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!)
Keith Godchaux’s setting of Robert Hunter’s words in “Let Me Sing Your Blues Away” suits the mood perfectly. The full-treatment arrangement it receives on Wake of the Flood highlights the song’s classic feel—a song you think you must have heard before, somewhere, maybe on a car radio listening to the top ten...long ago, maybe.
Godchaux, pianist of amazing talent, was born and died in the month of July. Born July 19, 1948; died July 23, 1980.
Perspective is everything when it comes to age and aging. Think about how old Keith was when he joined the band in 1971: just 23. This song, his only contribution of an original number to the Dead’s repertoire, has him singing: “When I was a young man, I needed good luck…” and I’m pretty sure Hunter was consciously writing those words for Keith to sing. Perhaps, in Hunter’s way, he was writing a song that would ring true for the singer for years to come; perhaps imagining Keith singing the song at 30, at 40, at 50. But he was only 25 when the song was recorded or released, and he died at just barely 32.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Keith. He was the piano player when I started following the Dead, and at the time, I was playing a lot of piano, so he was the first in a series of keyboardists whose work I scrutinized and enjoyed. At that time, two other prominent piano players named Keith commanded my attention along with Godchaux: Emerson and Jarrett. (I remember thinking, when Bruce Hornsby joined the band for awhile, that they finally had that Keith Jarrett sound in the band.) Godchaux seemed able, effortlessly, to add just the right touch, the perfect little fill in the right place. His early playing was so incredibly tasty and mind-blowing, that it became tough, as his tenure with the band drew to a close, to listen—or more, to watch, as he seemed to be asleep at the keyboard. Sure, there were always still flashes of brilliance, but it seemed like an echo.
Keith joined the band at the famous, to me, October 19, 1971 show at Northrup Auditorium on the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis, where the band debuted a string of new songs, six in all. DeadBase X actually lists two rehearsal sessions with Keith, on September 30, and again on October 1, in Santa Venetia, California (really unincorporated San Rafael…). Less than three weeks later, there he was onstage, a band member.
“Let Me Sing Your Blues Away” was performed live for the first time on September 8, 1973, at Nassau Veterans Memorial in Uniondale, NY. The other first in the show was “Weather Report Suite, Part I.” “Let Me Sing” opened the second set. It was played a total of six times, all in September 1973, seeing its last performance on September 21 at The Spectrum in Philadelphia. On each of those performances, after the first one, the horn player Martin Fierro played on the song. (DeadBase X does contain a gap, showing a performance on September 18 in Syracuse, New York, which lacks a set list. Seems likely they played it then, too, so—make it seven performances even. I fully expect this article to elicit a comment from someone who has that show on tape, and can share the set list!)
It was released on Wake of the Flood on November 15, 1973.
Hunter’s lyric is built for nostalgia from the get-go, with its first-line reference to a dated word for an automobile: “hack.” I mean, does anyone say “Hop in the hack”? Did they ever? Doesn’t matter (though I am curious). That feeling of freedom you get from being in a car, from being a young man in a car, playing the car radio, is something I can almost taste—thinking about driving my sister-in-law’s Mustang during my last year in high school, when she generously (or foolishly) entrusted it to me for a time. “I’m here to drive those blues away,” he sings, and he does mean “drive.” With a car. The song is full of lines about cars:
Well hop in the hack
Turn on the key
Pop in the clutch
Let the wheels roll free
It don’t matter much
Pick any gear
Grind you a pound and
drop the rear
I imagine, years after I have written and published the annotated lyrics book, that the lines using the device “one for the money,” etc., owe their origin to something earlier than “Blue Suede Shoes,” but that’s the song I hear playing in the background with these lines, just as I do in “U.S. Blues,” where they are echoed again. A tiny bit of work online reveals this note referencing The Annotated Mother Goose (p. 259):
One to make ready
And two to prepare
good luck to the rider
And away goes the mare.
The annotation says this is 'a race starting jingle, the forerunner of the modern 'one for the money, two for the show, three to make ready and four to go!’
So the construction has its origins in horse-racing. “Two for the show” could refer to the third-place entry in a horse race, I suppose, too. But as usual, these kinds of persnickety speculations don’t really reveal all that much in the way of meaning…
Hunter’s lovely line about only loving two things in this world: “rock and roll and my turtle dove,” can only be a reference to Donna Jean Godchaux, written by Hunter for Keith to sing.
Sadly, Gochaux died in an automobile accident. I guess I can only hope that he was humming to himself a line from his own song: “Honey, walk that walk with style and grace. This ain’t no knock-down, drag-out race.”
Tell a story about cars. About racing. About Keith. Three to get ready and four to fly...