“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.