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…

Comments

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
ddodd's picture
Offline

Location

Petaluma, CA 94952
United States
Joined: Jun 6 2007
Yes, yes, and yes

Hey everyone and Happy Birthday to Phil Lesh!

Nice set of comments so far--I really have to agree, laughing, with stolzfus about the difficulty landing the actual melody line on UJB. Lots of great harmony lines to choose from, and which one is the melody, anyway? Whoah, what I want to know--how does the song go?
mustin321: thank you for the kind comments. Please call me David or Dave! "Mr. Dodd" reminds me of my Library School project, the Machine-Readable Database of Death (MRDOD)--a MARC format (librarians out there will know what I mean) for cataloging graves. Still think that's a great idea, but then along came the World Wide Web and made a lot of stuff superfluous. Sorry for the digression....
Strider 88--thanks very much for the pointer to John Cohen's work.
marye--thank you for chiming in. I will have to try to track down my own first UJB. And when I get around to Terrapin, I plan to quote your amazing, eternal description of one night at Kaiser being so very far into Terrapin (do you remember the piece I'm thinking of?) And since you said not to ask--WHAT skip in WHAT tape? Sounds like a story to me...
castle17: ambitious to take on as a first song something with so many rhythmic changes. Good for you!
hippeJameZ--very interesting piece of info about ravens/crows. Are they the same bird? I have always wondered. I should go do more work on that...
Underthevolcano: light and dark are major themes in the Dead's music, and thank you for those notes.
anna rRxia (very interesting pseudonym--any clue for us what it might mean?): Absolutely--any song could be "the" song on any given night. A memorable one for me was a particular "The Wheel" at the Oakland Coliseum Arena in 1979. Wow.
ohsograteful44: Thanks so much for this pointer. I am unfamiliar with the work, and will have to find it now!

Keep 'em coming! I appreciate the requests for a next song from ohsograteful44--I have been trying to mix up and alternate, kind of like at a show, so I will put "Crazy Fingers" into the next available "Jerry spot."

ohsograteful44's picture
Offline

Location

United States
Joined: Jun 30 2007
The Scripture Of The Golden Eternity

So as synchronisity would have it. I was pondering this piece day before yesterday. It happened to be Kerouac's BD and I reached for my beloved City Lights 1994 edition of "The Scripture Of The Golden Eternity". I turned to a random page and this "...Are you generous and are you kind, those are the true virtues, and they're only conceptions." Jumped out at me. UJB makes me think of long warm hugs from seldom seen friends who's love is always there no matter the time or distance between. Uncle Johns Band is like a Baptism at the river. It invites us in. Home- come along or go alone, but don't just follow let's talk and discover together. We hear you- anybody's choice, it's all one thing - one song- how does it go?? However we want it to. Sit here by river and we'll float away together thru space and time to wherever it takes us.The Golden Eternity. "Gone are the days we stopped to decide where we should go we just ride." [ can we do Crazy Fingers next?]

Happy Birthday Phil !!!!

Anna rRxia's picture
Offline

Location

tweekerville
Maldives
Joined: Dec 25 2009
After reviewing the lyrics

Most of this song is about one person calling to another for love and reviewing the facts of life in the US. Althea is another tune, not as epic, that represents some of the same sentiment. Most of us take Uncle John's Band to mean the Grateful Dead, with Uncle John equaling Jerry. Hence the term Uncle Jerry became very popular on tour. But it doesn't necessarily have to mean that...

I think the power behind this tune is not the words. It is the way Jerry built the tune. He is at his most brilliant best here taking us to other dimensions. I remember a show in New Haven where Bob was sick and the whole vibe was a little weak but they led into the drums with a stellar Uncle John's that blew me out of the old Coliseum into deep, deep space. Jerry could just go on and on and on with this tune and the drummers would not go into their solo till he was finished, as it should have been. At this particular show Jerry allowed Brent to tack on the "Only A Fool" they ever played while he Bob & Phil took an early brake..

"Have you seen the like
Their walls are made of cannon balls
Their motto is don't tread on me"

I can relate very well with this, it is the predominant attitude where I live N. New England.

As for it being "the" tune? I think that misses the point. It could be any tune on any night when they were hitting on all cylinders.

