“We can share the women, we can share the wine.
We can share what we got of yours, ‘cos we done shared all of mine.”
So begins the Grateful Dead’s signature murder ballad, “Jack Straw”. As a neophyte to the Dead’s music in high school, I naively thought these lines spoke to the hippie ethos at the core of the band’s being. Then, eventually, I listened to the words! Well folks, it ain’t about pleasure cruising boys and their sexist ideas of free love. This is a ballad proper.
Jack Straw utters these words to his “old buddy” Shannon, and we soon see why. The two are on the run, presumably escaped prisoners, and their story unfolds under the hot July sun of the American desert southwest during what seems to be the Great Depression. Jack dreams of hopping a train out of Santa Fe and finding an anonymous life somewhere far away. Shannon doesn’t dream at all and is instead motivated by violent instinct. He kills a watchman for four bucks and is more interested in settling an old score in Tulsa than in finding freedom. This troubles Jack deeply and keeps the duo moving and insecure. In the end… well, I already told you – it’s a murder ballad!
“Jack Straw from Wichita cut his buddy down.
He dug for him a shallow grave and laid his body down
half a mile from Tuscon by the morning light.
One man gone and another to go…”
The Grateful Dead never released a studio version of “Jack Straw”. But they introduced the song into their repertoire on October 19, 1971 and it stayed there, but for one short absence, until their last tour in the summer of 1995. The performance on their epic live triple album Europe ’72 was my ‘gateway’ to the song, and such is probably true for many. But for all its greatness, that recording is only a snapshot. They performed it nearly five hundred times in 24 years.
The video below is from their show on July 9, 1989 at Giants Stadium, and is very much an inspired performance. The Spotify link below it is the classic track from Europe ’72, from their show on May 3rd at Olympia Theatre, Paris.
“Jack Straw” Lyrics – from The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics by David Dodd
Pegging this song to a moment in time is easy compared to some of the others we’ve covered in this blog. The Dead’s long-time lyricist Robert Hunter penned the tune with rhythm guitarist Bob Weir likely sometime in late 1970 or early 1971. Hunter even posted an early manuscript online! (If you click on the image, it should be large enough to read.)
Hunter is well-known for saying little about the meaning of his songs as written, preferring instead to let listeners find their own interpretations of his work. This essay is an interesting aside on that point.
However, Weir declared that the song was inspired in part by Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. I don’t know when he first revealed this, but a comment of his in 2004, recorded and posted by David Gans in this thread on The WELL, makes it clear enough. An interview by David Cavanagh in 2007 with Weir, for Uncut magazine, removes all doubt and adds some detail.
“I don’t watch much TV, but one night I was home, it was late, and an old version of Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men came on. I was mesmerized. We were coming out of the Workingman’s Dead phase, and Hunter had this lyric. I grabbed it, and we came with a little sketch of heartland Americana, a ballad about two ne’er-do-wells. It was patterned on Of Mice And Men, but we tried to put a twist or two on it. Same story, different context.”
So we can identify the origin and *some* of the inspiration (note that Hunter had the seed of the song before Weir “grabbed” it) for this totally fictional tale of a desperate murder. You’ll judge for yourself whether or not it makes depth, but this song is clearly not pastiche balladry like the Beatles’ “Rocky Raccoon“. Neither is it simply an homage to Steinbeck or a reworking of Of Mice and Men, as I’ll observe in my mid-week post. Indeed, it functions well as a post-modern murder ballad, albeit differently than the other examples we’ve considered thus far in this blog. I’ll explore that at the end of the week, as well as to offer my own humble interpretation of the lyrics. (You think I’m going to let Bob Weir tell me what the song’s about?)
From One Voice to Two
It’s often noted that “Jack Straw” is a song in two voices, like the ancient murder ballad “Edward“. This is critical, though not because of the comparison. Jerry Garcia gave voice to Shannon and Bob Weir channeled Jack. The narrative passages and some other key lines were usually harmonized by the two, and with others in the band depending on the lineup. But the key conversation in the ballad was shared by Jerry and Bobby. It seems like it was crafted that way; it feels natural and keeps the song in graceful balance.
Yet, it’s also been often noted that this was not the original way the song was delivered on stage. Weir originally sang all of both characters’ bits solo. I don’t have all of the recordings in my bootleg collection to prove it, but I can’t find any performance before the one on May 3rd from Europe ’72 where Garcia sings in Shannon’s voice. I believe it’s the first.
Here is a performance of the song from Copenhagen, on April 17, 1972. Weir handles all lead vocals and, though it’s cool to watch and the playing is good, the song just doesn’t work as well..
I wonder what conversation happened to inspire them to change their approach. Maybe Hunter heard it that way when he started writing it, but the occasionally stubborn Weir heard it differently and just took awhile to come around. Maybe it evolved as an idea over time as the power of the song came into focus for the band on the Europe ’72 tour, and they decided finally to try it in Paris on May 3. (They go back to the old way the next night, but that seems to be the last example.) Maybe it was something unique about being in Germany (where they were for the two weeks between this show on April 17th and the one in Paris on May 3rd) that inspired someone to flash on the possibility and convince everyone to try it. Who knows?
It doesn’t matter why, really. It seems clear to me that the change to performance in two voices, whenever it happened and for whatever reason, was a breakthrough that allowed both Garcia and Weir to ‘inhabit’ the characters in the song. Ken and Shaleane have in this blog repeatedly noted this important dimension in many murder ballads. One singer couldn’t truly ‘be’ both Jack and Shannon, for himself or for the audience, and still have the song fire on all cylinders. Whether the Grateful Dead considered the change carefully or decided on it in a blaze of inspiration, there is no doubt that singing the song in two voices allowed it to come into its own. It must have made it more fun to perform as well, which in the end may have been the deciding factor!
You think I’m speculating recklessly about the effect Germany might have had on our fearless hippie horde? Nah. Check out Robert Hunter’s 1995 recollection included in the liner notes for the album Hundred Year Hall, a recording of part of the Grateful Dead show from April 26, 1972.
That run from Hamburg to Munich in two buses. Castles along the Rhine. Black Forest at night where werewolves roam. Bombed out ruins of old Heidelberg University, U.S.-Brit post-war retaliatory blitz of gemutlich Germany, ancient before ever those snot-nosed killers transformed high romance to schmaltz and wrecked the language for poets for generations to come. Too many lies had been told in it, concepts of the heart and the very words to say them expropriated for purposes of rape. We had lies of our own to tell, but not hateful ones. Told them with music. Had come to save the world but, starting in Germany, began to realize worlds cannot be saved. All are tentative. So we learned to dance on graves and be glad. None recover, they are just replaced. In 1972 the German Nation was still in shock, only halfway between then and now. We had Vietnam. All were crazy. None were sane. Hausfrauen at dawn, trying to scrub their patches of sidewalk free of blame, look up to see busloads of The Dead with red rubber noses waving, laughing. Register nothing. Continue scrubbing.
Siehst du die Toten? Only the children see.