Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Jack Straw"
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!)
Of all the greatest of the Grateful Dead’s great story songs, I think “Jack Straw” might deserve some kind of an award for managing to be the most fully-fleshed-out and the most enigmatic of all. And I think the enigma revolves around the ambiguity in one line in particular.
The performance evolution of “Jack Straw” is unique among Grateful Dead songs. When it was first performed, on October 19, 1971 (along with five other first-time performances) at Northrup Auditorium, University of Minnesota, the song’s various characters were sung entirely by Bob Weir. Hunter’s lyrics, however, clearly called for a differentiation in voice, and so, beginning in Paris on May 3, 1972, Garcia stepped in and the song became a dramatic telling featuring two distinct character voices, plus a narrator.
I think of the song as the cornerstone of an unrecorded studio album, post-Workingman’s Dead / American Beauty, and preceding the three Grateful Dead Records studio albums. I really wish the album did exist (and some claim that it does: it’s called Europe ’72 — but even a doctored live album can never take the place of the studio treatment, and I am a fan of the Dead’s studio recordings). This phantom studio album would include “Jack Straw,” “Brown Eyed Women,” “Wharf Rat,” “He’s Gone,” “Ramble On Rose,” “Tennessee Jed,” “Bertha,” “Cassidy,” and “Playing in the Band.” Or something like that. At some point Hunter lamented the fact that the songs in that batch never got the studio treatment, and I have to say, I concur. (In much the same way, I wish there had been one final studio album, to capture “Days Between,” “So Many Roads,” and others.)
Weir, in a couple of interviews, tells about the origin of “Jack Straw”:
"I had just read Of Mice and Men for about the tenth time. I was completely smitten by that story. I took a step back in time into the Depression, and that era, and this story emerged between me and Hunter about these two guys on the lam... ne'er-do-wells... victims of the Depression." (March 2004)
"I don’t watch much TV, but one night I was home, it was late, and an old version of Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ came on. I was mesmerized. We were coming out of the Workingman’s Dead phase, and Hunter had this lyric. I grabbed it, and we came with a little sketch of heartland Americana, a balled about two ne’er-do-wells. It was patterned on Of Mice and Men, but we tried to put a twist or two on it. Same story, different context.” (May 2007)
The two “ne’er-do-wells” are named in the song as Shannon (Garcia) and Jack Straw (Weir). Here’s how the dialogue shakes out. Note that besides the two characters, who each sings his own lines as appropriate, there is a third person, the narrator, who is sung by Weir, Garcia, and Lesh.
Narrator: "We can share ..."
Shannon: "I just jumped the watchman ..."
Jack Straw: "Hurts my ears to listen, Shannon ..."
Jack Straw: "We used to play for silver ..."
Narrator: "Leaving Texas 4th day of July ..."
Shannon: “Gotta go to Tulsa…”
Jack Straw: “There ain’t no place a man can hide…”
Narrator: "Jack Straw from Wichita cut his buddy down..."
The link to the lyrics at the top of the page will show the complete breakdown.
OK, so here’s the ambiguity that I see, and which numerous commentators have pointed out (take a look at www.well.com/deadsongs for a rather lengthy series of opinions about the narrative thread of the song). In the second verse, Jack Straw admonishes Shannon for having “cut down a man in cold blood,” stating that it “might as well” have been him—i.e., that in committing murder, Shannon had condemned both of them to charges of murder, and therefore capital punishment.
Later in the song, however, Jack Straw “cut his buddy down.” Now, that could be read two completely different ways: either he killed Shannon, or he cut him down from a scaffold and gave him a decent burial before lighting out to avenge him—“one man gone and another to go.”
I admit, it’s a stretch, but the song could work either way.
In Robert Hunter’s A Box of Rain, the song is printed with some of the lines in italics, an indicator elsewhere in the same anthology that these lines were not Hunter’s, but written by another—in the case of “Sugar Magnolia,” for instance, the lines are explicitly footnoted: “Lyrics in italics were written by Robert Weir.” Following that same convention, Weir’s contribution to “Jack Straw” included three verses: 1) “Hurts my ears to listen...” 2) We used to play for silver...” and 3) Ain’t no place a man can hide...”
The song includes a number of motifs and themes common throughout the repertoire: trains, down-and-out characters, gambling, weather, birds... It’s a bleak vision, but the playing lends it a great deal of energy. Going back to that first Brent Mydland show at Spartan Stadium in San Jose, his first song with the band was “Jack Straw,” and the jam leading up to “Jack Straw from Wichita, cut his buddy down,” was a juggernaut of thundering intensity.
It’s unfortunate that the opening lines of the song are often taken by listeners at face value—I always felt very strange about the roar that would emerge at the lines “we can share the women, we can share the wine.” In fact, as has been pointed out, that attitude led our pair of ne’er-do-wells onto a path of self-destruction. I’d be interested in hearing if anyone else heard that at shows—that inappropriate roar of approval—kind of like the line in “Baba O’Riley”: “You’re all wasted!” Hmmmm...and that’s a good thing?
But maybe I’m projecting my own values a bit too much. Once again, it’s up to the listener to decide.