Underthevolcano's picture
Offline

Location

United States
Joined: Feb 6 2008
it is the song

that for me conjures up visions and thoughts of the Grateful dead's creation of a parallel universe. I alway's remember Jerry's comments at the famous(infamous) press conference after the Ashbury bust about "the simple life". Of course the song is darker because it is a struggle to reinvent and to shed. The Dead never told anyone to come along-it was always an individual choice and they didn't rant about politics-very dark at the time-but just maybe there was another place to go. The Dead always seemed to me to go THERE. Unlike other bands at the time-the Dead didn't patronize, cajole or bully. Let one thing go and maybe pick-up another in your own way and go home if you wish to. That they could do such a thing in the fortress America of the time is truly amazing. After all look what happened to John Sinclair and John Lennon. Its better to make your own plan and not react to some one else's plan. Essence of the Dead-yeah you got that so right.

hippyjameZ's picture
Offline

Location

28 James River Road
Culloden, WV 25510
United States
38° 25' 7.8924" N, 82° 6' 25.9524" W
Joined: May 4 2008
It's the same story the crow told me ....

This song does capture the essence of the Grateful Dead perfectly.

Perfect song to turn someone on to the Dead.

'Thought I heard a blackbird singing, up on bluebird hill. ' always takes my mind back to UJB. Makes me think the crow not only told us a story, he sung it!

After reading this post, I did some research on crows.

' It has been said (attributed to native Americans) that if you hear something in the forest that you cannot identify (assuming you know all the common forest sounds), it is a raven.' - interesting quote I stumbled across.

Thanks David.

hippyjameZ's picture
Offline

Location

28 James River Road
Culloden, WV 25510
United States
38° 25' 7.8924" N, 82° 6' 25.9524" W
Joined: May 4 2008
It's the same story the crow told me ....

This song does capture the essence of the Grateful Dead perfectly.

Perfect song to turn someone on to the Dead.

'Thought I heard a blackbird singing, up on bluebird hill. ' always takes my mind back to UJB. Makes me think the crow not only told us a story, he sung it!

After reading this post, I did some research on crows.

' It has been said (attributed to native Americans) that if you hear something in the forest that you cannot identify (assuming you know all the common forest sounds), it is a raven.' - interesting quote I stumbled across.

Thanks David.

castle17's picture
Offline

Location

United States
Joined: Feb 12 2008
Uncle John's Band

When I first bought a guitar six or seven years ago, UJB was the first song I wanted to learn to play. It is one of the finest songs I've ever heard.

marye's picture
Offline

Locations

Oakland, CA
United States
Joined: May 26 2007
as for being THE song

for me, it's in perennial contention with Terrapin and Ripple for that position.

I first heard it live 5/21/82 at the Greek, and while I haven't listened to that version for some time, in my mind I still hear the skip in the tape (don't ask) and can still sing the Jerry solos from memory.

Strider 88's picture
Offline

Location

United States
Joined: Jun 20 2007
John Cohen

John Cohen is huge in his work with traditional music. He went to Peru in the 50s to record "huayno" music. Also film maker and photographer. He published a book of photographs of Bob Dylan taken in the early 60s. OK the song. I love Uncle John's Band and all of Workingmans Dead. "He's come to take his children home" makes me think of the pied piper. "Dont tread on me" from the old revolutionary war flag and also the Massachusetts navy flag. My father who was a WW2 veteran used to fly it under the U.S. flag. I think of the, at times libertarian aspects of the Grateful Dead and the Dead-Heads. "Are you kind?" became a mantra of sorts for many of us. The jam had the feeling of soaring, lifting, flying. I really learned to dance at Dead shows starting in 1970. Powerful medicine to be liberated by dance and the music of the Dead.Life grows toward light.Again many thanks to the Grateful Dead, Robert Hunter, and keep up the good work David Dodd.

mustin321's picture
Offline

Location

Indianapolis
United States
Joined: Aug 12 2011
Let me know your Mind

Mr. Dodd, its amazing how deep into a song you can get and still leave an open-ended discussion on the meaning!

Many GD lyrics have hit me in different ways over the years but this one has been the same. At least so far...but this is also a song that is sort of embedded in my mind as what the Grateful Dead represent, which goes along with Blair's statement. But to me, its part of the Skeletons From the Closet which got me started on this amazing musical journey. Yes, I am young but I still love the music and I will happily let Skeletons sit on the shelf and collect dust for the rest of my life. It was my, and probably many others my age, first glimpse of the GD. And because of all this, for some reason I never really stop to think about what the lines are about...then I read what Mr. Dodd writes and it feels like something I already knew. Not that I could ever explain it...I hope Im making sense.

Comments

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
Listen on Spotify