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Music

The sinister lyrics at the heart of a classic Grateful Dead song

@SamWKemp

Some songs just don’t age well. If you’re looking for an example, you needn’t look any further than the American blues classic ‘Good Morning, Little School Girl’. By today’s standards, the song’s lyrics are more than creepy; they’re downright sinister. But it wasn’t that long ago that the song was nestled at the top of the UK Charts. Indeed, everyone from Muddy Waters to The Yardbirds and The Grateful Dead has put their own spin on ‘Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl’ at one point or another.

So, what’s so frightening about this old standard? Before we answer that, we need to explore its origins. Originally recorded on May 5th, 1937, at the Leland Hotel in Aurora, Illinois, by Sonny Boy Williamson, the track was first billed as ‘Good Morning, School Girl’. Later versions tended to place the word ‘Little’ in the title to reflect Sonny Boy’s original lyrics more accurately. The song’s opening verse reads: “Hello, little school girl / Good mo’nin, little school girl / Can I go home with you? / Can I go home, later wit’ you? / Now, you can tell / yo’ mother an’ yo’ father / That Sonny Boy’s a little school boy, too.”

Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, the track soon became a staple among Chicago bluesmen and British Blues bands alike. Indeed, it has proven to be so influential that some have called it “the first rock ‘n’ roll record”, with many artists recording their own versions of the years, including Smokey Hogg, who renamed the track ‘Little School Girl’, earning himself a number five Billboard R&B chart hit in 1950. Muddy Waters also offered up his own version of the single on his album The Folk Singer. Water’s version includes slightly altered lyrics. “Tell your mother, honey, and your father, I once was a schoolboy too,” he sings, betraying his anxiety about the original song and its pedophilic message. Nevertheless, the strange dynamic between the speaker and the object of his desires remains.

The Yardbird’s version also features adapted lyrics. The British group recorded a cover version of the track in 1964. It peaked at number 44 on the UK charts and spent a month on the best-seller list. As well as modifying the melody, Eric Clapton removed any indication of the speaker’s age and identity. There is no insistence that the schoolgirl tells her parents that the speaker is a schoolboy too, so the assumption is that they are the same age, allowing them to “do the twist” to “the music of the rock ‘n’ roll” without the sinister dynamic of Sonny Boy’s original.

The Grateful Dead, on the other hand, refused to censor the original lyrics. In their version, they paint a portrait of an obsessive paedophile stalking the schoolgirl of the title. In addition to the opening verse, Garcia sings: “I want to be your chauffeur, I want to ride your little machine / I want to put a tiger, baby I want to put a tiger, baby /I want to put a tiger, baby, hey in your sweet little tank,” heightening the creepiness of the original song in what seems like a deliberate attempt to inflame the paranoia of middle America.

‘Good Morning, Little School Girl’ is a revered song in the blues canon to this day. Recent artists to cover the undeniably unsettling track include Jonny Lang, who included a version on his 1997 album Lie To Me and The Derek Trucks Band, who included it on 1998’s Out Of The Madness. In the last couple of decades, the song’s popularity has dwindled. Nevertheless, it remains enshrined in the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame.

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