Grateful Dead – Uncle John’s Band

There are songs like Itchycoo Park, Can’t Find My Way Back Home, and this one that transports me back to a time that I’m too young to remember… but these songs make me feel like I was there.

Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter collaborated on “Uncle John’s Band,” which was originally part of their stage set before they recorded it as a single track from their Workingman’s Dead album. It would go on to become one of their better-known songs

It’s possible that this song is about a string band called the New Lost City Ramblers (NLCR), whose John Cohen was nicknamed “Uncle John.”

For two albums the Dead tried a more roots Americana type of music that may have been inspired by the then-new Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. Personally, they are my favorite albums by them though I do like some others like From The Mars Hotel. 

The song peaked at #69 in the Billboard 100. If you want to read more info on the Dead…go to https://jimadamsauthordotcom.wordpress.com/2020/04/08/g-is-for-grateful-dead/ 

Jim has over 30 Dead concerts in his past.

From Songfacts
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 worked, because CS&N covered it on their 2009 concert circuit.

Lots of Americana to touch on here – this was the first time the epithet “God Damn” had been heard in a Hot 100 hit. A “buckdancer” is “one who dances the buck-and-wing” according to The Dictionary of American Regional English. The phrase “buckdancer’s choice” is both a popular fiddle tune of Appalachia, and the title of a poetry collection by the American poet James Dickey; you’ll recognize him more when we tell you that one of his other works was turned into a little 1972 film called Deliverance.

More Americana: the line “fire and ice” references American poet Robert Frost’s poem of the same name, and the line “Don’t tread on me” is a famous phrase that first came out during the American Revolution from Britain – scope out an image of a yellow flag with a coiled, hissing snake sometime, that’s the “Gadsden flag,” later popular with the American Tea Party political movement. The line “the same story the crow told me” references Johnny Horton’s “The Same Old Tale the Crow Told Me,” which was the B-side to the better-known “Sink the Bismarck.” While that’s a British song, Horton was very much an American rockabilly artist (and he has no relation to the Horton who hears a who).

OK, who is Uncle John? That could be anybody and everybody – fan speculations run wild from the Biblical John the Baptist to Mississippi John Hurt. But maybe, like the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper, it was just an alias made up for fun.

This was one of the Dead’s first attempts to reach beyond their little cult and take a shot at the mainstream. The single release was cut by 25 seconds from the album version. Although this plan didn’t work out with the single scoring a lukewarm #69, the album itself went on to sell well at one million copies – a first for them – and “Uncle John’s Band” became one of their more well-known songs.

Uncle John’s Band

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