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The American DJ referenced in a classic Grateful Dead song


When the Grateful Dead embarked on their Europe ’72 tour, they brought with them a whole set of new songs that were being debuted mostly for the first time. Europe had barely seen the Dead prior to their 1972 trek across the continent, and the Deadhead scene was still mostly a small underground cult at the time. Most fans were coming to shows wanting to hear the likes of ‘Dark Star’ and ‘Casey Jones’, but what they got was an assortment of new material inspired by classic Americana.

New tracks like ‘Brown-Eyed Women’, ‘Tennessee Jed’, ‘Mr. Charlie’, and ‘He’s Gone’ tapped into a sort of bygone America that lyricist Robert Hunter had become enthralled with by this time. But Hunter wasn’t above mixing the old with new, which became clear on another new track that would see its first official release on Europe ’72, ‘Ramble On Rose’.

“I think ‘Ramble On Rose’ is the closest to complete whimsy I’ve come up with,” Hunter told David Gans for the book Conversations with the Dead. “I just sat down and wrote numerous verses that tied around ‘Did you say…'” The song was a personal favourite of Hunter, and for a man known to revel in his sometimes-obscure writing style, ‘Ramble On Rose’ contains some of his strangest and least-narrative writings.

Although it kicks off with a reference to the infamous British serial killer Jack the Ripper, ‘Ramble On Rose’ is resplendent with allusions to distinctly American concepts, including the blues slang of the “mojo hand”, the baseball player and preacher Billy Sunday, the old-timey musical genre of ragtime, and America’s cultural hub, New York City.

The song also gives a rare shoutout to a then-modern pop culture figure, something that Hunter was rarely known to do. That would be Wolfman Jack, the gravelly-voiced DJ who became well-known across America thanks to his radio programme, The Wolfman Jack Show, broadcasting across the country on one of the most powerful radio signals in North America.

Technically Jack’s show wasn’t pirate radio – he broadcast from across the Mexican border, and Mexico’s radio laws were relatively loose at the time. But his constant pitches of bizarre products and sly uses of subversive slang made Wolfman Jack a countercultural icon. The wider world would get their first glimpse of the Wolfman thanks to his appearance in 1973’s American Graffiti, but thanks to Robert Hunter, Wolfman Jack already had an early pop culture reference under his belt in 1972.

Check out the version of ‘Ramble On Rose’ played at the closing of the Winterland Ballroom on New Year’s Eve 1978 down below.

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