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…)