Alex Mathews

Alex Mathews – writer, bared naked dude blah blah blah

Morning Dew/New, New Minglewood Blues/Viola Lee Blues

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“Morning Dew” was a contemporary folk song by Bonnie Dobson, and is a song that would stay in the band’s repertoire for their entire career. Written in 1962, “Morning Dew” was inspired by the film On the Beach, a vision of a post-apocalyptic world where the bewilderment of such total loss takes place as a conversation between two people who are trying to figure out what happened. The Dead use a piece of contemporary folk music and create an arrangement that they could completely make their own. Over the years this song would take different shapes and find a strong slot in performances. The version here is shortened, but certainly not without impact, and offers a framework for how the song would develop over time. Rough and raw guitar and plaintive vocals from a very young Garcia shape this version into something entirely different from Dobson’s original—a great example of how the Dead could interpret material from various genres. The version the Dead developed is more than protest, more than a haunting vision of destruction. It seems to take all of that further, with Garcia’s stirring vocals, along with his unmistakable guitar notes and the Vox organ, rolling not only into the edge of apocalypse with the same sense of urgency as any folk song turned protest, but with a fairly driving rock ‘n roll edge. In later incarnations the song is a mournful ballad-like piece. The end of the song again takes us to a place of resolve, induced with regret. “I guess it doesn’t matter anyway” is both a warning and a way to cope with the reality of the end of life, of all life, and how one might want to cope with it. Perhaps it is the threat of the end that makes the resolve so poignant. In this album it is filled with crescendo and power that veers from the folk and gives us the kind of mental and spiritual commitment that only solid rock ‘n roll can do.

The track as it exists on the album is an example of how the recorded studio version fails to embody the breadth of the song and the depth of the musicians’ relationship with it. It is three minutes of what got laid down on 4-track, years ago. It represents what serves as recorded history of that moment in time. But even if you are given a description of the song—the emerging tone of Garcia’s sound, the emotion heard in his vocals, the novelty of Pigpen’s Vox organ—it doesn’t offer but that one glimpse. It doesn’t show how the song evolved, that it remained in the band’s repertoire for their entire career. It is barely a fair representation of the band during this time.

“Morning Dew” developed from the more up-tempo to the more unhurried, and the portrait created became more defined as a mournful and soulful venue for the emotions of Jerry Garcia, whose feelings are always offered wholeheartedly as he began to find his voice and his love for slower songs. While the meaning of Dobson’s original wasn’t lost, it took on new forms. The dialog going on in the song would create tension and anguish in the call and response structure of the verses, while the response eased the tension and transported listeners to a place of respite in the face of the devastation in the landscape of “Morning Dew.” The recorded version here gives an interesting sense of the roots of the song and a manner to appreciate that it would become such a pillar in the repertoire—a mind blowing thing, that the terse track simply can’t completely speak to.

“New, New Minglewood Blues” comes from the blues tradition. Noah Lewis’ “Minglewood Blues,” written in 1928 as part of Cannon’s Jug Stompers, is a blend of jug band blues and basic blues rendered in a playful spirit. There is a sense of abandon, of libido unleashed, of a playful devil, of irreverence. It is in a similar vein to the earlier track, “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,” where the sexual prowess and confidence of a man is depicted unapologetically. In “Minglewood,” the singer’s main occupation is ‘stealing women from their men.’ It is this kind of subject matter in tandem with the musical structure that makes a statement about sin by characterizing it. It serves to paint a picture that can speak for itself, without explanation or moralizing. The singer, ‘born in a desert, raised in a lion’s den,’ is a reference to the lion’s den from the book of Daniel. The town outside Memphis, known as “Minglewood,” is in a sense partly a contemporary Sodom and Gomorrah, and the singer embodies a sinner who is comfortable with his own devils, who can even boast about it. The biblical references in Grateful Dead music, both original and covers, are many, and a complete analysis could merit an entire volume. It is worth noting that many such references are used to enrich and characterize the stories being told, and they are used both because they are common points of reference, and they can illuminate some of the ideas conveyed in the bible, but not so much as biblical instruction but more as a way of further describing the human condition.

The last track is another Noah Lewis prison blues number from Cannon’s Jug Stompers about two buddies who serve life sentences, called “Viola Lee Blues,” with a 12-bar structure that the band would sometimes alter to 11 or 13 bars, and on stage it was a long number that went into the far reaches of chaos and returned to the basic beat, to the ecstatic response of the audience. This is one of the album’s tracks that extended beyond the 3-minute format, and yet even at a striking 10:13 it is hardly the 30-minute free-form jam the band was becoming accustomed to on stage. So again, the disparity between the recorded version here attempts to encompass the basic idea, and overall the sound of this record approaches the sound of the band as they were live. But one can see how the entire concept of producing records was a limitation for the Grateful Dead, in contrast to so many other musical acts that essentially operated the other way around.

