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!)
There’s a wonderful scene in The Grateful Dead Movie, where one particular Deadhead is right on the rail during the opening number, perfectly lip-synching the entire rendition of “U.S. Blues” that opens the live concert portion of the movie. Who is that guy? Someone must know. I would like to say “thank you for a real good time” several times over to that particular person, for permanently blazing onto my consciousness a face imbued with the ecstasy of being in the front row at a Dead show. Hurray, whoever you are!
And that thing of knowing all the words, like the GD Movie guy—that impressed me so strongly at my very first Dead show, how everyone knew all the words to every song (except me). Made me determined to learn the songs.
I love this song for many reasons. At times I have grown tired of it (there was a period when it seemed like every show ended with it…probably my imagination), but there has always been something great about putting on Mars Hotel and hearing those first notes boom out. It’s good for dancing, for singing along, and for setting the mind off on a variety of directions, largely through a wide range of lyrical allusions.
Right off the bat, for instance, the listener gets the sense that this will be a rock and roll tune, since the reference to “Blue Suede Shoes” is unmistakable. So begins a lyric by Robert Hunter that went through a long evolutionary process, beginning as “Wave That Flag,” (see /song/wave-flag) and ending up as a collision of Americana from all directions, amazingly summarizing some things about our national character, if there is such a thing.
Who would argue that we are a mish-mash of diverse cultures? This song refers to so much musical, theatrical, and political figures that we are left feeling both proud and somewhat bemused by our own past as a country.
“Blue Suede Shoes” kicks it off, putting both Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis into our heads, but the lineup of references moves quickly along, as Uncle Sam, the song’s narrator, announces himself. Yes, Uncle Sam wears blue suede shoes, apparently. (Returning briefly to the Grateful Dead Movie, these are transformed into Converse high-tops for the animated Uncle Sam skeleton who dances his way through the opening sequence.)
The figure of Uncle Sam has always been a fairly dire one in my experience, looking out from lowered eyebrows, telling us that he wants us for the army. Yikes. This Uncle Sam is more charming, but not altogether benign, being ready to run our lives and steal our wives, despite the fact that he has learned to duck and seems to be hiding out in a rock and roll band.
For me, (and as always, I must stress how reluctant I am to even say what a song means to me, for fear that anyone might think it has any authority beyond my own brain…), the song speaks to waning empire.
Written by Hunter, with music by Garcia, over the course of the 1973, as the U.S. role in Vietnam was winding to a less-than-triumphant close, the song always included the line about summertime having come and gone. The “summer” of US power seemed at the time to be on the way out, indeed. Early lines in “Wave That Flag” include “Feed the poor, stop the war,” and “Live in shame, die in vain.” (That version is ripe for a hip-hop remake, seems to me…)
But Hunter keeps it light. He threw out the most overtly political lines for the final version, and we are left with more of a romp than a stomp.
It doesn’t hurt, in terms of keeping it light, that he brings in P.T. Barnum and Charlie Chan. (And the very way he phrases their introduction, “shake the hand, that shook the hand…” is itself a reference, however obscure, to an old song called “Shake the Hand That Shook the Hand of Sullivan,” from 1898.)
Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891) was a showman and something of a charlatan, who started his illustrious career with the less-than-illustrious purchase of an elderly female slave whom he then exhibited as a 161-year-old who supposedly nursed George Washington. That was in 1835. Over the course of the next half-century he opened a “museum” in New York, The American Museum, which was home to his exhibits, which included the Fiji Mermaid (half monkey, half fish), General Tom Thumb (a midget less than three feet tall), and the original Siamese Twins, Chang and Eng. It wasn’t until1871 that he launched his circus, having served in the meantime as mayor of Bridgeport, and as a member of the Connecticut legislature. After a decade running “The Greatest Show on Earth,” he merged with Bailey’s to become Barnum and Bailey’s. The franchise is still going strong, as Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey.
Charlie Chan is a fictional character, the creation of Earl Derr Diggers, immortalized in film, and possessed of a large family, living in Hawaii and solving crimes as a private detective. While hardly the most realistic or charming of images to summon up, Charlie Chan somehow exemplifies the American habit of assimilating our subcultures—often in a manner that could only be called misappropriation. But that, too, is part of the American character.
(A few times in 1979-1980, Garcia substituted “The Shah of Iran” for “Charlie Chan” in performances.)
“U.S. Blues” debuted on February 22 (George Washington’s birthday!) at Winterland in San Francisco, as the opener. Also appearing for the first time that night were “It Must’ve Been the Roses” and “Ship of Fools.” Its final appearance was at the band’s next-to-last show, on July 8, 1995, where it was the encore. In between, it was played 323 times, often as the closing encore.
It appeared on Grateful Dead From the Mars Hotel, released June 27, 1974. It was also released as a single, backed with “Loose Lucy.”
A note I received from Alex Allan in 2003, following the publication of Dennis McNally’s biography of the band, pointed out the following passage from the book, and added a comment from Alex:
"[Weir and Hunter] clashed again over "One More Saturday Night." Having gotten Hunter's lyrics, Weir rewrote them--badly in Hunter's opinion--and then asked to call the resulting song "U.S. Blues," which Hunter refused to permit. In the end, he declined any association with the song and it was credited to Weir alone." [p393]
This throws as interesting light on the line:
"You can call this song the United States Blues"!
Happy Fourth of July, everyone! Wave that flag!