Greatest Stories Ever Told - "My Brother Esau"
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!)
I have an extremely clear auditory memory of “My Brother Esau” in performance in the early 1980s at the Greek Theater in Berkeley—extremely clear, but still somehow fuzzy around the edges, with Bob singing the line “shadowboxing the Apocalypse, and wandering the land.”
From first hearing it, I loved the song, and wanted to solve its lyric mysteries, but the concert tapes were unsatisfactory—I was really hoping for a studio recording. So when In the Dark came out, I fully expected “My Brother Esau” to be on the album. Hmmm. At the time, I was very happy that the song at least made it onto the B side of the “Touch of Grey” single, and I did buy that. And now, looking at the online Grateful Dead Family Discography, I see that “My Brother Esau” was included on the cassette tape release of the album—something I never even considered looking at, as well as the Japanese release of the album on CD. And, finally, it was included on the release of the CD in the 2004 “Beyond Description” box set release, which I bought.
By then, Barlow had long since published the lyrics to his Grateful Dead songs, so I was able to read the lyrics. But the story remained vague and ill-defined to me, instead of becoming clearer with the possession of the words. Then, in 2012, at a TRI Studios broadcast, Weir brought it back, with some alterations in the lyrics, meant to make the song more lucid.
From Alex Allan’s Grateful Dead Lyric and Song Finder site:
Weir revived the song playing with members of The National in the Bridge Sessions at TRI Studios in March 2012. Thanks to David Gans for the info. Weir commented:
"It was the National's idea. I had to finally address the [lyrics of] the bridge, which was why I stopped doing it back when."
The new bridge is:
Esau won't miss his birthright anyway
Ain't like it's worth all that much today
So, I would like to keep that in mind in this post about the song, even though it’s not the version we all have available to us on recordings.
There are several essential background components necessary if we’re going to have a conversation about the lyrics of this song.
First, there’s the Biblical reference to the story of Esau and Jacob, twin sons of Isaac, himself the son of Abraham. This is a wonderful and complex story from Genesis, and it deals with the birth order of Esau, who was born first of the twins, and was therefore entitled to inherit Isaac’s wealth. Jacob, however, pulled a double trickery—first, he prevailed upon Esau, who was hungry after a hunt, to deed over his inheritance in exchange for a bowl of lentils; and secondly, he tricked his blind father Isaac into bestowing his inheritance upon him rather than upon Esau by disguising his own smooth skin with hairy goatskin, thereby impersonating the hairy Esau. Esau, however, is so furious with his brother Jacob that he vows to kill him, forcing Jacob to flee. Eventually, Jacob is allowed to return home (quite a few years later) and Esau forgives him.
Second, there’s the clear reference to a division among brothers during the Vietnam conflict, which Barlow sets in 1969. Their mutual father issues a set of “wild commandments” which apparently include going to war. Esau is the one of the two brothers who actually obeys these orders, but nevertheless loses his father’s favor when he fails at war. As a clue, it’s worth noting that the studio single opens with the ominous sound of a helicopter—seemingly lifted straight out of Apocalypse Now—and hence alluding to the song’s chorus: “shadowboxing the Apocalypse…” And not to forget—the Rhythm Devils did help provide the soundtrack for that movie (released in 1980—“My Brother Esau” was written by Barlow and Weir in 1982).
Third, and, I think, key to the song, is the oblique reference to the events at Altamont, which somehow merge with the impulse towards violence exemplified in the human tendency towards warfare: “My brother Esau killed the Hunter, back in 1969…” The Hunter killed in 1969 was Meredith Hunter, who was killed by the Hell’s Angels at Altamont. Reconciling that event has been a major motif in Grateful Dead lyrics, which makes sense given that they are frequently credited with (or accused of) having put forward the Hell’s Angels as security for the event.
But Barlow, in particular, has taken up this overall theme on other occasions, most notably in “Throwing Stones.” What I love about Barlow’s urge to treat this theme lyrically is that it fits in with a huge overarching theme in Grateful Dead lyrics, and, I believe, in Grateful Dead culture and iconography: we are all capable of whatever it is that humans do. In the words of the Roman playwright Terence: “Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto.” (“I am human: nothing human is alien to me.”) That statement sums up so much that is crucial to art—the willingness and the obligation to own the entirety of human experience. In “Thowing Stones” Barlow writes: “Nightmare spook, piece of heat / It's you and me, you and me.” And in “My Brother Esau,” it’s “The more my brother looks like me / The less I understand / The silent war / That blooded both our hands,” and the preceding lines: “I would say that the blame is mine / But I suspect it's something worse.”
Barlow is owning the violence, engaging in a shadow dance with the opposite, with the Other. I like the approach in the latter part of the song, in which he says that he is beginning to understand, late at night, and then: “well, more feel than understand.” Exactly—this is not something very much subject to a rational approach in terms of comprehension—it’s something we inch our way towards, in a shadowdance.
