Uncle John's Band

Album: Workingman's Dead (1969)
Charted: 69
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  • Deadies Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter collaborated on "Uncle John's Band," which was originally part of their stage set before they recorded it as a single track from their Workingman's Dead album. It would go on to become one of their better-known songs, even making it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's "500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll."

    The style is a laid-back bluegrass-folk arrangement on acoustic guitar. Vocals are in close harmony in a conscious effort to echo Cosby Stills & Nash - it worked, because CS&N covered it on their 2009 concert circuit.
  • Lots of Americana to touch on here - this was the first time the epithet "goddamn" had been heard in a Hot 100 hit. A "buckdancer" is "one who dances the buck-and-wing," according to The Dictionary of American Regional English. The phrase "buckdancer's choice" is both a popular fiddle tune of Appalachia, and the title of a poetry collection by the American poet James Dickey; you'll recognize him more when we tell you that one of his other works was turned into a little 1972 film called Deliverance.
  • More Americana: the line "fire and ice" references American poet Robert Frost's poem of the same name, and the line "Don't tread on me" is a famous phrase that first came out during the American Revolution from Britain - scope out an image of a yellow flag with a coiled, hissing snake sometime, that's the "Gadsden flag," later popular with the American Tea Party political movement. The line "the same story the crow told me" references Johnny Horton's "The Same Old Tale the Crow Told Me," which was the B-side to the better-known "Sink the Bismarck." While that's a British song, Horton was very much an American rockabilly artist (and he has no relation to the Horton who hears a who).
  • OK, who is Uncle John? That could be anybody and everybody - fan speculations run wild from the biblical John the Baptist to Mississippi John Hurt. But maybe, like the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper, it was just an alias made up for fun.
  • This was one of the Dead's first attempts to reach beyond their little cult and take a shot at the mainstream. The single release was cut by 25 seconds from the album version. Although this plan didn't work out with the single scoring a lukewarm #69, the album itself went on to sell well at one million copies - a first for them - and "Uncle John's Band" became one of their more well-known songs.
  • David Dodd, author of The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead lyrics looked into the possibility that this song is about a string band called the New Lost City Ramblers (NLCR), whose John Cohen was nicknamed "Uncle John."

    Dodd started a discussion on the topic, and Robert Hunter weighed in, lending support to the theory. Hunter's wrote:

    I like the direction of the discussion on UJB. It's right on the money. I thought I'd give you a piece to the puzzle which is not so obvious; a less direct allusion: compare:

    like the morning sun you come
    and like the wind you go


    Come all ye fair and tenders ladies
    Be careful how you court young men
    They're like the stars on a summer's morning
    First appear and then they're gone
    (NLCR did that one too.)
    and while we're at it, they're both what is known as "come all ye" tunes which is a rich tradition.

    Tom Paley was a math teacher at University of Connecticut the year I was there. (I was president of the folk music club). His replacement in the Ramblers, Tracy Schwartz, came to a party at Ellen Cavanaugh's hourse, along with Garcia, Nelson and me, after one of the NLCR shows in 1964 and we played until way early in the morning.

    Congratulations on Rosemary!

    So, it seems Hunter is backing the NLCR interpretation.
  • Musically, this song was inspired by Bulgarian folk music. Really.

    In 1955, the Bulgarian composer Philip Koutev assembled a 24-voice choir to record songs culled from the villages of his country. His recordings found their way to Elektra Records, which released them in America in 1966 on an album called Music Of Bulgaria, credited to the Ensemble Of The Bulgarian Republic.

    The album found a following on the West Coast, and it enthralled Jerry Garcia, who called the voices "exceptionally pure." It's influence is most apparent on "Uncle John's Band."
  • In Going Down the Road: A Grateful Dead Traveling Companion (p. 222) by Blair Jackson, Garcia says that he "stole" the melody for this song from a tune heard while listening to records by the Bulgarian Women's Choir and some Greek-Macedonian music. He couldn't recall exactly which song it was.

    In the same interview, Hunter discusses how he came up with the lyrics while listening to the music that the rest of the band already put together on tape. The words "god damn, Uncle John's mad" kept running through his mind, but these turned into, "Come hear Uncle John's Band." In Hunter's words, the moment of creative revelation was the kind where "sparkles start coming out of your eyes."

Comments: 4

  • Dougie Connor from Edinburgh ScotlanfI have had a view for many years now that Uncle John is quite possibly based on John Muir, the great Scottish environmentalist who was very active in California and in many parts of the USA and Canada
  • Wayne Dooley from Florida, UsaJust a correction to the main comments: "this was the first time the epithet "God Damn" had been heard in a commercially released song." Not really. On Steppenwolf's first ("Born to be Wild") album of 1968, they included a song written by Hoyt Axton, called "The Pusher", which features the expression prominently in the repeated chorus. This was a major release, and had schoolboys justifying using the epithet with "but they sing it on this record!". Nothing against this Dead song, though, it's really a classic. UJB was used as the theme music for the TV series knockoff of the film "The Paper Chase". Certainly in law school, the first days are the hardest days. [Good catch. We updated that to reflect the song being the first Hot 100 hit to use the phrase - editor]
  • Rotunda from Tulsa, OkOh yes, I remember it well. It's just amazing that I can recall anything from that year though!!! Haaaa! I was in college at the University of Kansas and when the album came out it was popular with the hippy culture around there. I was caught up in all the hub-bub of all that near KU. The Dead Heads, the hippies, the druggies, mercy! Loved the song. So laid back and mellow. Back then, I read a magazine that speculated it was about Mississippi John Hurt. Coulda been. What cool times & what strange people I met back then.
  • Nate from New York, NyLove this song!
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