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!)
Robert Hunter: “’Tennessee Jed’ originated in Barcelona, Spain. Topped up on vino tinto, I composed it aloud to the sound of a jaw harp twanged between echoing building faces by someone strolling half a block ahead of me in the late summer twilight.”
What a perfectly-framed vignette—it gets across the place, the time, the season, Hunter’s state of mind, the music in the air, and the light, and we are there. And yet, the resulting lyric seems so incongruous! It’s utter Americana, replete with references to and obscure 1940s radio show and characters who seem to have stepped from a novel set in the rural South. It’s striking, though, that it’s a song about homesickness, and maybe that’s where it came from for Hunter—wanting to be in that place which is where he would rather be than anywhere else.
Our narrator is truly down and out. He’s in jail, or at least on a chain gang, at the start of the song, and things don’t exactly go uphill from there. It’s the fate of poor people down the centures: “rich man step on my poor head...” with the result that respite can only be sought in drink, gambling, and man’s best friend.
The obscure 1940s radio show, “Tennessee Jed,” ran from 1945 to 1947. It was sponsored by a bread company (Tip-Top Bread), which seems to tie in with the line “when you get back you better butter my bread.” (Accident? Coincidence? I think not!) The titular character, Jed (a handy guy with a sixshooter) inhabits a western landscape with characters by the name of Cookstove, sharpshooter Steve Martin, Sheriff Anderson, Chief Grey Eagle, Gideon Gordon, and others. Among his other do-gooder exploits, Jed (who also sings) foils a plot to overthrow the US Government by a gang planning to re-start the Civil War (which, at the time, was only about as far in the past, relatively, as World War II is for us—so, sort of a Captain America-era story, to put it in context).
Oddly, though, the song title and the character in the song don’t exactly match up. The line in the song is “let’s head back to Tennessee, Jed,” not “let’s head back to Tenneesee Jed.” So it’s a play on the radio show character’s name—for those who might get it. Just in case you happened to tune in back then.
“Tennessee Jed” was first performed at that October 19, 1971 show at Northrup Auditorium at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, along with five other firsts: “Jack Straw,” “Mexicali Blues,” “Comes a Time,” “One More Saturday Night,” and “Ramble On Rose.” It immediately became a staple of the touring repertoire, appearing in every year for a total of 433 performances. Its final performance came on July 8, 1995, at the band’s penultimate show at Soldier Field in Chicago.
It appeared on Europe ’72, one of that never-recorded-in-a-studio set of songs I’ve written about before. It was covered, memorably, by Levon Helm on his Electric Dirt album in 2009. From the Levon Helm official website:
Electric Dirt’s numerous high points start right at the top, with a rousing rendition of the Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed.” Campbell and Williams spent a good part of 2008 on the road with Dead bassist Phil Lesh, including some shows on which Helm and Lesh appeared together. “There was some real comradeship going on,” Campbell points out, “so we thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could find a Grateful Dead tune that Levon could do? ‘Tennessee Jed’ was always one of my favorite Dead songs, and I thought Levon could actually be Tennessee Jed. And it fit like a glove.”
I love the music Garcia came up with for “Tennessee Jed.” The catchy descending motif, and then, in the solo, the wordless bridge that explodes into a brand-new space, right before our very ears. I never get tired of that. From Hunter’s description of the circumstances of composing the lyric, I get the feeling that the descending phrase might have been suggested by Hunter—he often, even mostly, it seems, composed his lyrics with music, which Garcia would then, most of the time, discard in order to start anew. (There are some notable exceptions, where Hunter’s music was retained--especially “It Must Have Been the Roses.” And “Easy Wind.”) It seems like a twangy little phrase that could’ve come along with the rhythm of the lyrics, and could have been suggested by the sound of a jaw harp.
Then there’s the rhythm, which falls into that “shuffle” category of Grateful Dead songs, an easygoing, gently bouncing kind of beat that is easy to move to, and suited to a variety of tempos. Sometimes the band seemed to be asking “just how slow can we play this one?” This is completely unscientific (a research project waiting to happen), but a spot check of playing times from various performances of the song over the years shows a variation from 7:15 to 8:40 in duration. Not all of that can be accounted for by extended jamming, since the jam was a fairly constant duration of measures, as far as I can tell without intense scrutiny. So I would attribute the wide disparity in playing times to a variation in tempo.
Finally, to me, this song is about wanting to go home. It’s one of many songs with that motif in the Dead’s repertoire, and is the subject of an essay by Wally Bubelis on the Annotated Lyrics website.