Grateful Dead

Greatest Stories Ever Told

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. With Grateful Dead lyrics, there’s always a new and different take on what they bring up for each listener, it seems.

- David Dodd

  • Of all the greatest of the Grateful Dead’s great story songs, I think “Jack Straw” might deserve some kind of an award for managing to be the most fully-fleshed-out and the most enigmatic of all. And I think the enigma revolves around the ambiguity in one line in particular.

  • I have gone back and forth and back again, and maybe forth again, over the years in my conception of how to hear “Black Peter” — whether as a dire piece, or a philosophical piece, or what.

  • I had the distinct pleasure of being present for Brent Mydland’s first show with the Dead, at Spartan Stadium in San Jose. I had been at the previous show, a benefit for the Campaign for Economic Democracy (Tom Hayden’s organization) at the Oakland Coliseum Arena, and I guess that means I was also at Keith and Donna’s final show. The energy Brent brought was immediately evident, and I have a particular memory of Phil pointing at Brent with glee, to a cheering crowd.

  • Given that last week’s post was “Estimated Prophet,” it seems appropriate to move right into “Eyes of the World.” The two became almost inextricably linked through hundreds of concert performances, and I’ve always wondered a bit about that…the musical progression didn’t seem particularly natural, with the disintegrating jam out of Estimated eventually giving way to Garcia’s invocation of Eyes via its easily-identified set of opening chords.

  • “Estimated Prophet,” words by John Barlow, music by Bob Weir, has always worked a special kind of magic. Barlow captures that whole slightly (or very) deranged or tripped-out Deadhead vibe so well, but the song’s character transcends that little box over time—both over the time the particular rendition might take, and over the time from when we may have first heard it played or performed to the most recent rendition we have heard.

  • Maybe it’s true everywhere in the world, but the county I live in, Sonoma County, California, is a hotbed of local music. There is a plethora of bands, songwriters, studios, and venues here—ranging through all genres of music, from the all-volunteer symphony The American Philharmonic, to songwriters trying to break through to a larger audience.

  • “I don’t trust to nothin’, but I know it come out right.”

    Like “The Music Never Stopped,” “Playing” is a song that could be taken as an autobiographical song (others would include “The Other One,” “Truckin’,” “Golden Road....”). I remember this hitting home for me at the Closing of Winterland concert, as we repeatedly saw the phrase “breakfast served at dawn” on t-shirts and posters all night long. Daybreak would truly come as they were playing. By then, we would have been dancing for the entire night: through the New Riders, the Blues Brothers, and then the Dead coming on at midnight to start their three-set show.

  • Long-time friend and lyrics enthusiast Mary Eisenhart requested this one—Elizabeth Cotten’s song “Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie.”

    I’ve loved this song, too, since first hearing it on Reckoning. Its deceptive simplicity, beautiful melody, and somewhat mysterious words drew me in. As happened often over the course of several decades of listening to the Dead, I found myself wanting to know more—more about the song, about the meaning of the words, and about the source of the song. And so, as usual, I was led quite readily into several directions at once.

  • Several times over the course of their career, the Dead would comment, through their songs’ lyrics, on the idea of being a band—and in particular, on the idea of being none other than the Grateful Dead. This is one of them, and many of its phrases seem...just exactly perfect.

  • “Life may be sweeter for this, I don’t know…”

    Think for a moment about how often those three simple words pop up in Grateful Dead lyrics: “I don’t know.” Not-knowing is somewhere close to the center of the lyrics, in so many ways. We’ve danced around that idea over the first nine blog posts—mostly in the form of avoiding any claim to THE interpretation of any given song, but also in terms of being open to what is coming down the road or around the corner (where it’s been waiting to meet you…).

Greatest Stories Ever Told