Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Me and My Uncle"
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!)
Since I mentioned it last week, I thought this would be as good a time as any to tackle “Me and My Uncle.” I have to admit, I’ve been avoiding the song for the past year or so.
What comes up for me when I first start thinking about blogging about any particular song is the first time I remember being conscious of it as a separate song. I think it took me awhile, after I started going to shows, before I was really able to differentiate all the songs. At the same time as I was going to as many Grateful Dead concerts as I possibly could, I was starting to accumulate the albums. (Yes, vinyl. And yes, I still have them.)
And what I remember about “Me and My Uncle” coming into my consciousness was being at Winterland with my friend Mike and his sister Danielle, and having Danielle tell me the name of the song. She was about 15 years old at the time, and we were the much older college kids, but she definitely knew more about the Dead than I did. She was enthusiastic, at that moment, about the fact that the band was playing this particular song, as if were a particular favorite, or something she hadn’t heard in awhile. And since I had a little bit of a crush on her, I filed that away, and it has stuck with me lo these many years.
Needless to say, I heard the song countless times over the following couple of decades, and indeed, it is the most-frequently-performed Grateful Dead song, with 616 performances noted in DeadBase. It’s among the very few cover songs we included in The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics. The first documented performance was on November 29, 1966, at the Matrix in San Francisco, although the notes in DeadBase cast some doubt as to whether all the songs noted were from that show. Its final performance was July 6, 1995, at the Riverport Amphitheatre in Maryland Heights, Missouri.
And, though the lyrics seem like second nature to me now, there was a time when I thought the line was “I’m as honest as a government man can be.” I still like that better than the “real” line!
Two guys on the road. Card games. Betrayal. Gold. Horses. Shirtless singers. All the classic ingredients of a cowboy song, right?
The origin story of this song is well documented. John Phillips, of The Mamas and the Papas, wrote it in a tequila-soaked haze after a Judy Collins concert, in roughly 1964, best as I can ascertain, in a hotel room with Stephen Stills, Neil Young, and some others. He woke up with no memory of writing the song, but fortunately, someone had run a cassette tape, and Judy Collins kept it, later recording the song. The liner notes to Phillips’s Phillips 66 album say that “John used to joke that, little by little, with each royalty check, the memory of writing the song would come back to him.”
Phillips’s other best-known songs include “California Dreamin’,” “Monday, Monday,” and “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers in Your Hair).”
Bob Weir says he learned the song from “a hippie named Curly Jim,” who, according to Blair Jackson, must have been Curly Jim Cook, a member of the Bay Area band A.B. Skhy.
When I put together the annotated lyrics site and book, I was loath to annotate the cover songs. Therefore, I never did note very much about the song in terms of its references. Maybe I can take care of that here.
If Phillips wrote the song out of his head, without a map to hand, he must have had a good sense of geography. If you look at the route from, say, Pueblo, Colorado, to El Paso, Texas, you will see that Santa Fe is indeed about halfway between the two points. Amazing.
What was the time period? Well, there are some clues, but not anything that would narrow it down much. There are cowboys. They’re drinking in a bar. People are riding horses. They are betting gold. So, somewhere between 1870 and 1912, at which point Santa Fe became part of New Mexico (up until then it was located in Texas, officially)…. I would love to hear additional speculation.
The card game referred to as “High Low Jacks” in the song seems to be a game known more commonly as “Pitch.” It also goes by the name “Setback.” It can be played as a partners game, or as a singles game—known as Cutthroat Pitch. If you want to know more, you can look it up!
It’s a long ride from Santa Fe to the Mexican border—337 miles or so to Juarez, just across the river from El Paso. That could have been a ten-day ride, if the horses average 35 miles a day, which seems to be within reason.
All-in-all, a dire tale of dishonest guys from Denver. Having lived in Denver for awhile, I never noticed that in particular, but it’s a fun line. The one time I saw them play in Denver, in November of 1994, they played the song. I don’t remember the reaction from the crowd…
Not that there needs to be a moral to the story, but if there is one, I’d say it’s “watch each card you play, and play it slow.”
1. The narrator definitely killed his uncle (taught me so well...). You wouldn't have to teach someone to grab the gold and run when someone else is chasing you and they shoot your uncle/companion).
2. I always heard "Denver man" and not "gambling man."
3. Bob sang the "grabbed a bottle and cracked him in the jaw" line in Akron on 7/2/86 as well. Not sure what 77 show he sang it at.
"love my uncle, God rest his soul he taught me good, Lord taught me all I know taught me so well, I grabbed that gold and I left his dead ass there by the side of the road."
i got that first time around on S&R (a great version of the song)
Seems out of place.
but then, I always kinda assumed Jack Straw killed Shannon, too. It was quite late in life that I realized there was a lot of ambiguity on this, no doubt by design.
Hey David, I learned this song by listening to it on Dick's Picks. While listening to the first half of 1977 I heard Weir sing a variation on one line in the song, Me and My Uncle.
In the verse out of Jerry's solo, I am used to hearing him tell us:
"One of them cowboys, he starts to draw I shot him down, Lord, he never saw. I shot me another, that boy he wont grow old In the confusion, my uncle grabbed the gold We high-tailed it down to Mexico"
Yet, at least once in 1977 Weir tells it like this:
"One of them cowboys, he starts to draw I grabbed a bottle, cracked him in the jaw. I shot me another, that boy he wont grow old In the confusion, my uncle grabbed the gold We high-tailed it down to Mexico"
Does anyone know which show this lyric was used in 1977? The second version is little more tricky, and if you have heard it the other way for so long, trying to say it differently can jam you up at first. Weir sure made singing and playing guitar look easy!
It is the singer who kills him - c'mon it's gotta be - you can't get much more outlaw than that! I swear I'be got a recording where Bobby sings "I'm as honest as a Denver man can be." Maybe that's where they were playing?
I have never entertained any doubt as to who killed the uncle, even though I also (mis?)heard it as "One of those cowboys, after their gold, shot my uncle, God rest his soul". The whole point of the song, the way I read it, was that the uncle taught his nephew only too well.
I also always thought it was the west Texas cowboys who killed "my uncle" because I misheard the line as "Some of those cowboys, out of their gold, rolled my uncle, God rest his soul." Then I heard Judy Collins' version and understood the lyrics correctly as "I love those cowboys, I love their gold, I love my uncle, God rest his soul." That opens the possibility that the singer is the one who killed his uncle. And that makes sense, as my uncle grabbed the gold, and we hightailed it down to Mexico. But I really appreciate the ambiguity regarding who killed my uncle.
I always heard its sung This Way.... "I'm as Honest as a Gambling Man Can Be"
Gamblers know how to Bluff after all and likely know how to Cheat when they want to!
I gotta think this song was Incubating in John Phillips Sub Conscious in a Powerful Way. Pulling information from Maps and John Wayne and Louis LaMour and a yearning for the Good Old Days when you could Carry a Gun and Shoot People make off with their Gold and Cross the Border with no need for a Passport.
The Best Songs have a Way of Writing themselves....and maybe the Cactus Juice was just the thing to Release this Tale of Cowboys and Saloons and Gambling and Gold.
I've always Wondered exactly who killed the Uncle. I want to believe it was one of the West Texas Cowboys at the Saloon and that he died on the Road with no time available for a Proper Burial.
Gambling and Guns make for Great Songs!