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.”
Thanks, gcs. Great to hear that crowd reaction. Shivers.
who took it?
great to learn more about this stuff! I'd never even heard the tequila-party story.
Trivia side note: this DOES explain why "San Francisco" is so prominent in "Monterey Pop."
Trivia side note 2: "San Francisco"--boon or bane? (My opinion: even at the time it seemed to border on self-parody. And yet. Kinda like the Eric Burdon counterpart.)
Pitch was hugely popular on my college campus in the early seventies, and we enjoyed
great family matches after I taught everybody back home. It always gave me secret
satisfaction that these people who considered me a weirdo hippie freak for my devotion
to the Dead were playing a card game featured so prominently in one of the Dead's songs.
Perfect song to have followed Deal. In the same vein as Contract by the New Riders, this is a gettin'-down-to-business song. I don't know why I like these two songs so much, but they have a curious energy about them that's more positive than negative. As also noted in the Greatest Story Ever Told: "Now and again these things just got to be done..."
"Taught me so well, I grabbed that gold
And I left his dead ass there by the side of the road."
One of the all-time great song endings.
"I ain't got no star on my shirt."
Thanks so much for that! This helps several mysteries--given that it would be great to fill in more about the Peter Monk biography, too.
A few updates on the backstory of "Me And My Uncle":
The infamous 1964 Tequila Party after a show in New Mexico where John Phillips played (and probably improvised) "Me And My Uncle" is usually described as including Judy Collins, Stephen Stills and Neil Young. However, after reading Neil's new autobiography, it didn't and couldn't have included him, as Neil and Stills did not even meet until 1965. More likely, it was Stills and Richie Furay, a simple mistake to make given the history of the Buffalo Springfield.
I was one of the people way back when who promoted the idea to Blair Jackson that the "Curly Jim" who taught "Me And My Uncle" to Bob Weir was James "Curley" Cooke of the Steve Miller Band, a stellar blues guitarist in his own right. However, that was not the case. Curly Jim was a different person, and Curley Cooke himself apparently denied teaching Weir the song (before he passed away in 2011).
Further research into the subject revealed that the guilty party was almost certainly an infamous character named James Stalarow, who played various intriguing roles in the history of the 13th Floor Elevators prior to moving to San Francisco in the mid-60s. It also seems that Stalarow co-wrote the song "Blind John" with Peter Monk (Zimmels) under the name "CJ Stetson", which appeared on Mickey Hart's Rolling Thunder album.
If this isn't enough for you, you can dive down the rabbit hole into the whole story here: http://hooterollin.blogspot.com/2011/06/who-was-curly-jim-me-and-my-uncle.html, complete with a photograph of Curly Jim himself (don't forget to read the fascinating Comment Thread).