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Music

Listen to the Grateful Dead play an early version of 'Casey Jones' in 1969

@TylerGolsen

By 1969, the Grateful Dead had hit a wall. Their previous two albums, Anthem of the Sun and Aoxomoxoa, were psychedelic and highly experimental albums that featured a tireless search for a signature sound. The extended improvisations in the studio put the group deeply in debt to their record company, Warner Bros, and a live album was quickly assembled to help resolve their financial woes.

That album, Live/Dead, gave the first real insight into what dedicated fans had known all along: the Grateful Dead were a live band, first and foremost. Jerry Garcia wasn’t ignorant of this fact, and the band’s previous attempts to bend the rigid nature of the studio to their wild concepts was not working. So why not make an album quick and on the cheap, featuring basic acoustic arrangements instead of the unwieldy live sound that was impossible to replicate in a studio.

That was how Workingman’s Dead was approached. Along with a new focus on harmonies, inspired by contemporaries like Crosby, Stills, and Nash, the Dead practically transformed into a different band. Folky and pastoral, Workingman’s Dead featured acoustic guitars and old-fashioned Americana imagery heavily, charting a new course for the band’s musical direction. 

One of the few electric songs on the album was the closer, ‘Casey Jones’. With an immediate hook at its centre and a rollicking rhythm, ‘Casey Jones’ was the most commercial song that the group had ever written up to that point. But like all the band’s material, the song was forged through experimentations and jams in the live setting.

Even though they remain one of the most heavily documented and archived bands in all of history, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the Grateful Dead played ‘Casey Jones’ for the first time. The most likely candidate is June 22nd in Central Park, New York, where the band shared a bill with fellow San Francisco freak-folkers Hot Tuna in the summer of 1969.

This version of ‘Casey Jones’ starts with a relatively jaunty and nebulous introduction. Despite being slightly faster than the studio version, this take of ‘Casey Jones’ is more heavily indebted to calypso and Caribbean music than the muscular rock cut that would appear on Workingman’s Dead. Either Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan or Tom Constanten is busting out a loose B-3 organ line, one that wouldn’t appear on the final version of the song either. 

Check out the early version of ‘Casey Jones’ down below.