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Credit: Carl Lender

Music

The strange inspiration behind a classic Grateful Dead song

@TylerGolsen

Even if you’re not a devoted Deadhead, there are a few songs from the legendary and notoriously prolific Grateful Dead that have translated beyond the niche halls of super fandom. Classic rock radio will still frequently put on ‘Truckin’ or ‘Casey Jones’, while ‘Touch of Grey’ was an authentic pop hit back in 1987. Even if you’re not shouting along to every word of ‘Alabama Getaway’, you can always wait for the rousing euphoria of ‘Sugar Magnolia’ (unless they don’t play it that night).

One of the band’s rare crossover tracks was ‘Uncle John’s Band’, the jaunty acoustic number featuring tight three-part harmonies that recalled the work on Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Even though it could really spread out at live shows, most of the Dead’s studio work is concise and compact. ‘Uncle John’s Band’ could easily press on for ten-plus minutes during performances, but the recorded version is a tidy sub-five minute tour through old school Americana.

With its images of silver mines, rising tides, and walls built of cannonballs, ‘Uncle John’s Band’ is one of the more exemplary examples of lyricist Robert Hunter mixing the surreal and the sublime. Psychedelic imagery could freely mingle with old west allusions without either seeming out of place. Hunter crafted his own world that was a distinct reflection of America’s past, but the spark from the song initially came with a different title phrase in mind.

“I played it over and over [and] kept hearing the words ‘God damn, Uncle John’s mad’,” Hunter recalled in 1991. “It took a while for that to turn into ‘Come hear Uncle John’s Band,’ and that’s one of those little things where the sparkles start coming out of your eyes.”

There’s some debate as to who, specifically, was the inspiration for the Uncle John character. Most seem to point to Jerry Garcia, whose middle name was John, and who could affect a paternal warmth or flash a fiery temper at times. However, Hunter usually declined to explain his lyrical choices, preferring to let the audience interpret the words in the ways that they saw fit.

As for the music, Garcia pulled his inspiration from a strange source: Bulgarian folk music. “At that time, I was listening to records of the Bulgarian Women’s Choir and also this Greek-Macedonian music,” Garcia recalls in the same 1991 interview, “and on one of those records, there was a little turn of melody that was so lovely. I thought, ‘Gee, if I could get this into a song, it would be so great.’ So, I stole it!”

No word on what specific song contained the kernel of an idea that eventually blossomed into ‘Uncle John’s Band’, but enough time has probably passed for the Dead to not worry about a potential songwriting lawsuit.