Regardless, this song frequently brought a shot of adrenaline to a show, and its message of friendship gone astray and lives wasted might make us pause. And hey—it pays to read Steinbeck! (Or at least watch movies of his books on TV…)
I always heard this one of two ways....
the watchman was going to die anyway, probably violently, it might as well be me who profits from it.
the other is...might as well be me...it may as well have been me who was killed for 2 bucks and change...acknowledging the lifestyle he led was sure bound to end in no good.
in a way, reminds me of wharf rat.
but as one poster said....this song got me the first time I heard it, and was in fact one of the songs that got me interested in finding out more about this band of tripped out hippies writing songs of murder, revenge, and other things not even remotely confused with silly love songs.
PS...I always cheered the opening lines b/c I love this song. No more, no less. Only speaking for me, tho.
I wrote these posts back in the spring of 2012, but now the blog is hosted on the main Sing Out! website, so there are new addresses.
Main post on the ballad
Connections with Of Mice and Men
Connections to Altamont
This is one of those synchronicity stories, but I doubt its cosmic import.
There were three of us in a VW bug traveling toward the Canadian Rockies out of BC and listening to the Dead on 8-track tape (you do the math)and Jack Straw was on. We're talking big skies here, and you saw the Rockies rising and the road stretching ahead, great gatherings of clouds and the hot sun mottling the landscape in colossal swaths of moving light. Spectacular. We looked about us, goggling, and just as the lyric about "sun's so hot, the clouds so low, the eagles fill the sky" came around, we spotted a pair of eagles, not filling the sky by any means but, hanging suspended in a lazy soar across our horizon, their presence was sufficient to provoke further awe. We had to duck down a bit to see them under the windshield's periphery, and so we gazed with necks bent in wonder at the natural beauty and the semi-mystical coincidentality of the moment.
And of course one of them chose this moment to take a dump.
And yet...and yet... I can't speak for my friends, but there was nevertheless something beautiful, for me, in the loops and whorls that avian effluvium made as it sailed earthward, morphing on the wind.
I suppose you had to be there, and to my knowledge few poets have rhapsodized about eagle shit, but it stands forever for me as a time when beauty turned to hilarity and back to beauty. Of a sort. Nothing wrong with that.
Like most of you, I've been fascinated by this song since the first time I heard it, captivated by the story, trying to figure out what events it actually described. After reading the article and these posts, I have even more nuggets to mull over.
I have a couple of minor points to add.
I've always heard the line "Catch the Detroit Lightning out of Santa Fe" as "Catch the Detroit riding out of Santa Fe". Or maybe "...ridin' it...". Either fits better with the comma-like pause after Detroit. Just listened to that phrase several times on Europe '72 and it still sounds like that to me. Found a guy (http://www.gratefulweb.com/articles/furthur-new-years-eve-san-fran-20092010) who apparently heard it the same way as I did. So that's two of us.
The first couplet is pretty awesome.
The first line is an example of a phrase that hasn't worn well. It's a variant of "Wine, Women and Song" (singing about Women and Wine IN a song), which in times past (such as where the song is set) would have been viewed as a bit naughty, but a relatively benign expression of good times. It needs to be viewed in that light (but also retired from everyday usage, not to mention not cheered for during performances).
Good times also implies--to me, anyway--a sense that all is well. We party because we can. We CAN share, not we HAVE TO share.
And then comes line two, where one voice (or possibly both--it's the choir) are griping that they've done shared all theirs, so the other guy needs to start sharing. Now we see that times are hard, not so rosy. And the first complaint--or request, with maybe just a bit of resentment behind it--has been lodged.
And that's just the beginning. Gobsmacked!
So much stuff in so few words. Like my Uncle Jerry used to say when he hawked popcorn at the local ballgames, "Nutritious, Delicious, and Satisfying!"
Wrote these posts back in the Spring of 2012...
Try to view the opening verse of the song as not "sung" by the Narrator who sings the later narrator verses.
Rather, it is the song's "overture" or perhaps a Greek Chorus introducing Hunter's cautionary tale and its characters to the audience.
So, although a "chorus" is singing these lines and not individual characters/singers, the chorus is speaking the lines for these individual characters:
SHANNON: We can share the women, we can share the wine
JACK: We can share what we got of yours, 'cause we done shared all of mine
SHANNON: Keep on rolling, just a mile to go
JACK: Keep on rolling, my old buddy, you're moving much too slow
Why do it this way? Because it works better as a SONG this way....rather than going into the Jerry/Bob dialogue right out of the gate [oops...no pun intended].
I guess it's taken me about forty years or so to see it in this current light.
One should definitely read Steinbeck, especially as an American. Ethan Allen Hawley would agree.
And all this time I thought this song was about the efficiency of German railroad schedules. And, of course, the lost composure of the fireman as he marvels at the unrivaled complexion of the train as he views it from his new angle rounding the corner.
Ahh, we do seem a bit off the track here. I'm sure Jack and Shannon will excuse us...
Ok, off topic a bit, but the Casey Jones line -- I know that forever I assumed that "watch your speed" was a second drug reference of the double entendre variety. But there's definitely trouble ahead...
Hunter sets up these very well-constructed songs, and people overwhelmingly pull lines out of context and make anthems/slogans of them. And this is just part of the songwriter's life, of course.
If I recall correctly, part of the same conversation involved Hunter saying that everyone hears "Drivin' that train, high on cocaine," and nobody hears "Casey Jones you better watch your speed."