Folk Songs and Allusions to Folk Songs in the Repertoire of the Grateful Dead
Josephine A. McQuail, Tennessee Technological University
The 1960s in America. These times seem so unique to those who lived through them, or seek to recreate them again. Yet in many ways this counterculture movement resembled one that occurred nearly two hundred years before, during the Romantic period in England.
The Romantic period, by convention, starts in 1798 with of the publication of Wordsworth and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads. However, nine years earlier William Blake had issued his Songs of Innocence, which was to be followed by its companion volume Songs of Experience in 1794. All of these characteristically Romantic volumes have in common the fact that they model themselves on the music and poetry of folk ballads and nursery rhymes as opposed to the accepted elitist neoclassical ideals in poetry. Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge rejected artificial culture in their new poetry.
Similarly, popular music of the 1960s harked back to the music and poetry of the people: Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins and a myriad others whose names are less well-known today -- Ed McCurdy, Roger Sprung, John Winn and the Kingston trio -- popularized folk and traditional music for the same reason that the Romantic poets did. Hank Harrison in his book The Dead remarks those who liked folk music at this time were considered to be Communists! Folk music was one of the first steps in the subversion of the status quo that would characterize the counterculture movement of the 1960s.
Folk songs and ballads are the peoples' music. They belong to the peoples: and the plural acknowledges the diversity of cultures from which American folk music derives. Many of the songs of the Grateful Dead are literal renditions of traditional ballads or blues and gospel songs. Founding members of the Grateful Dead started out in a series of bands that were folk, country and bluegrass-based and performed traditional music. The very names betray their influences: the Thunder Mountain Tub Thumpers, the Wildwood Boys, the Black Mountain Boys, the Sleepy Hollow Hog Stompers, Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions. Inevitably, too, the band was influenced by the folk movement in rock music, even if its influence had faded by the time the Grateful Dead was cohering. Some of the folk songs the Dead are credited with here were only performed in their early years; some of them, like "Cocaine Blues," and "One Kind Favor" were only performed once or twice in the mid- to late-sixties and up to the early 1970s. Yet many ballads and traditional songs are still an active part of the Grateful Dead's repertoire: songs like "Pretty Peggy O," "Samson and Delilah," "Fare You Well," "Aiko, Aiko," "C.C. Rider," Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad," "I Know You Rider," and "Jack-A-Roe."
In addition, many original Grateful Dead songs, both with lyrics by Robert Hunter and John Barlow and by members of the band, betray the influence of American popular and folk traditions in music. The flavor of the Western frontier permeates "Loser" (lyrics by Robert Hunter), and his "Dire Wolf," "Friend of the Devil," and "Brown Eyed Women and Red Grenadine." "El Paso" by Marty Robbins, a song still frequently performed by the Dead, also refers to the Western frontier. "The Wheel," with lyrics by Robert Hunter, alludes to a Negro gospel tune called "Ezekial, You and Me." "Casey Jones," by Robert Hunter, borrows its title from a traditional song, "The Ballad of Casey Jones" (which the Dead themselves performed once), although the story is somewhat different. This song, with its references to a train, belongs to a whole group of songs that celebrates the traversing of the vast expanse of the nation: songs like "Promised Land," "Jack Straw," and even the tale of the man on the run, "Friend of the Devil," and the tour song "Truckin'."
Many songs by the Grateful Dead make allusions to nursery rhymes or traditional songs. Two songs with lyrics by John Barlow, "Throwing Stones" and "Looks Like Rain," both quote nursery rhymes: "Ring Around the Rosie" and "Rain, Rain, Go Away," respectively. These songs in particular borrow emotional force from the transposition of songs familiar from childhood into a new context.
Popular songs and ballads served an important function in the days before mass media. They served to transmit news and history and kept people in touch with their culture. There were songs of protest ("Goin' Down the Road Feeling Bad"), songs that promised ultimate triumph to an oppressed people ("Samson and Delilah," "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"). There were songs that celebrated underdog heroes ("Casey Jones") or condemned lawless murderers ("Stagger Lee"). Through these songs the mythology of, in the case of older ballads like "Pretty Peggy O" and "Barbara Allen," the old world, or in the case of songs that sprang directly from the American milieu, the United States, was celebrated and passed down. But this United States was not made up of a single tradition in music or culture but many different ones.
The Dead show their commitment to the continued power of world music through their association with such musicians as Hamza Al Din, Baba Olatunji, Airto Moreira, and Sikuru Adepoju as well as more mainstream performers like Branford Marsalis, Carlos Santana and the Neville Brothers. On Chinese New Year the Dead invite the Chinese Symphony Orchestra of San Francisco to play between sets and the percussionist Mickey Hart is well-known for his association with not only the above-named percussionists but a wide range of performers from the Tibetan Monks to the modern composer Philip Glass.
