With 'Workingman’s Dead,' the Grateful Dead Shifted from Uncommercial Jam Band to One of the World's Most Popular Acts
What a difference a year makes. In February 1969, the Grateful Dead recorded a series of shows at San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom and Fillmore West in the hope of finally capturing on tape the psychedelic alchemy of their already legendary onstage interplay.
The double album Live Dead, released in November that year, showcased the Dead at their adventurous and exploratory acid-peak best and cemented their reputation as the premier jamming band of the era.
Yet exactly one year later, in February 1970, the group ambled into a recording studio and, in a single week, cut an album that was Live Dead’s polar opposite.
With its concise songs, bright harmonies and folk and country trimmings, Workingman’s Dead felt almost like the work of a completely different band—a stylistic shift as radical as when the Beatles followed Rubber Soul with Revolver.
It was made with little overt commercial intent, but Workingman’s Dead instantly became the best-selling album of the Dead’s five-year career, and it set the band on a course that would eventually make it one of the most popular acts America ever produced, with a devoted fan base second to none.
Until Workingman’s Dead, the Grateful Dead’s studio output had been largely ignored by the record-buying public. That album’s immediate predecessor, Aoxomoxoa, released in June 1969, was a carefully crafted effort full of intricately arranged songs brimming with playful, colorful and at times impenetrable lyrics dense with hallucinatory imagery.
The recording sessions were long and expensive, and though the album contained a few future Dead classics—most notably “St. Stephen” and “China Cat Sunflower”—in the end it never really found a wide audience. Compared to the group’s live performances, it felt stiff and mannered.
Live Dead addressed that dilemma beautifully and was still picking up steam in the winter and spring of 1970, winning new converts to the Dead’s uniquely trippy mélange, when suddenly a completely different-sounding Grateful Dead started popping out of a million radios. The song was “Uncle John’s Band,” and instead of molten electric guitars and bass in epic flight over the crashing and cracking drums and cymbals of two percussion powerhouses, the song had a warm and intimate acoustic glow.
The voices of guitarists Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir and bassist Phil Lesh rose in bright harmony, and lyricist Robert Hunter’s words exuded a gentle homespun wisdom: “Well, the first days are the hardest days/Don’t you worry any more/’Cause when life looks like easy street/There is danger at your door…”
Could this really be the notoriously off-key-singing and lyrically opaque Grateful Dead?
It was, and much of the rest of the album that “Uncle John’s Band” kicked off, Workingman’s Dead, reinforced the group’s apparent transformation from blazing psychedelic astronauts to rootsy troubadours steeped in folk and country music. The infectious country-rock anthem “Casey Jones”— famous for its daring chorus: “Driving that train, high on cocaine, Casey Jones you better watch your speed”—would follow “Uncle John’s Band” as an FM radio hit that year, and both the rollicking country-bluegrass-rock fusion “Cumberland Blues” and the simmering rocker “New Speedway Boogie” were also popular radio numbers. After years of fringe success, the Dead had truly entered the rock mainstream.
It was not, however, an overnight change in direction for the band.
For one thing, the Dead already had strong roots in folk and country. In his pre-Dead days, Garcia had been in a succession of acoustic groups that played old-time country, bluegrass and traditional folk music, and Weir had been a fan of the popular folkies of the early Sixties, like the Kingston Trio and Joan Baez, and also learned to play some country blues.
Their first group together, in 1964, Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, drew from those worlds and added a dash of acoustic rock and roll, while Ron “Pigpen” McKernan brought in a cool blues sensibility. When those three started an electric band, the Warlocks, in the spring of 1965—adding Bill Kreutzmann on drums and, fairly quickly, Lesh on bass—some of the old folk/country repertoire came with them, including “Cold Rain and Snow,” “I Know You Rider,” “Stealin’ ” and “Don’t Ease Me In.”
Those types of songs stayed in the Dead’s repertoire during the group’s halcyon days in the San Francisco ballrooms. But as they developed their songwriting chops during the second half of 1967 and through 1968, their sound increasingly moved away from their original influences and toward more complex structures, unusual time signatures and open-ended jamming that drew more from Indian music (partly the influence of drummer Mickey Hart, who joined in the fall of 1967) and jazz.
Short songs were few and far between as the Dead developed and perfected their uncanny ability to stitch songs and jams together with what sometimes seemed to be magic Day-Glo thread. The fall of 1968 through the spring of 1969 marks the Dead’s fiercest, most confident and accomplished psychedelic playing, reaching its apex around the time that Live Dead was recorded at the Avalon Ballroom and the Fillmore West.
But changes were on the way. Perhaps the harbinger of the future direction was a song on Aoxomoxoa called “Dupree’s Diamond Blues,” Hunter and Garcia’s clever recasting of a popular story-song that originated in the early Twenties. It’s a relatively straight narrative song with roots in blues and early 20th century pop tunes, driven by acoustic guitars.
“Hunter and I always had this thing where we liked to muddy the folk tradition by adding our versions of songs to the tradition,” Garcia told me in 1989. “We had our ‘Casey Jones’ song [on Workingman’s Dead]. We had our ‘Stagger Lee’ song [on Shakedown Street, 1978]. ‘Dupree’s Diamond Blues’ is another of those. It’s the thing of taking a well-founded tradition and putting in something that’s totally looped.” Musically, he added, “it has a kind of carnival or medicine show kind of feel, and also a ragtime feel.”