Grateful Dead

Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Mason's Children"

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!)

"Mason's Children"

I know, it must seem like I am all sweetness and light and totally just, like, gaga over every single song in the band’s repertoire sometimes. But hey, I can be just as cynical and grumpy as the next picky Deadhead.

I admit it: I don’t like “Mason’s Children.”

But, for only about the fourth time ever, I received a request to blog about a particular song, and this was the selection. Sigh…. No—really! I love getting suggestions for songs to write about. So, here goes.

First off, my personal belief is that there is a good reason that the song, written and recorded for Workingman’s Dead, never made it onto the album. Its tone seems inconsistent with the rest of the suite of songs on that particular masterpiece. And, along with that, I think that its relatively short performance career with the band was, if not an intentional statement, at least well-advised.

Hunter’s note on the lyric in his A Box of Rain simply states: “An unrecorded GD song dealing obliquely with Altamont.”

Interestingly, while most of my sources credit the song to Garica / Hunter, it appears to be attributed, at least according to the Grateful Dead Family Discography, to Garcia / Lesh / Weir / Hunter. But regardless, I think it is basically a Garcia setting of Hunter’s lyric. (As always, I stand ready to be corrected!)

Perhaps the most likeable thing about the song is the somewhat hilarious range of interpretations you can find just by spending five minutes browsing the web. It’s about mushrooms, it’s about the Masonic order, it’s about cannibalism, it’s about loan sharks….you name it, pretty much, and this song is about it. Well, that is true of many of the best Dead songs, so why should “Mason’s Children” be any different? There’s even a rather persistent thread pertaining to the song’s “satanic overtures.” Overtones?

Anyway.

If Hunter says it was obliquely about Altamont, then clearly the statement made by “New Speedway Boogie” was far stronger, and not oblique.

Another fun thing about the song (I do look for the positive in everything) is the conscious use of a children’s nursery rhyme motif, in enumerating the days of the week. Hunter returns to this particular children’s motif on at least one occasion, in “Althea,” where he alludes to the rhyme:

Monday's child is fair of face,
Tuesday's child is full of grace,
Wednesday's child is full of woe,
Thursday's child has far to go,
Friday's child is loving and giving,
Saturday's child works hard for a living,
But the child who is born on the Sabbath Day
Is bonny and blithe and good and gay

So too with “Mason’s Children” where the entire week is counted off. Well, except for the weekend. No Saturday or Sunday. (“Mission in the Rain” uses Saturday and Sunday, but not the rest.) “Day Job” uses Sunday and Monday, as does “Corrina.” Hmmm.

And then there’s “Keep Rolling By.” Not a song I could sing you offhand, but speculation by Alex Allan as to the song’s composition seems to indicate that there’s a possibility it was actually an original song, rather than a traditional tune. Indeed, a search on the fairly exhaustive Digital Tradition folk song site reveals no results for “Keep Rolling By,” which has the following lines, sung simultaneously:

{Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday ...
{Summer, winter, spring and fall
{Tick, tick, tick, tick ...

I do love the particular motif of referencing nursery rhymes in Hunter’s lyrics, which is encountered over and over. For me, hearing these phrases can bring me right back to being a child again, even when the context (Ashes, ashes, all fall down…) is dire.

“Mason’s Children” is dire, for sure. The story told by the song is disturbing, any way you look at it. Someone is bricked up in a wall, then disinterred, then possibly cooked in a stew and eaten. Some have suggested a reference to Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, wherein the protagonist, Valentine Michael Smith, is boiled in a soup and consumed by his followers after his death.

I would love to hear a cogent story from anyone—oh heck—who cares about cogency? Let’s hear all the stories you might have that seem to come from these lyrics. This could be quite fun.

I’m sure there are those who love this song. I don’t mean to in any way denigrate that appreciation—as always, I really just want to point to a few angles, and throw it up for grabs for everyone to think about and chime in on.

Just don’t ask for “Day Job,” or “Money, Money,” ok?

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Joined: May 2 2016
Masons children

If you like this tune, check out what it's become now:

This is Phil from las Vegas this spring.

