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!)
“If that jubilee don’t come….maybe I’ll meet you on the run.”
Garcia is one of those collections of songs that seems borderline unbelievable, 44 years later. But then, the same could be said of most of the albums—song collections all—from that era: the golden age of story songs by Hunter and Garcia.
I remember having to face the question: side one or side two? Side one is the impeccable suite of perfect songs: “Deal,” “Bird Song,” “Sugaree,” and “Loser.” Side two is the exploration of sonic spaces and the incredible opening up into “The Wheel.” I loved them both, but it was all about the mood of the moment. CDs don’t offer the same choice. And iTunes one-off downloads rob us of all context.
“Sugaree” is a story song utilizing all the subtle tricks in Hunter’s arsenal. He lays out a character, addressing another character, the Sugaree of the title, in terms that could mean several things, and offers a glimpse of a shared past and a possible future that awaits. But even in the song’s present moment, what is occurring or has just happened?
Garcia’s setting of the lyric is just as mercurial as the words themselves. The performances could settle into a wide range of tempos, and the instrumentals between the verses could roar to life and then descent to a whisper.
I have read a wide range of interpretations over the years. If you want some fun, take a look at the series of proposed interpretations voiced in the “deadsongs” conference on the WELL. Just to give you an idea, they range from well-argued position to well-argued position proposing a variety of possible scenarios including one involving two slaves newly-arrived in the New World, all the way to the relationship of a john to a prostitute.
You may have seen Robert Hunter’s liner notes on the song, written for the Garcia box set All Good Things, in which he wrote:
"Sugaree was written soon after I moved from the Garcia household to China Camp. People assume the idea was cadged from Elizabeth Cotten's ‘Sugaree,’ but, in fact, the song was originally titled 'Stingaree,' which is a poisonous South Sea manta. The phrase 'just don't tell them that you know me' was prompted by something said by an associate in my pre-Dead days when my destitute circumstances found me fraternizing with a gang of minor criminals. What he said, when departing, was: 'Hold your mud and don't mention my name.'
"Why change the title to 'Sugaree'? Just thought it sounded better that way, made the addressee seem more hard-bitten to bear a sugar-coated name. The song, as I imagined it, is addressed to a pimp. And yes, I knew Libba's song, and did indeed borrow the new name from her, suggested by the 'Shake it' refrain."
So there you have Hunter actually telling us how he imagined the song—a rare glimpse behind the curtain.
But the point, as always, is not about reality. It’s about the listener’s perception, about the variety of ways a song can be heard, and heard differently over time, or how it can be convincingly explained in many differing ways.
Each of the listeners who took time to lay out a theory of the song’s meaning had spent time with the words. As we all do, whether we are conscious lyric listeners or just let the words wash over us as part of the overall music. (Sometimes I wish I understood no English at all, so I could hear these songs as pure sound, because that’s a definite component of what Hunter does. The “sh” sound, repeated over and over in this song, for instance, is a hushing sound, or a windy sound, or a percussive, impossible to intonate sound made by the mouth, like brushes on a drumhead.)
And it’s that investment in the words, or in the sound, that leads us to want to hear a song over and over—because we can never get to the bottom of it. Its meanings are endless, and the musical variations are endless, too.
I’m grateful for this song for several reasons other than its inherent greatness. I’m glad that it sent me looking for Fred Neil, and for Elizabeth Cotten. I’m glad that I was forced to familiarize myself with the concept of Jubilee—a concept that seems, at its core, utterly civilized and lacking in today’s unforgiving world of foreclosures and job loss and constant indebtedness. Why shouldn’t there be a cleansing of the accounts every 49 years? What a great idea! Slaves were freed. Debts were forgiven. All this happened in the 50th year. Clean slate.
Hmmm….the 50th year. Hadn’t thought about that, but it will be the Jubilee Anniversary.
When I first hear the song live in concert, I simply could not believe how it could stretch out. I only knew the studio version up until that show at Winterland in the spring of 1977, and then wham! they played it. I was sitting in that spot you used to be able to go, up behind the band, looking out from their perspective over the rest of the crowd, focusing a lot on the drummers, but it seemed they played instrumental choruses heaped one upon the next, building in intensity, and then, as I mentioned, “shhhhh…” down to a whisper. “Please don’t tell ‘em that you know me.” Shush.