“Uncle John’s Band” was recorded on their 1970 album Workingman’s Dead, and many people think that it is a protest song about the Viet Nam War. There is a mention of cannonballs, but I don’t think that it is a protest song, as this song is just saying, “Come with me or go alone”, so it is about making an individual choice. This band was never overtly political, they did not think, play, or behave like they cared about politics or politicians. They just exercised their individuality and freedom and played their music all over the world. The words for Uncle John’s Band were written by Robert Hunter and the music was composed by Jerry Garcia. This song would go on to become one of the Grateful Dead’s better known songs, and it even made 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 is very possible that this song is about a string band called the New Lost City Ramblers (NLCR), who were headed by John Cohen and his nicknamed was ‘Uncle John’. The Lost City Ramblers were a traditional bluegrass band that Garcia, Hunter and Dawg (David Grisman) an American bluegrass mandolinist and composer of acoustic followed and taped. Many Grateful Dead concerts were taped by their fans and it is thought that this is where the practice of allowing people to tape Dead shows started. Hunter and Garcia were both fans of the New Lost City Ramblers whose members included Mike Seeger, John Cohen, and Tom Paley and they saw the band play a number of times. The NLCR’s songs included lines that were incorporated into the lyrics of Uncle John’s Band such as, ‘The Story The Crow Told Me’, ‘Buckdancer’s Choice’, ‘The First Day Is The Hardest Day’. ‘Easy Street’ and ‘Beggars Tune’. The Lost City Ramblers were from the NYC and they played a lot of outside concerts along the Hudson River during the late 50’s and early 60’s, hence the lyrics ‘by the riverside’ and ‘here beside the rising tide’.
Johnny Horton an American country music and rockabilly singer and musician wrote the song, “The Same Old Tale the Crow Told Me”, and the line in Uncle John’s Band “the same story the crow told me” is a reference to this. A ‘buckdance’ is an energetic step dance performed in minstrel and vaudeville shows by an African-American male or a white male in blackface, considered to be a precursor to tap dancing. A ‘buckdancer’ refers to someone who dances the buck-and-wing’ a fast and flashy clog dance usually performed in wooden-soled shoes. Buck-and-wing combines Irish clogging styles, high kicks, and complex African rhythms and steps such as the shuffle and slide. A buckdancer might be paid a buck for their dancing and the phrase ‘buckdancer’s choice’ is a popular fiddle tune from Appalachia.
“Uncle John’s Band” is one of those wide-open songs where the lyrics are open to many different interpretations and this is probably why this song is over analyzed so much. Hunter is a storyteller and like Shakespeare, his phrases can easily be pulled out of the context of their settings and used to give meaning to various things, depending on how they are needed at any given moment. Hunter may have borrowed some lyrics from the Bible, when he wrote, “I call it beggar’s tomb”, as Jesus tells a parable about Lazarus the beggar who was a poor man that covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table and He had a friend named Lazarus who was raised from the dead and called out of his tomb. Hunter had varied reading habits and he may have taken some lyrics from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (Persia, c. 1120) which says, “I came like Water, and like Wind I go.” Hunter wrote, “Like the morning sun you come and like the wind you go.”
Robert Frost wrote a short poem titled ‘Fire and Ice’ about how the world will end. His poem goes like this, “Some say the world will end in fire, Some say in ice. From what I’ve tasted of desire I hold with those who favor fire. But if it had to perish twice, I think I know enough of hate To say that for destruction ice Is also great And would suffice.” It is thought that the line in this song ‘fire from the ice’ references this poem.
Then there is the Emily Dickinson (Poem #478) ”I had no time to Hate”, which is also thrown in when people analyze Uncle John’s Band. This ambiguous poem shows deep thought processes, where Emily is weighing the emotions of love and hate against each other. She declares that she did not have any time to hate, because she knew this hatred would only end with her death, and she didn’t have enough time before that end, because life is much too short to finish the task of hating. For the same reason, the brevity of life also affects her, as she didn’t have time to love, but since she had to do something with her life other than just sit and wait for death, she decided that the small act of loving would be sufficient for her. Emily Dickinson quite impressively deals with love, hate, the brevity of life, what comes after death, and personal urgency. Her poem says. “I had no time to Hate – Because The Grave would hinder Me – And Life was not so Ample I Could finish – Enmity – Nor had I time to Love – But since Some Industry must be – The little Toil of Love – I thought – Be large enough for Me.” The Grateful Dead lyrics are, “Ain’t no time to hate, barely time to wait”.
The line in Uncle John’s Band “Don’t tread on me” was made famous during the American Revolution and this song carries an emphatic American spirit. In 1775, Colonel Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina, on the occasion of the newly commissioned Navy’s first mission, presented to Commodore Esek Hopkins what would become the iconic yellow flag, featuring a coiled-up hissing rattlesnake and the words, “Don’t Tread on Me.”
This song asks a lot of questions such as, “what I want to know, is are you kind?”, “Will you come with me? won’t you come with me?”, “have you seen the like?”, “where does the time go?” and “how does the song go?” That line, “have you seen the like?”, has always puzzled me as it seems as if it needs more words, as if it should be saying, ‘the like of which the world had previously only dreamed of.’ Dead head fans would dance and sing along with this song and the tune would bring happy feelings to the entire crowd every time it was played. I chose this song because of the line, “You know all the rules by now”.
Grateful Dead – Uncle Johns Band – Alpine Valley 1989
Well the first days are the hardest days, don’t you worry any more,
Cause when life looks like easy street, there is danger at your door.
Think this through with me, let me know your mind,
Wo, oh, what I want to know, is are you kind?
It’s a buck dancer’s choice my friend; better take my advice.
You know all the rules by now and the fire from the ice.
Will you come with me? won’t you come with me?
Wo, oh, what I want to know, will you come with me?
Goddamn, well I declare, have you seen the like?
Their wall are built of cannonballs, their motto is “don’t tread on me”.
Come hear uncle John’s band playing to the tide,
Come with me, or go alone, he’s come to take his children home.
It’s the same story the crow told me; it’s the only one he knows.
Like the morning sun you come and like the wind you go.
Ain’t no time to hate, barely time to wait,
Wo, oh, what I want to know, where does the time go?
I live in a silver mine and I call it beggar’s tomb;
I got me a violin and I beg you call the tune,
Anybody’s choice, I can hear your voice.
Wo, oh, what I want to know, how does the song go?
Come hear uncle John’s band by the riverside,
Got some things to talk about, here beside the rising tide.
Come hear uncle John’s band playing to the tide,
Come on along, or go alone, he’s come to take his children home.
Wo, oh, what I want to know, how does the song go.
Written for Helen Vahdati’s September 24th, 2017 Song Lyric Sunday where this week theme is “rules”.