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Grateful Dead Week – Day 1: Excerpt from Workingman’s Dead

TO CELEBRATE THIS WEEK’S RELEASE (APRIL 21st) OF OUR 33 1/3 ON  WORKINGMAN’S DEAD, WE’RE PLEASED TO BRING YOU THE FIRST INSTALLMENT OF GRATEFUL DEAD WEEK BY AUTHOR BUZZ POOLE!

THE FOLLOWING IS AN EXCERPT FROM  GRATEFUL DEAD’S WORKINGMAN’S DEAD. COPYRIGHT © 2016 BY BUZZ POOLE.

In 1934, with the publication of American Ballads and Folk Songs, father and son musicologists John and Alan Lomax introduced a whole new body of American music to America, which they continued to document for years thanks to their partnership with the Library of Congress. In 1952, Folkways released the seminal Anthology of American Folk Music, compiled by the artist and collector (of not only records but paper airplanes, too) Harry Smith. The Dead folded these traditions into their songs where they fit just as snuggly as jazz and the blues.

Released seven months before Workingman’s Dead, Live Dead pulses with the kaleidoscopic lysergic energy that had come to define the band. But even on this album, a glimpse of the future, and the past, is revealed on the final track. The thirty-five second a cappella version of the traditional “And We Bid You Goodnight” is a comedown after so much soaring electrified music, but it is also the germ from which all Grateful Dead music grew:

Lay down my dear brothers, lay down and take your rest
Oh won’t you lay your head upon your savior’s breast
I love you, oh but Jesus loves you the best
And I bid you goodnight, goodnight, goodnight
And I bid you goodnight, goodnight, goodnight
And I bid you goodnight, goodnight, goodnight

The Dead often performed this song at the end of shows during this time. The higher power of music was for the band and its fans as much a code by which to live life as any of the holy scriptures. Although the Dead’s arrangement of “And We Bid You Goodnight” was their doing, the original lyrics date back to 1871 when Sarah Doudney wrote them on the occasion of a friend’s death; in 1884 gospel singer Ira Sankey paired the words to music. The song became a regular part of funerals in the Bahamas, typically sung when a casket was lowered into the grave. Alan Lomax recorded a version in the Bahamas in 1935, indexing it as “I Bid You Goodnight.”

In March 1968, “I Bid You Goodnight” was part of “A Very Cellular Song,” on The Incredible String Band’s The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter. The Dead first performed “And We Bid You Goodnight” that same month. It’s impossible to say why the Dead decided to add the song to their repertoire. But that’s part of the point: the Dead, like so many musicians before them, borrowed and repurposed everything they found useful, creating their own songs that were as much a part of the past as they were emblematic of the present, and harbingers of the future. And, like other musicians of the era, they were being influenced by what had become a genuine national interest in the traditional songs that had been shaped by the New World.

Stanley Mouse created the Workingman’s Dead cover. When I visited his studio in Sebastopol, California, he credited Arhoolie Records for the concept. John and Alan Lomax were the initial wave of music lovers committed to cataloging these earliest forms of American music, first as collected transcripts and then later as sound recordings. They were followed by Harry Smith. Arhoolie Records added to the growing presence of this music and all it represented in American popular culture. Started by Chris Strachwitz in the East Bay town of El Cerrito, just north of Berkeley, with the motto “Down Home Music Since 1960,” the first release was Mance Lipscomb’s Texas Sharecropper and Songster. Recorded in Lipscomb’s kitchen, the Library of Congress added this album to its National Recording Registry in 2013 because of the cultural and aesthetic significance of these songs written by the self-described “songster,” the son of a former slave and half-Choctaw gospel singer.

Over the label’s first decade Arhoolie had released several albums with covers made to look vintage. The photographs of the artists were treated with an antique-looking patina conjuring yellowed newsprint, usually framed with a modest art deco border and the name of the artist and recording boldly printed against a solid color, not at all interfering with the photograph. Mouse understood where the songs on this album were coming from and knew exactly what he was doing when he designed this cover.

Workingman’s Dead was the breakthrough album for the Dead. Not only was it their most commercially and critically successful album to date, but these songs established the blueprint for how the Dead would maintain and build upon a community held together by the core motivation of rejecting the status quo—the “straight life”—in order to live and work on their own terms.

Lyrically, Workingman’s Dead acknowledged the political and cultural changes defining the era and accepted that there was no choice but to respond and react to them. Musically, the Dead solidified their reverent commitment to honoring and repurposing traditional American roots music. For this album, they relied heavily on the Bakersfield sound—the first country and western artists inspired by rock ’n’ roll’s backbeat and plugged-in guitars—brought to the nation’s attention by the likes of Merle Haggard (RIP) and Buck Owens starting in the 50s.

The Dead turned one reinvented tradition on its head and put out the loosest country and western imaginable. The pared down, breezy arrangements evoke lolling on hillsides but live up to the album’s title. There are union dues to be paid, muddy wheels freighted by loads of hay, and jackhammers clearing the way for new roads. And no matter how you deal with all of that, death still awaits.

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