There are a number of anomalies about the transcription of the lyrics. Maybe they make a difference, but more likely they don’t mean much. Is it “a piece of moral land,” or “decent moral land,” for instance?
Weir has continued to toy with the lyrics over the years, substituting different lines, changing the year referenced from 1969 to 1959 to 2009, but the core of the song is consistent—there is conflict between brothers. One steals another’s birthright, and is later reconciled with him. There is a fundamental split personality within the whole personality of humanity. How we deal with it is more a matter of feeling than of rationality.
I would love to hear your thoughts about this song, and about the story, or stories, it tells.
I grew up in SR and spent a LOT of time at the SRPL in the 70s, 80s. THANK YOU so very much for all the remarkable research and insights. Maybe this Greek show is the one you remember? Just love this version of My Brother Esau. I think I am listening to it now for the ninth time
THANK YOU ALL!
or someone else who actually looks it up, but I'd say Cassidy is a pretty good contender. Baby and song, 1970.
My first thoughts on this song was that it was about a silent competition between the two Dead lyricists. Maybe I'm really reading too far into it. What was the first song that Barlow wrote for the Dead and what year was that in?
For what it's worth (Apologies to the Buffalo Springfield lol) the BEST audio sounding format this was released on was the 12-inch 45 RPM promo single of 'Touch Of Grey' with 'By Brother Esau' on the B-Side. VERY powerful at the beginning, when the helicopter sound effects transition into the music. They Phil-Bill-Mickey rhythm section is very strong and ballsy throughout. Worth tracking down if you're a vinyl collector.
Time to play B-sides
"Burning For You"
Blue Oyster Cult
"But his Birthright was a Wand to Wave
Before a Weary Band
Esau gave me Sleeplessness
And a Piece of Moral Land"
The Moral Land is the "Promised Land" granted to Abraham by the Almighty God. It was Inherited by Issac and would have been Esau's had Jacob left well enough alone.
That "Wand to Wave" must have been something Jacob wanted badly.
He connived to gain the Control...but could he Sleep at Night after "rolling loaded dice" to cheat his own Brother?
Its Very Interesting to Consider.
Does the End Justify the Means?
I love Barlow's perspective of Biblical History and how it relates to the here and now
Get back to work if you had any sense, you know the one thing we need is a left handed monkey wrench. They say that Cain caught Able rolling loaded dice. And what would that old Jesuit Buddhist Jack Kerouac say.
Reading this set of responses from everyone makes me extremely happy. What an amazing bunch of listeners / readers / thinkers you all are. The information about Nimrod is particularly fascinating--thanks, DJMac520! And I especially appreciate the comment from williworx.
I also appreciate someone picking up on the potential linkage to wrestling with the angel, a biblical reference that is also found in "Victim Or the Crime." Barlow, in his afterword to The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics, hinted that I had only begun to find the biblical and theological connections in the lyrics, so I fully expect more and more to come out over time. Barlow was, after all, a theology student, so one would expect him to be well versed.
Jacob didn't just take Esau's right to inherit Isaac's wealth. He also took the blessing that Isaac intended to bestow on Esau. And this is not just some good wishes. It was the blessing that Isaac inherited from Abraham, who received it from God (according to the story). I don't know the exact nature of the blessing, but it has to do with Jacob (later known as Israel) being the father of the ancient Hebrews, and Esau being the father of other related peoples. Both were fathers of nations, but Jacob was the father of the nation that was promised to Abraham, according to Jewish mythology. Very deep story with many possible interpretations.
Could "shadowboxing the apocalypse" be a reference to the wrestling match Jacob had with someone, maybe an angel? Great song.
After some contemplation and research, the Meredith Hunter connection is a bit of a stretch I think. But a damned interesting and fun one for sure.
First, I highly doubt that by the time Brother Esau was penned the Grateful Dead were still wrestling (to the point of addressing with lyrics) with what went down over a decade earlier at Altamont. Given all the shit that went down with, to, around and for the band in the 1970s and early part of the 1980s, (financial woes, management struggles, factions between crew and band, the failed record label, Jerry's burgeoning drug habit, to name a few) there is little reason to believe that the Altamont incident was near the front burner of anyone's mind in the early 1980s. Possible, yes? But this band historically seemed much more inclined to pen lyrics closer to real time happening of events (Truckin, New Speedway Boogie) in the rare occasions it did so at all.
Second, according to the Book of Jasher, which is not part of the Bible but tells similar stories of similar nature, Esau killed King Nimrod, a noted hunter:
With that context (and I just discovered it considering David's points), I think the direct hunter reference in the lyrics is to Nimrod's slaying by Esau. While the reference to 1969 could be double entendre for sure, it could also simply be a year to tie in the Vietnam themes of the lyrics (and with a year that rhymes with "mine"). Either way, I don't think any Altamont reference is the driver of this lyric.
Either way, love the thought-provoking point David. Thank you.
Nice, appreciated the "the Deeper it All Sinks In."