Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Doin' That Rag"
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.
Fabulosos, pknot! Thanks so much for the clue. I wonder if there's some compendium of dance step crazes. I went to see a local band, The David Luning Band, here in Petaluma on Saturday night, and he taught the crowd a dance step, then played the song he had written around it. The place went wild. Not enough of that these days, outside of YouTube. Well, come to think of it, maybe there are a lot of dance step crazes, but I'm just too unhip to know about 'em.
Grizzly Bear - Lyrics, "When I woke up this morning she was gone solid-gone. Oh yes when I woke up this morning She was gone, she was gone. I used to love to watch her dance the Grizzly Bear, I guess she's gone to Frisco to dance it there. Because when I woke up this morning She was gone she was gone. She did not even tell me the reason why She was gone (vo-do-dee-yo) She did not even tell me Why she was gone. I used to watch her dance the grizzly bear. I guess she's gone to Frisco to dance it there. Because when I woke up this morning She was gone, solid gone." I saw the Youngbloods in Portland, Maine in September 1969. One of the great 60s Bay Area bands.
You are kind Mary. Along the lines of your comment, they have recently done an archeological dig at Rancho Olompali (no, really) and they discovered a lot of albums from our parent's generations. http://westerndigs.org/vinyl-records-excavated-at-famous-60s-commune-challenge-hippie-stereotype-study-says/
"Judy Garland, Burl Ives, Steve Lawrence and Edie Gorme. Rather than the voices of counterculture, he uncovered scores of albums of classic jazz, folk, show tunes, even comedy.
"The wide range of musical styles represented by this 'hippie discography' suggests that the people who came together to form this 'hippie' commune had a wide range of backgrounds, including their musical tastes," Parkman said..."While perhaps surprising in their variety, and rather establishment tastes, Parkman said, these records were not the soundtrack of daily life at Olompali. Instead, he said, they’re artifacts of the various segments of mainstream culture that the Chosen Family’s members had once identified with, and in some ways, tried to leave behind. “I don’t believe most of these records were listened to during the years of the commune, but rather reflect where these people came from before arriving at Olompali,” he said. “The records arrived at Olompali as literal cultural baggage.”
So nice to see you in these parts! Don't be a stranger.
There's an awful lot of our parents' generation's music that, especially post-Beatles, we were way too cool to be caught dead listening too, even though it was in our DNA by that time. It's a good thing Jerry et al. knew better.
"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?" Berlin was referring to the Grizzly Bear dance, first introduced in 1910 by Fanny Brice in the Ziegfeld Follies.The exclamation was part of the dance. Here's a description: "The dance was rough and clumsy. During the dance, the dancers would yell out: "It's a Bear!" The genuine Grizzly Bear step was in correct imitation of the movements of a dancing bear, moving or dancing to the side. A very heavy step to the side with a decided bending of the upper part of the body from one side to the other, a decidedly ungraceful and undignified movement when performed as a dance." And you thought twirlers were odd?
I think it is no surprise that Berlin is referenced repeatedly by Hunter over the years. It was Jerome Kern (Garcia's namesake) who famously said in 1924, "Irving Berlin has no place in American music, Irving Berlin is American music." For close to a half century, Berlin tapped the American vernacular for his songs, and many of his works have become contemporary folk music. Songs like "God Bless America", "Anything You Can Do", "There's No Business Like Show Business" have so entered our collective consciousness that it is hard to believe that they were written in 1938 and 1945 respectively. In Hunter's childhood, he would have been exposed to dozens of Berlin songs on the radio, in movies, dance halls, etc. Berlin's unique approach to lyrics made them memorable and extremely popular. Ironically, it was the wave of singer/songwriters, and bands who wrote their own songs that were the demise of the kind of songwriter Berlin was, and which he would, alas, become very bitter about.
Do not miss Jonah and the Whale. And not just for the pot humor.
I bless my old sociology professor who would play Lord Buckley for us for hours. I remember how happy I was as a college student to find a used Lord Buckley album in some bin in North Beach.
I think you might be able to get Lord Buckley stuff on iTunes now.
and wonderful- the song and the whole album.
I really want to know what Garcia was reaching for with that song, btw. Think I remember reading that the finished product wasn't what he was reaching for.
Maybe technology wasn't there, or too much of it was...
Reaching for the gold ring, down inside. Never could reach, It just slips away, But I try.....
Never forget that one time I was driving to work, this song was playing ...
And just as Jerry was singing 'All the winter birds are winging home now', I crossed paths with a large flock of birds headed south for the winter...
Lord Buckley was so far ahead of his time most of us still haven't caught up. Born in 1906 and died in 1960, the man was from somewhere else. Pigpen and Neal Cassady were both influenced by him. I've broadcast as much Lord Buckley on my comedy hour as I can get my hands on. From vinyl and CD to YouTube. Check out Lord Buckley when he appeared on Groucho Marx' show "You Bet Your Life". It's on YouTube . Cabenza de Gasca the Gasser is brilliant . Also "The Nazz".
"Doin That Rag" is such a great song. A few of us listened to Aoxomoxoa right when it was first released 6/21/69. Oh those wild palindromes. Summer solstice 69. Rick Griffin cover. The live versions of Doin that Rag were psychedelic in the extreme. In the early 70s my friends and I used to listen to OXO and ponder the meaning of the lyrics to Doin that Rag. I vaguely remember one of them tripping on the line , " wade in the water and you'll always be dry if you keep on doin that rag" as an allegory to the psychedelic experience . The song has more to it than meets the eye, just like Lord Buckley.