Through a knowledge of the background of songs in the Grateful Dead's repertoire we will be reminded of America's diverse backgrounds and we may hear the songs anew with the ability to place them within a definite historical and cultural context.
"Peggy-O" is the traditional song that started me on this research project of investigating the traditional backgrounds of songs by the Dead. It is also know as "Fennario," and "Bonnie Barbara, O." It was first performed by the Grateful Dead December 12, 1973. Ironically, it is one of the Dead's most frequently played songs, but it does not appear on any official recording of the Grateful Dead or related groups. It was on Bob Dylan's first solo album, Bob Dylan, released in 1961.
What struck me about the song when I heard it in concert or on the bootleg concert tapes that Deadheads trade among themselves (with full approval of the band) was that the story told by the song goes from relating how a captain declares his love for and asks pretty Peggy-O to marry him to his threat that "If ever I return pretty Peggy-O/If ever I return your cities I will burn/Destroy all the ladies in the area-O."
As I researched the song, I discovered it was listed in a venerable volume of collected folklore, English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians, collected by Cecil J. Sharp. The song seems to be Scottish in origin. The version performed by the Grateful Dead resembles that transcribed in Cecil Sharp's book, but there are several variants. As is typical of folksongs, the place name given in the Dead version as "Fennario" is "Fernario" in Sharp's version. As the song is passed down from person to person words become changed or transposed, just as the message in the children's game of telephone gets more and more garbled as it is passed along. Sometimes nonsense syllables are substituted for what once were "real" words.
An even older, Scottish version of the ballad called "The Bonnie Lass O'Fyvie" appears in Folk-Songs of the North-East and another version is given under the title Bonnie Barbara, O, in Vagabond Songs and Ballads of Scotland. From even the titles of the songs it is apparent that the names "Fennario" and "Fernario" both probably originally derived from "O'Fyvie" and the name "Peggy-O" perhaps from "Barbara, O." All of the versions considered together suggest the story of a love affair between a travelling enemy soldier and a local girl which is thwarted by the girl's ambitious mother who wants a son-in-law with more money and a higher social status. Thus his declarations go from a promise of love for "Barbara, O" to threats against the locals' lives when he returns from his next march. But he dies, heartbroken because of love for, respectively, "Peggy-O" and "Barbara O." "Bonnie Barbara, O" is given the setting of Derby and is in dialect, but the story of the song is a bit clearer. When the soldier asks Barbara what her mother would think of her daughter's marriage to an apparently well-to-do soldier, she replies:
A Scottish version which found its way to the Southern United States is given in The Ballad of America. This version lacks the detail of the proud, angry mother. The setting of this version, "The Bonnie Lass o'Fyvie," in other Southern American versions changes from "Fyvie" to local settings or is replaced by nonsense words like "Ivory" or "Ireo."2
The closest version to that of the Dead I have heard was rendered by Peggy O'Neal at a program on "Cumberland River: Memories and Music" on October 25, 1991 in Celina, Tennessee, but in this version Pretty Peggy-O openly declares love for William the soldier:
According to Ms. O'Neal, this song has occurred in folk music throughout the South in several versions, some using archaic diction. In the Dead's version the soldier is buried in the "Louisiana country-o."
As a final note on this song, one of the Grateful Dead's two primary lyricists, Robert Hunter, borrowed the place name "Fennario" for one of his poems, "Lay of the Sunflower." Its first verse reads:
He also uses the name in "Dire Wolf" as a setting for the song in the lines "In the timbers of Fennario" and "In the backwash of Fennario." As we shall see from later discussions of songs, Hunter is so close to this folk and traditional material he has absorbed it and made it part of his own inspiration for original lyrics.
Another traditional song performed by the Grateful Dead is "Jack-A Roe," also known as "Jack Went A-Sailing." It is a ballad, like "Peggy-O," and, as befits the ballad form, starts out with what seems a tragic situation. This song tells the story of a woman forbidden by her father to see her lover, but who dresses as a man to follow him, a sailor who has been called to sea. Unlike most ballads, however, the song has a happy ending: she finds him wounded after a battle and takes him to a doctor who heals him and the reunited couple marries. Several versions, all collected in the United States, are given in Sharp's English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians, The version performed by the Grateful Dead leaves out details regarding the possessive father, although they include the first verse, the omit the following:
This ballad presents the opposite situation as "Peggy-O."
