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.
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…
Think about it
Dark Star is Dark Star
It is a unique entity
Sugar Magnolia expresses the GD ethos in many ways
Spring is almost here
That is hilarious though. I had no idea there was such a thing. And I personally think that Crazy Fingers would be a great song. I would love to see what everyone has to say about that one. But i dont really care what songs are coming. They all have brought really interesting comments so far.
Gone are the days we stopped to decide where we should go, we just ride. Almost as good as "what a long strange trip its been" ;)
In my early days of loving GD I came across a National Geograghic article about Golden Gate Park and the designer/ architect of the park was John Mcleran, unsure of the last name spelling. I thought it was fitting that Uncle Johns band was indeed the band who played in the park he designed. Then in 1980 John Scher introduced them on 6/8 and he knocked off the "old" John and there was a new "John". I guess I was wrong both times! Thank you Dave, I enjoy your work!!!
There's a great PBS - Murder Crow airing on Nature. Fascinating.
to "The Golden Road". Only more organic and mature.
What a difference choice lyrics can make.
Always one of my very favorite songs, but maybe not one I'd use to turn someone on to the Dead. The line "Goddamn, well I declare!" seems to be off-putting to some religious folks, I've found from experience. It's not often you hear "Goddamn" in a song, in fact I can't think of any others(?) It sorta comes as a shock, right in the middle of such a beautiful acoustic song. I like it, and think it gives the song some real "teeth". It still seems a little shocking to me after 30+ years of listening to it. And yeah, the line "When looks like Easy Street....." just perfectly quintessential Hunter. My favorite version is still the studio version, the first one I ever heard.
I've gotta say, "When life looks like Easy Street there is danger at your door" is such classic, quintessential Hunter.
since I have long since forgotten whatever it was I said about Terrapin, I await that post with apprehension. But I do love that song, and I can still remember my stunned delight when I realized it was about the Lady of Carlisle, as I had been a huge Ian & Sylvia fan for years (and indeed one of the things I liked best about Festival Express was ol' Ian singing along with the boys on the train).
As for the skip, well, I had a nice first-generation tape of that show almost immediately from James Olness. I played it and played it and played it. One ill-fated day I was playing it in something that had a record button, and instead of hitting rewind so I could hear a favorite jam yet again, I hit record. AAAAAAAGHH!!! I have a digital version of that show now, but it doesn't sound right because I'm so used to that tape.
Of course, I made a mistake in relying on my terrible memory. Hunter's facetious interpretation of the song was about trained fleas, not ants. Sheesh.