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.
In a number of communities across the United States this year, entire towns, cities, and counties are participating in the Big Read, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. And of those Big Read participants, quite a few are reading the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Here where I live, in Sonoma County, California, March is Emily Dickinson month this year.
She wrote these lines in her poem #478:
I had no time to Hate -
The Grave would hinder Me -
And Life was not so
Could finish - Enmity -
Nor had I time to Love -
Some Industry must be -
The little Toil of Love -
I thought -
Be large enough for Me -
Ain’t no time to hate. Barely time to wait. And, where does the time go, anyway?
“Uncle John’s Band” is yet another Robert Hunter / Jerry Garcia composition that carries within it enough room to consider the universe and our lives in the universe — it seems to be a universe itself. From its opening lines, which can serve as either / both warning and / or encouragement, to its gentle invitation to “come with me,” the song resonates in our lives fairly continuously if we want it to.
Hunter the storyteller can also be Hunter the aphorist—one who crafts brilliant little double-edged phrases that help and haunt us as we blunder forward through our lives. Like Shakespeare, his phrases can easily be pulled out of the context of their settings and used as mottoes or admonishments; reassurances or daring propositions, depending on how they are needed at any given moment. Maybe you have had the experience of suddenly hearing a Hunter line in a new way, appropriate to that particular moment or event in your life. It’s happened to me many times — a line will just jump out at me and ambush me, or hug me, or astound me in a new way.
“Uncle John’s Band” is one of those wide-open lyrics that has invited many interpretations (including a wonderful facetious one by Hunter himself—something about trained circus ants, I seem to remember….). One of my proudest moments as someone who devoted a LOT of time to annotating the lyrics was when I received an email from Hunter telling me I was “right on the money” with the direction of my notes on “Uncle John’s Band.” It was when I was exploring the possible origins of the song in the work and personnel of the New Lost City Ramblers, that wonderful old-timey band whose members included Mike Seeger, John Cohen, and Tom Paley. “Uncle John” was a nickname for Cohen, and Hunter and Garcia were both fans who saw the band play a number of times.
New Lost City Ramblers
The song’s first documented performance was at the Fillmore West on December 4, 1969. It was released as the opening song on Workingman’s Dead in 1970. It remained steadily in the repertoire, and was played a total of 330 known times. The only year in which it was not played, aside from the 1975 hiatus, was 1978.
Blair Jackson once wrote something to the effect that “Uncle John’s Band” is the song. I’ve thought a lot about that statement over the years. And I think I know, or feel more than know, what he meant. When the Dead played the song, the crowd came together in a huge way. We were in that band; we were coming to hear Uncle John’s band by the riverside. We loved it when the words got muffed, and then the line “how does the song go?” would jump out at us. Jerry grinning at his own flubs, everyone smiling onstage before they buckled down and got into that amazing Bulgarian-sounding jam—a sudden veering from friendly folk music into the enchanted and risky realm of weird time signatures and modal scales. Everything about the Dead, it seemed, could be wrapped up in that song. Beauty and danger, all swirled together. Familiarity and risk-taking. Dark and light. And then, arising from that dark swirling jam the chorus: “Come hear Uncle John’s Band….” Campfire time again. Hands clapping in time, the crowd being the rhythm section. Then off again into some other song…or back to one previously abandoned…
Eminently danceable, the tune would bring the entire crowd to fresh heights of happiness time and again. And it is so singable!
Isn’t it great that crows tell the story of life and death? (I think of it every time I see a crow.)
And what about those walls made of cannonballs? Are we Americans proud of that, or scornful?
And where was that silver mine? Are you stuck in one?
Regardless: there ain’t no time to hate. In my mind, if there is just one lesson to take from all of Hunter’s poetry, that is the one. He approaches it from a number of angles, but for me, it always comes down to that. “Without love in the dream, it’ll never come true.”
Thanks, Emily, and thanks, Hunter.
Your turn again—have at it. I can hear your voice…