Grateful Dead

Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Uncle John's Band"

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.

“Uncle John’s Band”

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 -
Because
The Grave would hinder Me -
And Life was not so
Ample I
Could finish - Enmity -

Nor had I time to Love -
But since
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…

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marye's picture
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Joined: May 26 2007
very nicely put!

"there is an I (the singer), you (the listener) and him (Uncle John) that constitute an Us for whom the entry test is 'Are you kind?', and a Them, those of the cannonball walls and fierce motto."

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Joined: Jun 6 2007
Who has the cannonballs?

The altered chorus after verse two

God damn well I declare,
have you seen the like?
Their walls are made of cannonballs,
their motto is 'Don't tread on me'.

is quite a distinct contrast to the hip wisdom of the verses and the inclusive enthusiasm of the rest of the choruses.
It is easy to hear the first lines as referring to Uncle John's Band, and then see the rest as a stout declaration of American patriotism, solidarity with the spirit of independence that fired those who fought the British and honoured that motto. This is the libertarian declaration that has already been noted.

I have always heard it differently, that there is an I (the singer), you (the listener) and him (Uncle John) that constitute an Us for whom the entry test is "Are you kind?", and a Them, those of the cannonball walls and fierce motto.

Anna rRxia's picture
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Joined: Dec 25 2009
@unckle sam

"have you seen the like of these crazy bastards that would just as soon shoot you as accept a different kind of thinking."

I had to underline that, too precious to let it go unnoticed.

unkle sam's picture
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Joined: Oct 3 2008
a song to the generation

I had a thought that UJB was a song that spoke of the strife and troubles that were going on in Amerika during the late sixties early seventies. Kind of a "lets all settle down and take it easy" song. "Ain't no time to hate, barely time to wait". "Got some things to talk about, here beside the rising tide" could speak of the rising tide of hatred towards hippies and anti war protesters during those times.
God Damn, well I declare, have you seen the like, their walls are built of cannon balls, their motto is don't tread on me, could represent the establishment (particulairy Nixon and his type) and their eagerness to use arms against their own children to quell the hippy wave, don't tread on my particular beliefs or I will use these cannon balls on you. Got some things to talk about now. 'He's come to take his children home" perhaps is a cry of retreat to all who thought they could change the world peacefully. God Damn, well I declare, have you seen the like of these crazy bastards that would just as soon shoot you as accept a different kind of thinking.
Happy Birthday TC

stevepremo's picture
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Joined: Sep 5 2007
The Verses

One thing I love about the song (and I knew the song for decades before I noticed this) is that each verse has a theme, defined by the question at the end. First verse is about hard times to come. When that happens, we find out whether the people around us are kind. Since we know it's coming, we want to know, "Are you kind?"

Next verse, yes, life is uncertain, but we can go through it together. "Will you come with me?"

Then the Crow tells us that life is short - you come like the morning sun and go like the wind. "Where does the time go?"

But there is the music to get us through. But it's not just the musicians; it's anybody's choice. They beg us to call the tune. "How does the song go?"

There is so much more in the song. I hear that there are people whose walls are built of cannon balls, but there is no time to hate. It's OK. Uncle John's Band is playing to the tide, and he's come to take us home.

marye's picture
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Joined: May 26 2007
crows and ravens

we've got both of 'em in Oakland. Ravens are BIG.

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Joined: Jun 15 2007
The Greatest Stories...

...Never Told...until it was far too late...So long and thanks for the songs...and the left-handed monkey wrench...quite handy, if you know how and when to use it, that is...

All aboard, the SOF

Wonder what happens when matter finally outpaces The Light...and reaches the true light...

We're just going to have to outrun this explosion and/or implosion and get the fuck outta here...

Engage when ready, Gage.

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Joined: Jun 15 2007
The Greatest Stories...

...Never Told...until it was far too late...So long and thanks for the songs...and the left-handed monkey wrench...quite handy, if you know howand when to use it, that is...

All aboard, the SOF

Wonder what happens when matter finally outpaces The Light...and reaches the true light...

We're just going to have to outrun this explosion and/or implosion and get the frack outta here...

Engage when ready, Gage.

hippyjameZ's picture
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Joined: May 4 2008
Crows and Ravens

David,

The website I visited the other day informed me that there is a difference between crows and ravens. I always thought they were the same.

The crow has a 'Caw-Caw' sound, while the raven has a 'Gronk-Gronk' sound.

The raven has a shinier-wet look to it, and is generally bigger.

I think most of what we see in America is crows, and the Raven is found more so in Australia.. that's from my memory banks, so not 100% sure.

Here are some more facts about both of them that I reposted from a site I just visited:

Crows are associated with war and death in Irish mythology. In Cornish folklore crows are associated with the "otherworld" and so must be treated with respect. In Australian Aboriginal mythology, the crow is an ancestral being. In Buddhism the protector of the Dharma is represented by a crow in one of his physical/earthly forms.

The raven is revered as God by the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest in North America and in northeast Asia. Several totem poles erected by native Americans in Washington, Alaska and Oregon depict ravens and the stories they feature in. In the Old Testament of the Bible there are several references to common Ravens. In the British Isles, ravens were symbolic to the Celts. In Irish mythology, the goddess Morrígan alighted on the hero Cú Chulainn's shoulder in the form of a raven after his death.

hippyjameZ's picture
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Joined: May 4 2008
.

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