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…)
The song-story of Jack Straw indeed evokes images of a depression era nation.The two partners in crime are truly part of the American landscape.I believe the analogy of John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" to be right on the silver dime. Robert Hunter's story-line with back and forth conversation i.e. Weir and Garcia harkens to an influence of "The Band" and song conversations or point counter-point between Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel. The Band were masters of imagery of Americana even if they were mostlty from Canada. Along with the John Steinbeck connection that is the most perceptive, I immediately thought of two short stories by Jack Kerouac in his autobiographical book "Lonesome Traveler" (1961). The two works I cite are "The Railroad Earth" and "The Vanishing American Hobo". In the former story Jack writes about his time working for the railroad in northern Cal. Both Kerouac and Neal Cassady worked for the railroad over 50 years ago. Descriptions of hobo camps, hobos and bums appear in many of Jack's books.(I've read most of his books) In Jack's short story "The Vanishing American Hobo" Jack finds himself camping outside Tucson when he's hassled by the cops. Tucson was far smaller in the 1950s. Other books about hobos worth reading would be "The Road" by Jack London, "Rolling Nowhere" by Ted Conover, and "Hard Travelin, the hobo and his history" by Kenneth Allsop."Hard Travelin" also the name of the great Woody Guthrie song. On a personal level trains have held a fascination for me since I was a kid in the 1950s. I've rode passenger trains over 10,000 miles in Mexico from Palenque, Chiapas in the south to the "Divsion del Norte", Juarez to D.F. in the north, Amtrak in the states from coast to coast and New Mexico to Montana and the Canadian rails from Vancouver to Banff and back. One of the great movies about hobes would be "Emporer of the North" filmed in Oregon's Willamette Valley with Ernest Borgnine as the evil train conductor and Lee Marvin as the king of the hobos. A great film and two of the greatest roles of two all time great actors.By the way great Dorthea Lange photogragh in Davids post. I was never a hobo but only a "rubber tramp" or hitch-hiker for a time in the 1970s, coast to coast, some in Canada, some in Mexico. Lastly I return to the song "Jack Straw". I first saw the Dead perform Jack Straw at the Felt Forum 12/4/71. The greatest impact I ever felt from the song was after not seeing the Dead since October 1974 until 12/29/77 and I'm sitting front row balcony south side of Winterland when the band opened up with, shot out of the cannon first song, Jack Straw. Wow, what a song, what a band. Also In the movie "Woodstock" Jerry Garcia is describing the thousands of people walking into the festival site as being biblical and like "Jack Straws". And yes read Kerouac, Steinbeck and London.
"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.” '
Whether Jack did the deed himself, or cut Shannon down from the scaffold, I never thought about Jack lighting out on a trail of vengeance. I always thought of it as a moment of pained, world-weary self realization. Shannon's gone, he's next, the clock is ticking . . .
Great thread! Keep em coming!
A lot of the comments/posts have reminded me of why I love the song - mustin's thoughts on the silver/life line and how it could relate to a R & R band were right on. I liked David's cut my buddy down image - kinda chillin' - and the "stretch" notion was funny.Tthe ruminations on positioning within the first set - couldn't fly in the second - are fun to ponder. How about start the set with Jack Straw and finish it with Music?
Toss in a BTW, LLR or Cassidy and you'll have the key of E covered just nice!
IMHO, I believe it's one of the most inventive of the key of E tunes the Dead created. None of them is simple, think Bird Song, BEW, He's Gone, Stella, and Eyes, to name but a few. Jack Straw has that cool tempo change which adds crateloads to weight of the story. I like the early ones best and when Jerry chimed in with his lines such as, "ain't that heaven sent", it did, indeed, become a masterpiece!
I always took the final part "Cut his buddy down" as having to kill his friend - just like ***SPOILER ALERT*** George kills Lenny at the end of "Of Mice and Men."
The studio out-takes version of the song has a different verse too!
In every bit of honest writing in the world there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.
— John Steinbeck in his 1938 journal entry
For me. That is a definitive line in the song., Speaks volumes about these ne'er do wells and the unspoken code amongst them..
Regarding the share the women share the wine. Yeah. The roar of applause and approval is not consistent with the spirit of the song if taken literally. In context, then repeated at the end....it ties the tale together quite nicely.
But more importantly, is the following line...we can share what we got of yours cos we done shared all of mine. There's the metaphoric rub.
In a sense Playing in the Band was recorded on a studio album - but it was Bob's "solo" Ace. I've always loved this version, especially the acoustic feel. That whole album is great, especially Bob and Donna on Cassidy.
it was likely to be pretty great.
while I enjoy the tall tale, for me its all about the last jam. I loved to here this song, especially at the end of the first set. Opening a show it had nice jams to here how each musician was playing and for me the climax had hope of how in sync the boys were or weren't for that night. When it ended the first set I thought it said to the audience we're in sync, buckle up and get ready to be shot out of a cannon. Rochester 77 comes to mind. For me the second set Jack Straws were fun but I loved those late 1st set ones the best.