Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Sugaree"
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.
You've probably all heard the story of the pundit who commented that the word "sugar" was the only word in the English language in which an "su" was pronounced "sh." His student pondered and then asked, "Are you sure?"
Speaking of "s" sounds and John Prine, take a listen to his song, Lake Marie. They was sizzlin!!!
And speaking of TTB, I saw them in Lynn MA last year (no lie) and was knocked over by Susan breaking into a verse of Sugaree in the middle of Angel From Montgomery. Will be seeing them again at Boston House of Blues in December.
R.e. Sugaree, am I the only one who thinks of "Bring out your Dead!" when Jerry sings, "When they bring that wagon round?"
Never thought much about the song until that fateful night in Uniondale in 1979, when they blew not just the roof of the place, but my mind as well. 15 minutes into the show and my life was changed forever.
for the kind words, the TTB vid and, "You're welcome, yourself". How much server space is on youtube? Seemingly unphillable. I think a lot of folks here are John Prine fans as well.
See TTB when you can. Outstanding, imo. Great crowd too. When I sat down, the folks next to me chuckled and wanted to know if I had any more of that "cologne" I was wearing ;)
Take care and Thanks again :)
PS. Midnight in Harlem was another one they performed and is equally as beautiful.
Thank you -- I don't know much about Tedeschi Trucks Band so I didn't know that they did/do this combination of songs. Angels From Montgomery is one of my favorite songs too.
I dont think this is the version you saw, but I'd thought I'd post it anyway because I think its great.
As far as favorites of Sugaree go -- 12/28/79 (RT 3.1) is definitely up there.
81 Days until the Jubilee...and it will come!
Sugaree is one song that ONLY Garcia sang well. Period. Hunter wrote this song for Garcia, and nobody else came close.
I've heard recent performances of Sugaree by the many post-GD bands (Other Ones, Ratdog, The Dead, Phil Lesh & Friends, etc.) and it always has been less than stellar. For example, Warren Haynes frequently sings it with Phil Lesh, and his vocal perfomance is totally wrong wrong wrong!!! It's like nails against a blackboard. Mr. Haynes should NEVER sing it again. Joan Osborne tried to tackle it when she was with the Dead/Other Ones, and she fared no better. I had to stop seeing The Dead shows because Ms. Osborne was so off.
My favorite version of Sugaree is April 22, 1979, at San Jose State University (a forgotten gem of a show). Brent just came on board, and his new sound adds a lot.
(PS Bob Weir's Ratdog versions of Sugaree are painful to hear as well)
Sugaree is one of those Dead songs that even non-Dead Heads will say" I'm not into the Dead but I like that song". I like the 72 versions with Pigpen's organ singing sweetly in the background the best! Great blog David, keep up the great work!!!
Ah another timeless song from the amazing solo album "Garcia". Yale Bowl was its first public performance. Second song as I remember. Caught many by surprise. Hardly anyone danced. That is until Pigpen sang Hard to Handle.
Golden memories from the Golden Road.
Sugaree could seem so common place and an often played song but somewhere deep inside during Dead shows we knew it was a fleeting moment. What might seem mundane was really profound.
I dedicate this short piece to the memory of Missy Infante "life long hippie as the paper from Connecticut said. Also a mom, good human being with a great sense of humor. Her first Dead show was 7/31/71.
After the Hell In a Bucket opener, you're still slightly uneasy, unsure, and trying to figure out your skin color... You're chewing slowly but consistently on an imaginary piece of gum... The Sugaree is exactly what you needed to get the entirety of your physiology moving in the right direction... The Richness of Garcia's Voice has smoothed out the turbulence in your mind as well as your stomach... It seems like it's become a congruent dance party of joy now... It's one of "Those" nights... The Music is being delivered through the band, not by the band... Every note by every band member is absolutely deliberate and sent out from the stage with an incredible and other worldly confidence about it... It's so strong It creates a sense of enhanced confidence through all of us... In the middle of a raging jam between verses, You look to the stage and catch Billy hitting the cymbals with both hands, opposite sides, same time.... Mickey seems to hit a lot of things that can't be heard, only felt... You can hear the pick hit the strings on Tiger, furiously.... It's like the needle of a sewing machine embroidering this moment forever into the tapestry of your life... You're no longer responsible for dancing, you're like a flag in the wind at this point... The music is dancing through you without any conscious thought... The Fat Strings on Phil's bass seem to provide some kind of audible cushion that prevents you from going too far to the left or to the right... You catch the smiles of Those around you as you you're tossed about like a lone sneaker in a washing machine... There's unfiltered Joy and Freedom in every cell of your body... Instantaneously you understand The lyrics to songs that aren't even being played... "People joining hand in hand, as the music plays the band"... There's no doubt... The Jubilee HAS COME... And We still might catch you on the run...
Priceless Moments Forever Carved deep within us...
Sugared performed in Hartford on 5/28/77 is special.
Did I just imagine it or was/is there an Althea-Sugaree pairing out there somewhere?
The Angels/Sugaree/Angels ref hit a a spot down deep.
Can't talk to you without talking to me
We're guilty of the same old things
Thinking a lot about less and less
And forgetting the love we bring