Uncle John's Band
|"Uncle John's Band"|
|Song by Grateful Dead from the album Workingman's Dead|
|Released||June 14, 1970|
|Recorded||Pacific High Recording Studio
San Francisco, California
|Workingman's Dead track listing|
"Uncle John's Band" is a song by the Grateful Dead that first appeared in their concert setlists in late 1969. The band recorded it for their 1970 album Workingman's Dead. Written by guitarist Jerry Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter, "Uncle John's Band" presents the Dead in an acoustic and musically concise mode, with close harmony singing.
The song, one of the band's most well-known, is one of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. In 2001 it was named 321st (of 365) in the Songs of the Century project list.
Music and lyrics
"Uncle John's Band" has one of the Dead's most immediately accessible and memorable melodies, set against a bluegrass-inspired folk arrangement with acoustic guitars. The song's close harmony singing was inspired in part by Crosby, Stills and Nash. Both the music and the lyrics summon up the Dead's feel for Americana, with the song making allusions to both past — Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band" — and present — the fate of the American counterculture at the turn of the decade. In particular, at the end of the tumultuous sixties, when the hopes and dreams for an Age of Aquarius with its Summer of Love became undermined with the hard edges of reality illustrated by the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and the stabbing death at Altamont, the lyrics encapsulate the core concern of those who survived with the line, "Whoa-oh, what I want to know is are you kind?"
The identity of "Uncle John" has led to several theories: Blues musician Mississippi John Hurt, who was an influence on the Grateful Dead, was nicknamed "Uncle John". Another possibility is that Uncle John's Band refers to the New Lost City Ramblers as Uncle John was a nickname for John Cohen. Also, Uncle John may be a biblical reference to John the Baptist, who baptized in a river. Such an explanation may correlate to the lyrics "He's come to take his children home."
According to the biography Dark Star by Robert Greenfield, Uncle John could also refer to Jerome John Garcia as it was felt by many that Jerry heavily influenced and "ran" the band.
Single and album history
Warner Bros. Records released "Uncle John's Band", backed with "New Speedway Boogie", as a single in 1970, receiving only limited airplay due to its length. Garcia worked with Warners to cut it down, though he later called the mix "an atrocity." "I gave them instructions on how to properly edit it and they garbled it so completely," Garcia commented. The original album version ended up getting more air play than the revised Warner Bros. version.
In any case, the single reached only number 69 on the U.S. Pop Singles chart. Nevertheless it had a greater impact than its chart performance indicates, it did receive good airplay on progressive rock radio stations and others with looser playlists. At a time when the Grateful Dead were already an underground legend, "Uncle John's Band" (and to some degree its albummate "Casey Jones") was the first time many in the general rock audience actually heard the band's music.
Moreover, the song had an impact on the mainstream because of first using the word "goddamn" in the unedited single, which many radio stations played instead of the edited version; together with the reference to cocaine in "Casey Jones", the two songs made the band a "thorn in the side of Nixon that became a badge of honor to the masses."
The song is available as downloadable content for the video game Rock Band.
"Uncle John's Band" is one of the Grateful Dead's most frequently played tracks on classic rock radio.
- Reggae musician Joe Higgs recorded a version of the song for the 1996 compilation "Fire on the Mountain: Reggae Celebrates the Grateful Dead."
- It was covered by the Indigo Girls for the 1991 Grateful Dead tribute compilation Deadicated. The recording also appeared on their album Rarities.
- Crosby, Stills & Nash covered the song live during their 2009 US concert tour.
- Stanford Marching Band has covered this song.
- Allmusic song review by William Ruhlmann
- Woodward, Jake; et al. Grateful Dead: The Illustrated Trip, Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2003, pg. 120.
- Jackson, Blair. Garcia: An American Life, Penguin Books, 1999, p.190.
- Jackson, p. 188.
- Jackson, p. 190.