Monday, January 29, 2007

“Cumberland Blues” / The Grateful Dead

I have to make one thing clear: I’m not a Grateful Dead fan. It’s not that I don’t admire their music, it’s just that Deadheads raise the bar too high -- it’s impossible to be just a casual listener. Besides, I always put the Dead into the category of Guy Music: long loud jams full of top-this-one-buddy instrumentals. Girl Music features melody, hooks, crafted lyrics, and fine-tuned vocals, preferably running less than three minutes. The Grateful Dead is NOT Girl Music -- and hey, I suspect they’d all be just fine with that.

Still, I have to say I like this Workingman’s Dead album. The bluegrass/folk side of Jerry Garcia seems in control here, the psychedelia toned down, and that’s refreshing. While the best-known song from this album is “Casey Jones” (how can you forget that line “Driving that train/ High on cocaine”?), the track I really enjoy is “Cumberland Blues.” It’s full of juicy vocal harmonies (disguising the fact that the Grateful Dead really didn’t have a single decent singer) and the guitar picking is nimble and upbeat. Of course, I have no idea whether it’s Jerry Garcia or Bob Weir playing. I suppose I should care, but I don’t.

"Cumberland Blues" also has a story going on, one that even fits the album’s theme – and that appeals to the English major in me. The singer is hauling himself sleepily out of bed; he and his girlfriend Melinda have been up most of the night, but now he’s anxious to get to his shift at the Cumberland mine -- not because he likes working there, but because one false step could lose him that job. “A lotta poor man make a five dollar bill / Keep him happy all the time / Some other fella's makin' nothin' at all / And you can hear him cry / ‘Can I go, buddy, can I go down / Take your shift at the mine?’”

I love how this captures the working man’s economic insecurity, the catch-22 of it: “Make good money, five dollars a day / Made any more, I might move away.” The foot-jiggling pace of the song, that hustling drum track -- lots of cymbals and brushes, like jingling loose change -- come across as pure nervous anxiety. Of course, then the singer re-evaluates how he feels about this job: “Lotta poor man got the Cumberland Blues / He can't win for losin' / Lotta poor man got to walk the line / Just to pay his union dues.” By the last line, he sounds a whole lot less convinced. “I don’t know now, I just don't know / If I'm goin' back again.” I picture him sinking back into Melinda’s arms, switching off that Little Ben alarm clock (love that detail – the Grateful Dead could use more visual details like this).

True, if I were Melinda, I'd wish this song were more about being in love and less about going to work. But what do you expect? Like I said, it's Guy Music.


Anonymous said...

Man, wow, I never heard the dead described like that! Hey, thanks for finally gettin' the words straight for me! I knew they were somethin' like that. Hey, I mean I'm a dude, so, a, yea, keep on truckin'! THEE BEST!

J 00 S

irenie said...

Holly, Holly,
Only some of it is "guy's music".
Lot's of great story songs!
Cassidy, Black Throated Wind, Terrapin , Standing on the moon are a few you might want to have a listen to.

Holly A Hughes said...

Thanks, Irenie -- I do like Terrapin and Standing on the Moon, gotta go find the others. Only I think I'll skip the live versions that the Deadhead in my house owns -- those go on FOREVER. Halfway through I begin to think, Gee, if I'm gonna sit here this long, I should get my knitting....

Will Cate said...

Great post! Congrats of your newfound appreciation of Grateful Dead.

If you can, check out the live version of Cumberland Blues on the "Europe 72" album. The definitive version.

The lyrics come from the Dead's great poet, Robert Hunter. I think you'd probably like some other Hunter/Garcia songs - they possess all the qualities you cite: melody, hooks, crafted lyrics, and fine-tuned vocals (well, mostly).

Holly A Hughes said...

So tell me now -- 'cause I'm a little challenged on this score -- do you GD enthusiasts think the studio versions ever stand up to the inspired spontaneity of the live recordings? And more important, do you think anyone can really enjoy the live recordings if they've never seen the Dead in the flesh? Since I'm not likely to have that pleasure at this point in time...

Joe Erjavec said...

I don't think the studio versions of songs stand up to the spontaneity of live recordings. However, there are definitely some well crafted studio albums, like Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, that can be enjoyed as great music. (As most music on the radio is studio music, these two albums contain great radio-friendly music for the American listener, not just Deadheads.)

I'd have to ask younger fans, those who grew up Grateful Dead-less. There are many who never got to see the Dead, but who enjoy live recordings nonetheless.