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Greatest Stories Ever Told - "High Time"
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!)
Coming around again on that time in the Deadhead year, the Days Between, so I will continue with another Jerry tune or two as we think about the life he led and the music he brought to all of us. It feels just slightly liturgical somehow. There’s a topic on the WELL—the online conferencing community—in the Grateful Dead conference, called “This Day in Deadhead History,” and it’s an ongoing circular conversation about the shows and events on any given date. The topic in and of itself is an acknowledgment of the cycles inherent in the life of a Deadhead, and the Days Between is a major period of a week and two days marking Garcia’s birthday and the anniversary of his death.
So, it seems like a good time to look at “High Time.”
Truthfully, I am starting to lose track of what I have blogged about! So stop me if you’ve heard this one…but actually, it’s pretty likely I would write something completely different each time around, in the same way that I hear different aspects of the songs over the years.
“High Time” is an example of the kind of lyric that evoked a mirroring in Garcia’s music. It has a plaintive quality, both in words and music, and Garcia’s singing on the Workingman’s Dead track is ambitious, with its extended high notes.
Interestingly, this song generated not a single annotation for The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics. Nor has there been any discussion on the WELL’s “deadsongs” conference. But the bridge, at least, probably merits an annotation.
I was losing time
I had nothing to do
No one to fight
I came to you
Wheels broke down
The leader won’t draw.
The line is busted
the last one I saw.
The Workingman’s Dead set of songs, it seems to me, contains quite a number of archaic lines, or, at least, lines and verses that are set in some non-specific past of America. That’s what holds the songs together as an album. So in this bridge, we are given a picture of a team of horses who cannot pull a wagon. The wheels are actually broken, and the line itself is busted. The lead horse has refused to try to pull the cart. (“If the horse won’t pull you got to carry the load,” right?)
The character singing the song is lamenting the loss of his lover, and is trying to cope with his own flaws. He misunderstood the object of his affection when she told him goodbye. He has overloaded the wagon with too much hay. His efforts to convince both the lost lover and, more likely, himself, seem like they might well fail. His arguments are none too convincing—there is a resignation in his cheerleading efforts: “Nothing’s for certain / It could always go wrong.” And “”Tomorrow come trouble / Tomorrow come pain / Now don’t think too hard baby / ‘cause you know what I’m saying.”
I mean, is he or is he not trying to convince this woman to return to him? It doesn’t sound like it, really. The character singing the song may have a “ton of hay,” but what good will that do him? It just makes it harder to enjoy life, when one has to deal with too much success (“hay” being a synonym for bounty—“Make hay while the sun shines”). So he is having a hard time. (Another line from “New Speedway Boogie” comes to mind: “It’s hard to run with the weight of gold.”)
The “High Time” of the title is, at best, ironic. Look at the various “times” mentioned in the song: “High time,” in verse one. “Hard time” in verse two. “Losing time” in the bridge. “High time” again in verses three and four.
The essay about the songs on Workingman’s Dead on the excellent “Grateful Dead Guide” blog contains this information about the song:
Hunter & Garcia then tried their hands at an old-style country ballad, High Time. Hunter said, “For High Time, I wanted a song like the kind of stuff I heard rolling out of the jukeboxes of bars my father frequented when I was a kid. Probably a subliminal Hank Williams influence…a late-‘40s sad feel.” But later Garcia said that High Time was “the song that I think failed on that record… It’s a beautiful song, but I was just not able to sing it worth a shit.” (McNally suggests that Hunter wrote it so Garcia could play pedal steel on it. Live, that wasn’t possible; but Garcia does add some pedal licks to the album cut.) At any rate, High Time also went through some changes – live in ’69, it was very quiet, skeletal & wispy with a long instrumental intro, but was condensed to a more straightforward, poppy version for the album.
I have to disagree with Garcia there. I don’t think the song failed, and I don’t think Garcia failed in his vocal interpretation, although I understand what he means. I think the “failure” in the vocal perfectly mirrors the failure of the character singing the song.
Recently, two of my band-mates sang me a version of “High Time” at a party someone threw to surprise me. I was touched, and surprised at the bravery of the song choice. It is not an easy song to sing. That “Come in when it’s raining” line, alone, would challenge any singer. So the song has been on my mind for a few months now, and it’s sitting there as a possible song for my band to add to our repertoire. (We don’t do very many Dead tunes. Just “Wharf Rat” and “Friend of the Devil.”)
Who would be the perfect artist to cover this song? There must be someone with the kind of voice Garcia was hearing in his head. Maybe Hunter was hearing someone like Patsy Cline in that 1940s or 1950s jukebox from the bars of his childhood.