Here, the daughter resists pressure from her father to reject her lover and proves to be true. Lately, on the on-line computer exchange for Deadheads known as Dead-Flames there has been a thread about Grateful Dead songs for marriages (several marriages have been performed at concerts), and the last verse of this song was cited:
The variant version describing the vengeful father about differs somewhat and shows that the Dead version tends towards simplicity and cuts out detail in the last verse and in the entire story told by the song:
One would not want to cite "Peggy-O" in the context of marriage, nor another traditional song the Dead perform, "Rain and Snow," which begins: "Well I married me a wife,/She been trouble all my life/Run me out in the cold rain and snow." If one were planning a wedding at a show and they did both of those songs it might be better to postpone the marriage, unless "Jack-a-Roe" turned up, too!
An American traditional song performed by the Grateful Dead is "The Ballad of Casey Jones." The song has not been played for over twenty years, but an updated version is currently in the Dead's repertoire.
The legendary tale of Jonathan Luther, or "Casey," Jones, is another song, like "Stagger Lee" and "Going Down the Road Feelin' Bad," that celebrates the individual and defends him against the system. Jones obtained his nickname from the town of his birth, Cayce, Kentucky. He moved to Jackson, Tennessee (where there is now a museum in his name, the source of much of my information) to become a flagman at the M & O railroad. He soon earned a reputation for his speed runs, and speed was very much in demand for mail contracts. Casey was asked to take a special run of a passenger train from Memphis to Canton, Mississippi, on April 30, 1900. Right outside of Vaughn, Mississippi, Casey noticed another train on the tracks. He told his fireman to jump off the train, but Casey himself stayed with his engine and slowed it enough to ensure that no one was killed although he himself lost his life. Wallace Saunders, a black engine wiper known for composing ballads in the rail yard, wrote a ballad that celebrated Casey. However, the railroad tried to blame Casey for the accident. According to Henry Trelyan, a section gang foreman for a Texas lumber company who supplied John and Alan Lomax with a version of "Casey Jones" for the book American Ballads and Folk Songs, Casey was drunk when driving his train.6 Whatever the truth was, neither Wallace Saunders nor Casey's widow Janie Jones, got money from the song. It was rumored that Saunders traded the rights to his song for a bottle of liquor.
Saunders' song celebrated a hero in "The story told of a brave engineer"; Furry Lewis did a version called "Kassie Jones" that made the event that killed Casey even more tragic by focusing on Casey's family; this is the leaning of the Dead's version, which starts out "Mrs. Casey when she heard the news/Sitting at her bedside she was lacing up her shoes" -- touching domestic details are combined with the fact of the children's being told of their father's death, although Casey himself is shown as ambitious:
Robert Hunter's updated version of the legend, his song "Casey Jones" is in contrast hardly tragic. It is good example of how he uses and rewrites traditional songs in his lyrics. Hunter's Casey Jones is "Driving that train/High on cocaine" and the narrator puns "Casey Jones you'd better watch your speed." Hunter's version thus takes off on the rumor that Casey was drunk and updates this detail for the Dead's audience. Other details coincide with the details of the actual accident: "Switchman sleepin/Train hundred and two/is on the wrong track and headed for you... /Come round the bend/You know it's the end/The fireman screams and/The engine just gleams."7
The Dead just performed this song again last summer for the first time since 1984 on June 20, 1992 at Washington, D.C.'s Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. It featured the blowing of a train horn, but it was not the whistle that Casey was know by, a Whip'O'Will. "Casey Jones was originally released on the album Workingman's Dead, whose title belies its substance: it included many songs that had their roots in traditional songs, like "Cumberland Blues" and "Dire Wolf," both by Robert Hunter.