On one level it is humorous that the Dead would take flight with a prison blues song. The origin of prison blues goes back to chain gang chanting and the experience of blues composers who had actually been to prison. On the other hand, there is a strange catharsis that transpires when the listener can engage in the tale, no matter how far from real experience the song travels. For some reason the Dead could render the truth of a story with a palpable emotional accuracy regardless of where or when the tale takes place. In “Viola Lee Blues” this is accomplished through the arrangement, blending blues improvisation, vocal energy and the drive to explore musically into an outlaw adventure behind prison walls.

The album was certified gold in November 1971 and found its way to the peak position of thirty-seven on the popular album charts. Grateful Dead is raw, garage band with a speed-induced carnival sound. Despite the band’s criticism of the tempo, and the mere fact that the standard album format limited the Dead’s ability to demonstrate their true talent and ability as an experimental psychedelic dance hall jam and improvisation phenomenon, the album is an honest document of the band at that time. The band displays its musical influences and the album itself set them on the path to becoming original composers. It marks the beginning of a journey that would last decades, and is an historical document of a contribution to American music that still has ripple effects today.

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Sittin’ on Top of the World/Cream Puff War

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“Sittin’ on Top of the World,” originally written by Walter Vinson and Lonnie Chatmon, recorded in 1930 by their group the Mississippi Sheiks, is another standard in American music. Confidence and optimism is driven home in both lyrical content as well as in the Dead’s arrangement. Adapted easily for a rock ‘n roll tempo, punctuated at the end of every chorus, this rendition gives a good example of the tone and style of the Grateful Dead at this time. Garcia’s raw tone, while largely undeveloped in comparison to what would evolve, is nonetheless striking. This song is still another reflection of the idealism of arriving at a destination or resolution, but deservedly so, or in a character for which it is hard won. Optimism in the face of struggle is typically expressed in American folk and blues tradition, but is also becomes part of the Grateful Dead ethos.“Cream Puff War” is one of Garcia’s only lyrical and musical efforts, and he felt his songwriting abilities were not his area of strength. Despite his failing confidence as a lyricist, the song is a response to the protest movement so active in the Bay Area at the time.

Juxtaposed against the political climate of the time, the Grateful Dead neatly evade real association with the activism and the anti-war movement raging underfoot. The chasm between the so-called hip movement and the Berkeley radicals was deep and long. The Grateful Dead ethos bespoke of passionate disinterest in taking to the streets in contrast to the anti-war movement’s concern with swift action and demonstration. The opposition to the war, and to a greater extent to the construct of capitalism and a ‘Proctor and Gamble’ culture inspired a restless generation to become politically active. But on the Haight, and more specifically within the Grateful Dead family, the activism was perceived as unseemly. Ken Kesey exemplifies this attitude with his only appearance at a Berkeley rally where he mocked youthful protest and exclaimed that doing so was “playing their game.” Certainly the attitude toward the establishment was not in dispute philosophically, but activism and protest as a means to change began to be unpalatable to many. This is conveyed in “Cream Puff War:”

I find your constant battling as getting to be a bore.

Please go somewhere else and continue your Cream Puff War.

Click here to continue reading Listening for the Secret.

Cold Rain and Snow

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“Cold Rain and Snow” is another song pulled from the catalog of American folk music. This traditional was inspired by Obray Ramsey’s rendering with a solo banjo, and it is likely Garcia was attracted to it from his banjo playing days. The song would remain in the repertoire until the end. Again, we have a certain commitment to material that would be proven over time. The sentiment of Cold Rain speaks to the types of tales that, with their emotional content, would attract the Dead. The wonder of folk music and ballads is in the story that is told, or often half-told, without complete context. It leaves a canvas to shade and color, which was what the Dead did. This can arguably open the music for the listener to bring their experience, their emotional baggage, maybe their empathy, and sort of convene or commune for catharsis. This is something you can’t miss if you follow the Dead’s catalog. While Cold Rain is a simple emotional vignette of spousal dissatisfaction, the Dead’s up-tempo rendition all but demolishes the haunting Appalachian mood in Ramsey’s version. The singer’s escapism or resolve is forged into determination to go “where those chilly winds don’t blow.” The theme of basically bailing out of a bad situation may be viewed as escapism—but at the same time the resolve to do so is what can be liberating, and again the Grateful Dead are able to take tension, draw it out and take the listener to some place they want to go but perhaps won’t allow themselves. Like in Fuller’s “Beat It on Down the Line,” “Cold Rain” gives solace to the oppressed. The fact that the original essentially calls up the familiar or archetypal portraits ingrained in the collective experience, the Grateful Dead render these with their own spirit or attitude, laid over the template of the traditional. The effect on “Cold Rain” is a kind of joviality and resolve in the face of the subject matter, taking a pitiable character and tingeing him with a sense of humor, all the while remaining cautionary, oddly enough. Despite the hard luck of the singer, this version is a head-bopping number that could almost make the listener miss the sorrow altogether, or perhaps touch sorrow with the strength of someone ready to move forward.

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