Listen to 01 Mason's Children> Fire On The Mountain> The Other One by WMWV Radio #np on #SoundCloud
https://soundcloud.com/quinfolk/01-masons-children-fire-on-the

And if you don't like it, give this a listen, because you might change your mind

mkav's picture
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Joined: Jun 30 2007
fare thee well mason's

not my favorite tune but i like it...twas really cool when they busted it out at FTW 7/3/15.

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Joined: Dec 3 2015
Mason's Children

I never heard The Grateful Dead play this song but I did hear The Dead play it in 2009 and I loved it. Did not e know what they were singing at the time but my friend bought a copy of the show cd that night and made me a copy. I need to hear what it sounded like without Warren Haynes on guitar because the guitar is what I love about it. The copy I have from Shoreline 2009 has Bobby, Warren and I think the guy from phish playing guitar. Is this performance greatly different from just bobby and Jerry? I was quite surprised to hear so much dislike for this song. It kinda reminds me of Passenger. Anyone out there like the guitar parts as well? Very simple rockin' groove. It seemed to me the last few times I saw Jerry he was just too smacked out to rock and with Warren this track took me back to the late 80's shows. I had a hard time believing that it wasn't 1989 but 2009 when I heard this song. I had never heard it before so well, prolly never will again.

drkstrcrashes's picture
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Joined: Jun 17 2007
masons ....

all i will say is I always thought of this as one of their most psychedelic tunes of the period. The lyrics seem eerie and trippy. Garcia always rips on this song too. Whileit was recorded during W.D. sessions, I see it as an extension of Aoxomoxoa, drenched in Lysergic...25. Just how my brain always interoperate it.
and btw, how can anyone say they "hate" this song. Oh well. Cool blog

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Joined: Jun 24 2007
Love the Lyrics, "meh" about the performances

I did hear it live once... not sure if it was The Dead or Phil & Friends, but it certainly wasn't The Grateful Dead. I saw them starting in '77 - long after they stopped playing it. I love the quirkiness of the lyrics, but I have to agree that the harmonies on older live versions I've heard are "cringe-worthy". I think there's a huge disconnect between the potential and what they realized.

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Joined: May 28 2012
"I don't like the vocals particularly"

Love these discussions, love The Annotated Lyrics, happy that everyone has their favorites. I haven't spent my evening reviewing all the copies of this song that are at hand, but did go and listen to 12/28/69...

My guess is they stopped performing this because they couldn't sing it well. I haven't yet heard a version that doesn't have a little of that cringe-inducing off-key singing for which the Grateful Dead are (in some circles) renowned. Phil was having some difficulties in live performance during the era of this song, and I think he's got the notable clam in the 12/28/69 version. I did enjoy listening, and it confirmed that this is not one of my more-favored songs.

Doesn't mean it's without merit. Maybe there's a version to prove me wrong...

pomo1's picture
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Joined: Jun 5 2007
Like It

I never loved MC, but never hated it either. Then, I heard it at Vibes a few years back. I think it was Furthur, might have been P&F, and I freakin' danced out of my socks! Loved it!

Underthevolcano's picture
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Joined: Feb 6 2008
I like the

jams in this song but I don't like the vocals particularly-the words are fun but it is the way they "couldn't" really sing it at the time. It always make me think of the Poe short story " A Cask of Amontillado" where the fellow gets lured, trapped and bricked up in the wall in the basement. Not for the story as such-just the image of getting bricked into the wall.

Strider 88's picture
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Joined: Jun 20 2007
1970

Time marches on. 44 years ago today my friends and I were going to the Fillmore East. As for the next song from David. Has Cosmic Charlie been done yet?

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Joined: Nov 14 2010
Great Song, just the wrong band!

A very latecomer to GD music here (2010) and I heard this for the first time 2011-11-12 by Furthur as the opener at Atlantic City. Blown away by it and a few other times I they played it for me. Much better than any GD recording I've found. Do yourselves a favor, play a Furthur version and you'll have new found respect for the song and the GD's version too...

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