"Staggerlee," or as Hunter calls his song, "Delia Delyon and Staggerlee," is another good example of the way Hunter rewrites traditional ballads. "Staggerlee," was traditionally, "Staggolee." The figure Staggerlee was apparently the stuff of legend, being the subject of a variety of related songs about a reckless and ruthless swaggerer. One version relates:
Like the Grateful Dead's version of the song, a version from American Murder Ballads and Their Stories, collected by Olive Woolley Burt refers to the fight that in this case "Stackalee" and "Billy Lyons" have over Stackalee's Stetson's hat, which Stackalee says is magic. Despite Billy Lyons' pleas for mercy Stackalee kills him. In Robert Hunter's version it is Billy Delyon's wife who takes revenge on Staggerlee. He summarizes previous folk versions of the slaying of Billy and then introduces Delia's dissatisfaction with the law:
This element was apparent in Mississippi John Hurt's "Stackalee": "Police Officer, how can this be/You can arrest everybody/But cruel Stackalee." In Hunter's song Delia takes the law into her own hands: "Baio you go get him or give the job to me."10 The upshot is that she gets Stagger Lee where it hurts and "fixes" him for good:
Those who criticize the Grateful Dead for sexist lyrics in songs such as "Sugar Magnolia" would do well to look at Robert Hunter's version of "Stagger Lee" where Delia shows her strength and triumphs over even the police, who ask
"Goin' Down the Road Felling Bad" is another, in this case traditional, song that expresses outrage at the powers that be. Also known as "Goin' Down the Road," "I'm Goin' Down That Road Feeling Bad," and "Not Gonna Be Treated This Away," it is a traditional song. A version by Woody Guthrie was used in John Ford's film The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and implies the fact, as was indeed the case, the song became a kind of anthem during the time of the Great Depression, and the refrain "I ain't gonna be treated this away" a slogan directed against the government that was invoked by union organizers in the city and on farms and by the New Dealers who sought to change the government at the time.13 Woody Guthrie did not write the song, contrary to what is implied in his version in Hard-Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People. In another version by Guthrie called "Blowin' Down This Road" the setting is clearly the Depression: he is "goin' where the dust storms never blow" and where his children can get "three square meals a day."14
For the Dead and Deadheads this became a tour song that perhaps expresses the occasional reality of bad times and hassles experienced while following the band from city to city on their spring summer or fall concert schedule. It's no doubt well known at this point that Deadheads are targets for police and in some states a Grateful Dead sticker on a car constitutes probable cause that excuses a state trooper pulling a driver over. A lot of Deadheads are incarcerated (the drawing for the accompanying list of traditional songs by the Dead was provided by Robert Moody, now in the Bland Correctional Facility in Bland, Virginia). Ironically, in one version at least the Dead did of this song the paradise sought for has mushrooms -- presumably hallucinogenic:
The last line is perhaps a warning to Deadheads from the band, a practice that has become increasingly more common as venues close their doors to the band because of perceived problems it its fans' behavior--namely, the uncontrolled vending of food, merchandise, and drugs at concerts.
This survey of a few of the traditional and tradition-based songs performed by the Grateful Dead, however, negates the band's image as a nihilistic, hard-rock group. The band's roots are firmly in traditional soil, and its songs often celebrate the American frontier spirit. Their repertoire validates their choice of name, which is also not what it seems. The story of Jerry Garcia's accidental discovery of the phrase "Grateful Dead" in the dictionary (after the band was forced to change its name from the "Warlocks" which another band was using) is well known, but perhaps it was not really an accident. The name derives from a cycle of folk tales which relate a story of a hero who encounters people who are mistreating the dead by refusing to bury a corpse. The hero gives up his last pennies to provide a decent burial for this stranger. Later, he meets someone who saves his life, or assists him in an impossible task, or helps him find a fortune. Of course this assistant turns out to be an example of the "grateful dead." For a band that performs so many folk and traditional songs and finds a great deal of inspiration in tradition, this name seems uncannily appropriate.
1 Vagabond Songs and Ballads of Scotland, edited and with notes by Robert Ford (England: Paisley, 1904): 122).
2 John Anthony Scott, The Ballad of America (Carbondale and Edwardsville: University of Illinois Press, 1983): 20.
3 Scott: 20.
4 Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People, compiled by Alan Lomax, notes by Woody Guthrie (New York: Oak Publications, 1967): 217.
5 Robert Hunter, Box of Rain (New York: Viking, 1990): 131.
6 English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians, collected by Cecil J. Sharp (London: Oxford University Press, 1932).
7 American Ballads and Folk Songs, collected and compiled by John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax (New York: MacMillan, 1934): 36.
8 Hunter: 32.
9 Dorothy Scarborough, On the Trail of Negro Folk-Songs (Hatboro, PA: Folklore Associates, 1963): 92.
10 Hunter: 56.
14 John Anthony Scott, The Ballad of America (Carbondale and Edwardsville: The University of Illinois Press, 1983): 346.
15 Hard Hitting Songs for hard-Hit People, compiled by Alan Lomax, notes by Woody Guthrie (New York: Oak Publications, 1967).
American Ballads and Folk Songs. Collected and compiled by John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax. New York: MacMillan, 1934.
English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians. Collected by Cecil J. Sharp. London: Oxford University Press, 1932.
Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People. Compiled by Alan Lomax, notes by Woody Guthrie. New York: Oak Publications, 1967.
Hunter, Robert. Box of Rain. New York: Viking, 1990.
Scarborough, Dorothy. On the Trail of Negro Folk-Songs. Hatboro, PA: Folklore Associates, 1963.
Scott, John. The Ballad of America. Carbondale and Edwardsville: The University of Illinois Press, 1983.
Scott, John W., Mike Dolgushkin, Stu Nixon. Dead Base VI: The Complete Guide to Grateful Dead Song Lists. Hanover, NH: Dead Base, 1992.
Vagabond Songs and Ballads of Scotland. Edited and with notes by Robert Ford. England: Paisley, 1904.