Grateful Dead

Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Greatest Story Ever Told"

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!)

“Greatest Story Ever Told”

Any song featuring a 6 foot 10 inch Moses uttering a phrase like “You can’t close the door when the wall’s caved in,” deserves some concerted thought, don’t you think?

David Gans did an entire segment on The Grateful Dead Hour tracing the development of this song. You can listen to it here. Here’s what he says about that feature:

"Greatest Pump Song Ever Wrote" is the documentary I produced for my first appearance on the KFOG Deadhead Hour. "Greatest Story Ever Told" opens Bob Weir's 1972 solo album Ace, but an earlier version appears on Mickey Hart's 1972 solo album Rolling Thunder as "The Pump Song." I had interviews with Weir, Hart, and lyricist Robert Hunter talking about how this song came to be, and Mickey did me the gigantic favor of inviting me up to his studio, hauling out the multitrack master of "The Pump Song," and soloing up the individual tracks. The song began with a recording of a pump on his ranch, to which Mickey added some log drums; he then gave the tape to Bob with a challenge to turn it into a song. Hunter added lyrics, which Weir altered a bit (e.g. "Moses come ridin' up on a guitar" became "...on a quasar"). Bobby also changed the title; "That song was 'Moses,'" Hunter told me. I followed the documentary with a composite of the song edited together from four very different-sounding live renditions.

Gans’s feature contains some wonderful interview material with Mickey Hart, Weir, and Hunter. My favorite elements have to do with the evolution of the song’s title. Mickey states that for him, it was always “The Pump Song.” Hunter says that it was called “Moses.” Weir says he called it “Greatest Story Ever Wrote,” and adds that he doesn’t know how it came to be called “Greatest Story Ever Told.” Gotta love that!

(Similarly, Hunter notes that Weir changed “guitar” to “quasar,” and while at first he thought that was all right, he came to think that no, it just didn’t fit the atmosphere of the song, which is more “wooden.”)

And the other wonderful nugget contained in the feature that gives some insight into the songwriting process is Mickey’s suggestion early on that maybe the song that might come to be laid on top of the rhythm of the pump could be something like “Froggy Went a Courtin’”—so the line that kicks the song off bears some of that heritage, with Moses riding up instead of Froggy.

Here are just a few lines from that song, to give a taste:

Frog went a-courtin', and he did ride, uh-huh
Frog went a-courtin', and he did ride, uh-huh
Frog went a-courtin', and he did ride
With a sword and a pistol by his side, uh-huh

Well he rode up to Miss Mousey's door, uh-huh
Well he rode up to Miss Mousey's door, uh-huh
Well he rode up to Miss Mousey's door
Gave three loud raps and a very big roar, uh-huh

“Froggy” dates back to at least the 16th century, and was recorded notably by Burl Ives, Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, and Bruce Springsteen, among countless others. It was also in the repertoire of the New Riders of the Purple Sage in the late 1970s.

The eventual title that stuck with the song, “Greatest Story Ever Told,” has been used, generally, as a reference to the biblical story of Jesus. There was a 1965 movie by that title, and the movie, in turn, was based upon a book by Fulton Oursler, published in 1949. And now we have a blog on dead.net, carrying on the tradition.

“Pump Song,” as recorded on Hart’s Rolling Thunder album, was released as the B-side of a single, with “Blind John” as the A-side. I always loved the credits for the track, crediting Jerry Garcia with “insect fear.” The Tower of Power horn section also appears on the track.

The song entered the Dead’s live repertoire prior to its release on either Rolling Thunder or Ace, on February 18, 1971. (Both albums appeared in May 1972.) At that show, at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, NY, “Greatest Story” was joined by a number of other firsts: “Bertha,” “Loser,” “Playing in the Band,” and “Wharf Rat.” It remained fairly steadily in the rotation, with a hiatus between October 18, 1974 and February 17, 1979—207 shows.

