From campfire debates to internet message boards to the authoritative Greatest Stories Ever Told site
run by Dead scholar David Dodd, there's been some debate over one aspect of the song. Does Jack Straw kill his buddy Shannon?
It's clear throughout the song that Jack Straw isn't happy that Shannon killed a man. It "hurts his ears" and "burns his eyes." He also states that if Shannon is going to cut a man down, "it might as well be me." It's a strange statement that's made clearer a few verses later:Ain't no place a man can hide, Shannon
Keep him from the sun
Ain't no bed will give us rest, man,
You keep us on the run
Straw's point seems to be that the fugitive life is no life at all, and he harbors some resentment, or at least regret, towards his friend.
This feeds into the theory that Straw kills Shannon near the end of the song.Jack Straw from Wichita
Cut his buddy down
Dug for him a shallow grave
And laid his body down
Dodd proposes an alternate theory that perhaps the verse means that Straw cut Shannon down from a noose and gave him an honorable burial.
Both theories rest on the idea that the buddy Straw cut down was Shannon, but there's not much reason to assume that. The victim is never identified as Shannon and, more importantly, the very next verse (also last verse in the song) goes:Half a mile from Tucson
By the morning light
One man gone and another to go
My old buddy you're moving much too slow
Those lines are sung by the Garcia-Weir-Lesh chorus, so many have assumed it means it's coming from a third perspective. It is possible, though, that the chorus still represents Straw's perspective, and he's still talking to Shannon.
In that case, the buddy that Straw cut down may be something totally new to the story, and may hark back to that "old score" in Tulsa.
No matter what interpretation is correct, like any work of great literature, the narrative of "Jack Straw" has left enough ambiguity that fans can continue to fill in the blank spaces with their own interpretations.