Cumberland Blues

Album: Workingman's Dead (1970)
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Songfacts®:

  • In "Cumberland Blues," Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir (both are co-lead vocalists on this one) sing about working in the Cumberland mines while also trying to get with Melinda, who keeps them up late and makes it tough to get to work on time. The song has the two men scrambling for extra shifts to make extra cash, all while trying to get as much time with Melinda as possible.

    Melinda may be a prostitute, judging by the line, "I can't help you with your troubles, if you won't help with mine," or she may be a partner who needs financial support, or maybe a partying woman who requires alcoholic stimulation for her company. Whatever the case, he needs money to help with her "troubles."

    The song has a happy, upbeat feel, but lyrically it details the hard life of a miner - kind of like that song from Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs.
  • There's a historic northwest England county named Cumberland, but this song is almost certainly about the Cumberland Mountains that run through West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Dead lyricist Robert Hunter has used England as a setting in the past ("Scarlet Begonias" and "To Lay Me Down," for example), but "Cumberland Blues," as with all of Workingman's Dead, has Americana written all over it.

    The Cumberland Mountains are part of the largest bituminous coal deposit in the world, known as the Appalachian Coal Field, and have been mined for coal for generations.
  • In his book A Box Of Rain, Robert Hunter wrote that he received the best compliment he ever got for this song. An "old guy" that had worked in the real Cumberland mines said, "I wonder what the guy who wrote this song would've thought if he'd ever known something like the Grateful Dead was gonna do it." The flattering part was that Hunter had captured the feel of mining life well enough that the old guy assumed it had been written by someone who'd actually lived it.
  • A writer named Melinda Belleville wrote to the Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics site to say that she asked Robert Hunter about the use of the name Melinda. Hunter replied that it was the name of someone he knew in high school and that he loved the name and "thought it was the most euphonious (pleasing to the ear) names he had ever heard."
  • Little Ben clock says quarter to eight
    You kept me up till four


    The Westclox clock company was started in Peru, Illinois, on December 5, 1885. It first had the name of United Clock Company, which evolved to Western Clock Company and then the truncated "Westclox." They went out of business in 2001, but their trademarked Big Ben and Baby Ben home clocks were sold to Salton, Inc.

    Their clocks resembled Big Ben, the giant clock tower in the Palace of Westminster in London. The Baby Ben clocks were sometimes also called Little Ben clocks. Clockhistory.com calls specifically the 1964-1981 Baby Ben Style 8 alarm clock a "Little Ben." That date covers the time the Dead wrote and recorded this song, so it's a likely inspiration.
  • The Dead played this live for the first time in November of 1969 at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, California. The last performance was on July 9, 1995.

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