I was at that 1979 show—it was at the Oakland Coliseum Arena, and it was a benefit for Tom Hayden’s Campaign for Economic Democracy—actually, specifically, a benefit to end “environmental cancer.” “Greatest Story Ever Told” opened the show, and it was greeted with mild pandemonium. DeadBase notes that the house lights stayed up during “Greatest Story.” At the time, and given the context of the benefit, I attributed great political significance to the line about needing a “left-hand monkey wrench.” Everything seemed politically-charged that night—“The Wheel,” with its lyric of revolution…the entire arena seeming to spin around like a giant carousel…but I digress. It also proved to be Keith and Donna Jean Godchaux’s final show with the band.

Is it worth noting that the final “Greatest Story” came during the same show as the final performance of “Bertha” (June 27, 1995, at The Palace in Auburn Hills, Michigan)? So these two songs debuted and were played for the last time at the same shows.

That line about the left-hand monkey wrench introduced me to the concept of the fool’s errand—in which a newcomer to a trade is sent off for a nonexistent tool. There are wonderful lists of these when you start looking. But what I notice now is the way in which Hunter brings the character of the Fool into the song, sideways. We have this set of biblical characters, including four heavy-hitters of ancient Judaism (Moses, Gideon, Abraham, Isaac), and it seems possible that the “fools” being addressed are Abraham and Isaac. They are, after all, sitting there on the fence, not getting much done.

No conclusion to draw, just food for idle thought.

Hunter’s lyric is, to say the least, sly. It’s slippery, and laden with little hints of wisdom. I love that he surprises us by choosing to conjoin “silver” with “bold,” rather than with “gold.” I love the line, “it’s one in ten thousand that come for the show.” I love the fact that the song’s narrator asks Moses for mercy, and gets a gun; that he asks him for water, and gets wine instead. (“We finished the bottle, then broke into mine…” shades of “We can share the women, we can share the wine.”) I’m amazed at the easy and subtle manner in which Hunter found a way to pay homage to the song’s origin by having Abraham and Isaac digging on a well.

Always a fun song in concert, the amazing snaky guitar line Garcia plays finds its way in and out amongst the words and the quirky rhythm. I’m so glad Mickey challenged his band-mates to write a song to go with the music he heard from the pump in his well. (Mickey does seem to find music wherever rhythm occurs throughout the various realms of experience!)

So, what are your favorite stories about “Greatest Story”? “Cool clear water where you can’t ever tell…”

Comments

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
Offline
Joined: Jun 16 2010
9/28/72 - St. Stephen Tease

In late September 1972 at Jersey City Jerry increasingly teased St. Stephen during the big jam of Greatest over the course of the 3 nights, with it becoming unmistakable on the 28th.

Offline
Joined: Nov 12 2007
Those first renditions of

Those first renditions of "Pump Song" back in '71 were rather unimpressive to say the least. Perhaps the Dead should have left it off the setlist until the song was whipped into shape. And I don't know whose idea it was to pair it with "Johnny B. Goode." Those songs have absolutely nothing in common.... However, the verion of "JBG" on the SKULL & ROSES double live LP actually benefitted by using the closing notes of "Pump Song" at the start.

My favorite versions of "Greatest Story" are the ones in the later 80s when Brent was there to help with keyboards and vocals. As always, he added a new dimension to the old standards.

Offline
Joined: May 19 2012
current favourite

version from 11-11-73

previous one 06-16-74, always loved this "left hand monkey wrench".

Offline
Joined: Aug 12 2011
Snakey guitar lines

I especially love the Truckin up to Buffalo version, but that is probably because its fun watching Garcia play some very odd, but somehow perfect, guitar lines...

Offline
Joined: Jan 13 2010
Always one of my favorite GD jamming songs

in the earlier renditions, Phil's thumping bass intro gives me goosebumps.

4/29/71 (and others) GSET > JBG = Greatest Goode

GD72 GSETs are awesome such as 8/27/72

Psychedelia: his brain was boilin', his reason was spent...Gideon came in with his eyes on the floor

if nothing is borrowed, nothing is lent (very Tao)

Comments

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
Listen on Spotify