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!)
Maybe it’s just me, but it seems only logical to follow up “Operator” with “Doin’ That Rag.”
Both songs share a firm sense of belonging to a particular respective genre of American popular song. Just as “Operator” resides comfortably in a long tradition of songs about, well, operators, so too does “Doin’ That Rag” carry on a long tradition of “Doin’ It” songs.
A short list of examples:
• "Doin' The Ducky Wuck" (1935); words and music by Joe Penner and Hal Raynor.
• "Doin' the New Low-Down" (1928); words by Dorothy Fields, music my Jimmy McHugh.
• "Doin' the Raccoon" (1928); words by Raymond Klages, music by J. Fred Coots.
• "Doin' the Uptown Lowdown" (1933); words by Mack Gordon, music by Harry Revel.
• "Doin' What Comes Naturally" (1946); words and music by Irving Berlin.
Irving Berlin gets referenced fairly often by Hunter’s lyrics, and I think this one is conscious, given Berlin’s 1911 hit “Everybody’s Doin’ It Now”:
Ev'rybody's doin' it, doin' it, doin' it; Ev'rybody's doin' it, doin, it, doin' it. See that rag-time couple over there, Watch them throw their shoulder in the air, Snap their fingers, honey, I declare, It's a bear, it's a bear, it's a bear, there!
Weird lyrics. “It’s a bear, it’s a bear, it’s a bear—there!” 1911. What was in the Coca-Cola back then, anyway?
So the song falls within that tradition of semi-nonsensical dance songs. Interspersed in Hunter’s lyric is a strong sense of playing games—what is the name of the game that you play? Well, it’s not “The Hokey Pokey,” but I think it could be. After all, as the bumper sticker has it: “What if the Hokey Pokey Really IS What It’s All About?”
At the same time, the song falls into another category of Grateful Dead songs—namely, homages to ragtime.
“Ramble on Rose” comes to mind immediately, another song that explicitly references ragtime, and implicitly references Irving Berlin. (“Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”) But the many shuffle-beat songs are related to ragtime—“Deal” can definitely sound like a ragtime song, as can “Sugaree.” I think Garcia had ragtime in his blood at some level, and the way he mixed it up with all the other swirl of ingredients made for a good part of that characteristic Grateful Dead sound.
Another fairly overt reference in “Doin’ That Rag” is to that icon of protopsychedelic, bebop, Beat (hey, he defied labels) comedy, Lord Buckley. A correspondent sent me a note telling me about a 1955 LP by Lord Buckley, entitled: “Hipsters, Flipsters, and Finger-Poppin' Daddies: Knock Me Your Lobes.” (Corresponding to the line in “Doin’ That Rag”: “Hipsters, tripsters, real cool chicks, sir.” Although I often associated that line with something from Dr. Seuss….) If you haven’t heard Lord Buckley, it’s well worth tracking him down. The title track from this album is a recasting of the “Friends, Romans, country-men…” speech is Julius Caesar. In Buckley’s liner notes for the album, he says:
I started out as a dishwasher, switched to truck driver, lumberjack, and had reached the ripe old age of 30 before I recognized my true calling.
I suddenly realized, I was a lord!
Now, easy, cats, don't leave me now. It is true, I was a lord and as such, was title "Lord Buckley." This lordship was ordained upon me by the almighty power of the true philosophy of life that we are all lords and ladies.
I knew then that I had a mission to do. That of relating to all you cool swingsters and mad ones, the real translation of history as it really happened, and man, did it happen!
A worthy goal—translating history as it really happened for today’s listeners.
Hunter was packing a big lyrical punch in that Aoxomoxoa period, and “Doin’ That Rag” contains whole worlds within its cryptic lines. They tell a story, of sorts, laced with gambling imagery, nursery rhymes, dance steps, games, echoes of spirituals, cosmic wisdom—it’s all in there. Lines leap out at you: “Stepping off sharply from the rank and file”; “you needn’t gild the lily—offer jewels to the sunset”; “Wash your lonely feet in the river in the morning”--a series of lines each deserving of a song of its own to be built around it. But instead, Hunter gives us a rush of words, nearly buried in each other and in the song, so that at any given listening, certain lines might jump out at us. The effect is psychedelic, certainly. Associations are conjured into being by their very juxtaposition, and by the potential for hearing things differently.
In his A Box of Rain anthology of his lyrics, Hunter makes a comment along those lines as a footnote to the line “Old like a rum drinking demon at tea”:
“Peter Grant heard this line as “Old like a nun drinking demon bad tea.”
As he says in his preface to that book:
“My versions of these songs are no more ‘the real ones’ than those that may have spoken to some of you through the music darkly twenty years ago. I hope that seeing the intended words will provide you with an interesting, if not always convincing variant on the words some of you actually heard.”
And some lines are selected by Garcia for particular emphasis. The line that always jumps out for me is “One eyed jacks and the deuces are wild, and the aces are crawling up and down your sleeve.” Delivered in the way Garcia does, this takes on a hallucinatory, slightly creepy tone.
The song didn’t have a long life in the live repertoire. I believe it fell in that category of songs that, in Garcia’s and the band’s opinion, were just too hard to play. Listening to the live version on the Fillmore 1969 box set, you can hear that it was a challenging song to pull off live, with its abrupt changes in pacing. The chord progression is odd, with a mix of chords that might belong in separate keys (D, F, Eb, Am, C#, F#...), almost as if Garcia was writing a song that could serve as a test of pretty much every basic chord in a wide range of keys for a guitar student to cut his or her teeth on.
The Deadlists project shows 38 performances in concert, all taking place between January and September 1969. There may have been more, given the nature of early setlists, but that’s what we know of.
The song was revived, as have been so many long-unplayed songs, in the post-Dead era by many of the various aggregations of band members. And for that, I, for one, am grateful.