This is coming from a very abstruse angle, since I never heard the song performed as far as I remember, and have only heard it on the Grateful Dead radio station. My friend and I had a tape of Workingman's Dead that we probably listened to 15 times on a marathon trip from northeast Ohio to LA in 1974, but I don't remember that song. Anyway, the I Ching has a few references that parallel the ones in the song: "The axletrees are taken from the wagon - misfortune." And, even better, "The spokes burst from the wagon wheels - husband and wife roll their eyes - bloody tears flow." That's about a 3000 year old country song reference. For what it's worth.
I was just getting ready to post Lucinda Williams when I saw your post. Good call
I would like to hear Brent Smith cover this.
In the Spring of 1981 I drove my 74 VW bus from Lansing Michigan to Orlando Florida, crammed with my college jazz band's electric piano, bass amp, congas, and whatever else. Picked up a hitch-hiker (Eddie, if I recall correctly), and we got on fine, listening to the Dead and doing the sorts of misspent-youth stuff we did back then. Somewhere between Birmingham and Montgomery AL a tire blew, I had no spare, so had to unload all the equipment, jack up the car and remove wheel, and then One of us (me) hitched to the nearest junkyard for a replacement while the other (Eddie, if I recall correctly) stayed behind with the bus and all the band equipment. All's well that ends well, and hours later we reloaded, climbed back in, atarted up, and the VERY FIRST WORDS out of the stereo were "wheel's broke down"...
Because 'the unexamined life is not worth living'. That's why. YMMV.
What is wrong with you people ? Why must you analyze and overanalyze, beating a dead horse, and I do mean deadhorse into the ground . WHY NOT JUST ENJOY THIS BEAUTIFUL SONG ALONE.
DEAD HEAD FORDEVER
Definitely Gram and Emmylou, but because Parsons is dead, Emmylou in solo is the best choice.
I always thought that one of the most interesting aspects of the song was how much "high time" wanted to be "hard time" - sounded so much like it - given the melody. Also, I love the fact there are no readily identifiable references - nothing literary at all - the song to me is very visual. If anything, I am seeing Winslow Homer, not hearing Hank Williams.
I don't agree that the narrator is necessarily confused. He - probably a he - might just have a very basic approach - hey, I was having a high time and you were more complicated than that. "Don't think too hard", let's have a high time before something bad happens. Just come in when it's raining. Even the bridge, which obviously introduces some new element into the emotional dialogue, could be seen as a guy who really enjoyed fighting, but ran out of fights, so he began loving. Maybe? But then the wheel and the leader. What happened here, just a slowdown? Just reporting on his haying? What line? Or more properly, what kind of line? Why the last one he saw? Does that have something to do with her leaving? His giving up?
One of the many reasons I love this song - the current of the lyrics runs with the (really beautiful) music sometimes and sometimes against it. But it evokes heartbreakingly beautiful hot days, blue skies, broad fields of golden hay, good times, mud and misunderstandings. One of the great Dead evocations, in my view. Always the best thing about great roots music is the sadness embedded in the most joyful music and the joy embedded in the saddest music. Such is catharsis.
By the way, I never thought of "High Time" as take on a "classic" country song the way "Cumberland Blues" seemed to be, but even more older, more rural - maybe old timey, pre-Nashville popular song before categories hardened - like the imagery in the song, which doesn't require any motorized anything.
Oh, and I think Tim O'Brien or a Ronnie Dunn could sing it. So could Vince Gill or Dwight Yoakam. A bluegrass and/or Bakersfield version could be great.
And far from failing, I think, like "Black Peter," this was one of the most successful songs on the album, performance-wise. Jerry was pretty self-deprecating at times. Part of his charm, I guess.
One feeling I get from the song is that the lady doesn't really want to let go of the relationship but the protagonist may have a propensity to having his "high time" and not really taking care of the needs of a relationship. "Wheels are muddy, got a ton of hay..." Have a LOT to do but I'd rather keep my wheels muddy having my high time. Why don't you just join me and and chill... "I can show you a high time...." Of course she is all about the business of having a husband/father of the children/provider so she's probably not going to happy.... and is giving him the ultimatum.
Maybe I'm projecting some past personal experience on the tune, but isn't that what we all do?
ddodd - I read the posts today and was going to chime in with kd lang!!! She has the pipes for "come in when it's rainin'" for sure. She could harmonize with herself. Lu Williams has the sensibility for it but I don't know how she'd handle that line? hmmm...