#264 – Grateful Dead – Workingman’s Dead


The second of four Grateful Dead albums on the list is their fourth studio album.  The 1970 release was recorded in nine days at Pacific High Recording Studio in San Francisco.  The album stepped away from the band’s psychedelic roots and was recorded in a more Americana style.


Friendly reminder: my parents wouldn’t let me go to what turned out to be one of the last shows Jerry Garcia was alive.  There are many bigger Dead fans than I, but I sure do love this album.  I owned it in high school and listened to it constantly. I think “Uncle John’s Band,” which kicks off this album, is one of the Dead’s best songs. The acoustic guitar combined with beautiful harmonies form a perfect end-of-the-60s anthem. Oh, and Richard Nixon hated it because it contains the word “goddamn,” which apparently was too offensive for an altar boy like himself.

As to Uncle John’s identity, there are three theories. First, blues legend Mississippi John Hurt, nicknamed ‘Uncle John,’ was an influence on the band. Second, it may be about New Lost City Ramblers member John Cohen, who was also a photographer and filmmaker.  Cohen has called this theory a “true rumor.” Finally, some think it’s about John the Baptist, who baptized Jesus (“he’s come to take his children home).


When it comes to harmonizing, none are better than the Indigo Girls, and they crushed a cover of Uncle John’s Band for the tribute album Deadicated.  Check it out:

 Well the first days are hardest days
Don’t you worry any more
Cause when life looks like easy street
There is danger at the door
Think this thought of me, let me know your mind
Oh oh all I want to know is-are you kind
It’s a buck dancer choice my friend
You better take my advice
You know all the rules by now
And the fire from the ice
Will you come with me, won’t you come with me
Oh oh all I want to know, will you come with me
God Damn I declare have you seen like
Their walls are built like cannon balls
Their motto is Don’t tread on me
Come hear Uncle John’s band playing-to the tide
Come along or go alone
He’s come to take his children home
It’s the same story that the crow told me
It’s the only one he knows 
Like the morning sun you come and like the wind you go
Ain’t no time to hate barely time to wait
Oh oh-all I want to know is where does the time go

I listened to this one straight through and was enjoying the trip down memory lane. I didn’t even read about it as I went, and instead was just soaking in the experience. I know it’s  not the best of the Grateful Dead but it’s damn good. The album keeps you interested the whole way through, but I love that it starts and ends with the two best songs. I’ll leave Casey Jones alone so Steve can have it.


Starting an album with a song as strong as “Uncle John’s Band” is never a bad thing.  Sara already talked about it, but I think the track is the perfect way to start this experience.  I tend to prefer this style of the Dead’s music.  This album and American Beauty (coming soon) are probably my two favorite Grateful Dead albums.

I let this one play through several times before I moved on to the next album.  There is some really great stuff here, and the whole thing is incredibly easy to listen to.  I like “Cumberland Blues.”  This is the tale of a worker in a company mine town.  He struggles to balance his life and his job, while worrying about losing both.

I can’t stay much longer, Melinda, The sun is getting high.
I can’t help you with your troubles, If you won’t help with mine.
I gotta get down, I gotta get down, I gotta get down to the mine.

You keep me up just one more night, I can’t sleep here no more.
Little Ben clock says quarter to eight; You kept me up ’till four.
I gotta get down, I gotta get down, Or I can’t work there no more.

A lotta poor man make a five dollar bill, Keep him happy all the time.
Some other fella’s makin nothin’ at all And you can hear him cry,
“Can I go, buddy, can I go down Take your shift at the mine?”

Gotta get down to the Cumberland Mine.
Gotta get down to the Cumberland Mine.
That’s where I mainly spend my time.
Make good money, five dollars a day. Made anymore, I might move away.

Lotta poor man got the Cumberland Blues He can’t win for losin’
Lotta poor man got to walk the line Just to pay his union dues.
I don’t know now, I just don’t know If I’m goin’ back again.

This album closes as well as it starts, with “Casey Jones,” probably one of the most recognizable Dead songs to the casual fan.  The song is about a train wreck that is about to happen.  Casey Jones is coked out of his mind and speeding down the same track as an oncoming train, due to a sleeping switchman.

Drivin’ that train
High on cocaine
Casey Jones you’d better
Watch your speed
Trouble ahead
Trouble behind
And you know that notion
Just crossed my mind

This old engine
Makes it on time
Leaves Central Station
About a quarter to nine
Hits River Junction
At seventeen to
At a quarter to ten
You know it’s trav’lin again

Trouble ahead
The Lady in Red
Take my advice
You’d be better off dead
Switchman’s sleepin
Train hundred and two
Is on the wrong track and
headed for you

Drivin’ that train
High on cocaine
Casey Jones you’d better
Watch your speed
Trouble ahead
Trouble behind
And you know that notion
Just crossed my mind

Trouble with you is
The trouble with me
Got two good eyes
But we still don’t see
Come round the bend
You know it’s the end
The fireman screams and
The engine just gleams

Drivin’ that train
High on cocaine
Casey Jones you’d better
Watch your speed
Trouble ahead
Trouble behind
And you know that notion
Just crossed my mind

We are going to see the Grateful Dead twice more in the next several albums, and I am really looking forward to it.


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