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Joined: Nov 3 2016
deal go down? which way is that...

what really keeps me up when I'm listening to this song (and usually looking for guidance on my state of heart); Is the deal supposed to go down? or be avoided at all costs?

The phrase 'when the deal goes down' certainly implies the deal actually happening (rather than the deal 'going down' in the sense of falling apart).

So 'don't you let that deal go down' certainly should mean -don't let it happen!

Am I the only one bothered by this? or perhaps it has more to do with my state of mind when hearing shows

ddodd's picture
Joined: Jun 6 2007
Right--I was talking about the character of the songs...

Mcwhale--definitely, I am aware of the authorship of El Paso, but as mustin321 noted, it was meant to be about the--for want of a better word--category of the songs in question. And the characters they include.

Thanks for the musical notes, williworx. I appreciate the reminder to continue to focus on the whole song!

Joined: Jan 21 2014
Inadverent numerlogical meaning?

Time stamped at 4/20, pretty cool considering the first line of your interesting comment.

Joined: May 9 2012
a "song" isn't just lyrics.

Since it cost a lot for weed, even more for ludes. I've noticed a lot of attention is paid to the words. A song is a mixture. So we have A to C#7 (the 2nd- octave higher), F#minor etc.. Kind of a "box" song chord wise..Yet unique. Kind of reminds me of revolution by the Beatles. Still musical, with major/minor/7th chords coloring the time. "children PLEASE play it slow" woooh

Charbroiled's picture
Joined: Jun 19 2007
Since it Cost

My question always on this song was what is "it", since these two people seem to be in conversation over what "it" is? Is it the other person or something else?

Joined: Jun 15 2007
The Straw Deal

Deal, like Jack Straw, is what I think of as a transition song: they both leave you with a choice at the end, but the choice is not entirely clear. In Jack Straw the revolving door is found in the line “…one man gone and another to go…”, just as in Deal we’re left with the choice: Am I supposed to not let some kind of deal go down no matter what the price, or once having gained the deal, to not lose it at any price? It’s the old fork in the Road dilemma, or perhaps the revolving door. And just as Jack Straw might well ask: “Hey, wait a minute now: What other guy?”, the lyrics in Deal aren’t a whole lot of help either, other than turning a good story and leaving you with little more gained than an open-ended line, right back where you began in the first place: "We can share the women...", "Since it costs..." Uh oh. Still kinda fuzzy and obscure, but here we go again. In Jack Straw the straw deal is first noted in Jack's "might as well be me" realization and is perhaps later found in the missing chapter of this little vignette where the law catches up with and either hangs or otherwise crucifies Shannon, who's later cut down by his buddy, Jack. In Deal all we really get, as should be expected from a card sharp, are a few really slick lines adding up to a load of useless bullshit. But the straw deal there is again whether or not to step into the boots of the dealer, fold, or quit the game entirely. So these are “heads up” songs that indicate, for better or worse, that other momentous changes may indeed be coming, clues to which might just lie beyond in whatever song or songs follow in the ever-evolving, rolling I Ching set-list called a Grateful Dead concert.

Jack Straw and Deal were/are played back-to-back (consult the Oracle once again) on Road Trips #1, Vol. 1, followed by Dancin' in the Street>Franklin's Tower and a bunch of other really nice songs. Interesting rolls.

Old School Chuck's picture
Joined: Feb 3 2009
Please, Children...

My subject line is a paraphrase, but I know Jerry sometimes interjected that sentiment in latter-day performances of the song. The debut, I believe (without consulting my Deadbase, which is on the other side of the planet), was at one of the legendary Portchester ESP shows, which also contained a few other firsts (Birdsong, and possibly Loser?).

I like David's last paragraph best, I think, about the 'approach-to-life' philosophy aspect of the song. I am also thinking about Jerry and his use of the song. As pointed out already, it was a staple of the JGB. In terms of the Dead, it was also pointed out that the end-jam was added later. I was listening to a 1971 version recently from Dave's Picks #3, and I don't recall that there was even much of a Jerry solo. A good contrast might be found in the 1989 Alpine Downhill From Here video, where Jerry kicks up his end-jam soloing in a truly electrifying fashion!

I worked briefly for a good friend who toured extensively in '78 and I remember him pointing out that Jerry was just another member of the band back then, years before the 80s cult-of-Jerry developed (The Fat Man Rocks...Jerry Saves, etc.). I guess that's all I've got...I enjoy sharing my rambling Deadhead thoughts. Thanks for the column (and forum), David.

mustin321's picture
Joined: Aug 12 2011

I think its interesting that you mentioned this song doesn't have a bridge. Garcia was amazing at writing bridges and a lot of songs written written in the early 70's were some of his best, in my opinion. He's Gone, Brown Eyed Women, Stella Blue, Row Jimmy, etc. Very powerful moments in all those songs but Deal is pretty powerful in itself, especially with the extended jam ending. Very nice cowboy rocker.

Mcwhale, Me and My Uncle wasn't written by the Grateful Dead either. I think he was just making a point about the similarity of songs that were popping up at Dead shows.

jbxpro's picture
Joined: Dec 4 2012
Wait Until It Comes Around, and Then...

From the first time I heard Deal it impressed me as being a true expression of affection. The narrator really cares about the person he's talking to. And what is he/she? A past lover, a buddy who shared some bonding experience, a person to whom he owes a primal favor? None of these seem exactly right, though they're probably all close.

Deal was Garcia at his avuncular best: the young Garcia when it first came out telling us some things he'd picked up from his days as Captain Trips, and the older Garcia peering over his glasses/beard/embonpoint telling us not to let that fucking deal go down when we've got the chance to grab it. Play your cards slow, but by no means should you let that deal go down without playing your hand when it comes around to you.

It seems to me like advice from an uncle to a nephew ... before that incident with the cowboys and the gold of course.

Another weird association ... Hunter had a way of inserting words that carried meanings that bled through to other lines. A faint overtone I always got from, "Since you poured the wine for me, and tightened up my shoes" is the story where Mary Magdalene washed Jesus's feet with wine. I bet she put his sneakers back on after she was done and tightened 'em up good. Then he went Truckin' in Europe. I digress...

foliage12's picture
Joined: Sep 3 2013
folk motif

The "since you poured the wine for me...etc." line always reminded me of the kind of feeling in Sugar Magnolia and Up On Cripple Creek, someone's old lady who has been putting up with and taking care of her man through thick and thin for a long time. Not necessarily subservient, but overly-tolerant of a man who gets more out of the relationship than he puts in.


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