With 'Workingman’s Dead,' the Grateful Dead Shifted from Uncommercial Jam Band to One of the World's Most Popular Acts
By February 1969, Garcia and Weir occasionally broke out acoustic guitars onstage to perform “Dupree’s,” followed by another Aoxomoxoa tune based around acoustic guitar, “Mountain of the Moon.” But leave it to Garcia and the Dead to then figure a way to segue that second acoustic number right into the trans-galactic flow of that era’s grandest improvisational piece, “Dark Star.”
For his part, Hunter, who also had a deep background in older folk music styles, found himself being increasingly drawn to the Band. Their brilliant first two albums, 1968’s Music from Big Pink and 1969’s The Band (a.k.a. The Brown Album) had drawn from a multitude of early American music styles and fused them into an utterly distinctive and original rock amalgamation.
As Hunter noted in an interview I did with him in 1988, “The direction [leader/songwriter Robbie Robertson] went with the Band was one of the things that made me think of conceiving Workingman’s Dead. I was very much impressed with the area Robertson was working in. I took it and moved it to the West, which is an area I’m familiar with…regional but not the South, because everyone was going back to the South for inspiration at that time.”
It’s unclear to what degree the Dead’s turn in a country direction might have been influenced by their move out of San Francisco’s crumbling Haight-Ashbury district in mid 1968 to more rustic Marin County, north across the Golden Gate Bridge. Mickey Hart settled on a Novato ranch that had a barn and horses, and the others spread out in nearby towns.
Hunter and Garcia (with his lady love, Mountain Girl) rented a large but modest house in the southern Marin town of Larkspur, and over the course of about a year, churned out one fantastic song after another. Hunter often typed lyrics day and night and fed them to Garcia, who would quickly set them to music, sometimes within hours of their delivery. This is where the songs for Workingman’s Dead were born—“glorious days,” as Hunter said.
Country flavors had been creeping into rock and roll in general for quite some time. Buffalo Springfield had a strong country and folk undercurrent in some of their material, as did the Byrds, Moby Grape and, by 1968, the Rolling Stones on Beggar’s Banquet. That same year, Dylan went back to acoustic music on John Wesley Harding, followed in 1969 by the more overtly country Nashville Skyline. Meanwhile, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Poco had helped put country-rock on the map.
Even though the Dead were playing some of their most challenging and adventurous psychedelic music during this period, offstage Garcia and Weir were listening to country music mostly. Garcia was increasingly being influenced by guitarists from the “Bakersfield school” of country music, such as Roy Nichols (of Merle Haggard’s group, the Strangers) and Don Rich (of Buck Owens’ Buckaroos), both tasteful and soulful string-benders. In March 1969, at the end of a tour, Garcia bought a Zane Beck pedal-steel guitar at a music store in Colorado, and it wasn’t long before he brought the pedal steel onto the stage.
At first, Garcia backed a country music–loving singer and songwriter named John “Marmaduke” Dawson in a tiny club south of San Francisco. Then, the fearless Garcia played it occasionally with the Dead on a range of country songs.
A few months later, Marmaduke and Garcia formed the country-rock New Riders of the Purple Sage, with Garcia on steel for the first year-plus. (Incidentally, with the Dead in this era, Garcia mostly played a mid-Sixties red Gibson SG—that’s his Live Dead ax—through his trusty Fender Twin Reverb amps, but also occasionally employed a sunburst Stratocaster. Weir favored a Gibson 335 or 345 through a pair of Twins.)
In June ’69, the first three Hunter-Garcia songs that would eventually find a home on Workingman’s Dead were introduced. “Dire Wolf” came first, a dark but whimsical tale about a man who invites a wolf into his desolate cabin in the woods for a game of cards, possibly to determine whether the wolf will eat him or not. “Don’t murder me,” the storyteller begs, but the cards are clearly not falling his way. Musically, it’s a simple folk song, and some of the early live versions were sung by Weir, with Garcia adding steel accompaniment.
Soon, though, Garcia reclaimed it, and on occasion in 1969 he would suggest that the crowd sing along on the chorus. “Casey Jones” was the next new tune to emerge from the Larkspur songwriting sessions, and though Garcia’s original acoustic guitar-voice demo from early June is strikingly similar to the way it ended up on Workingman’s Dead, the first several Grateful Dead versions in early summer ’69 have a different vibe. The main rhythm has an almost Motown feel to it (think “I Second That Emotion”), and there are a couple of fairly lengthy guitar extrapolations. It wouldn’t be too long, however, before the song found its finished form.
A day after the debut of “Casey Jones” came “High Time,” a gorgeous bittersweet ballad that easily could have come from George Jones, Merle Haggard or any number of other country greats. Garcia once complained that he felt could never quite do the song justice as a singer, but from mid 1969 through mid 1970, it became an important cornerstone of the band’s repertoire, often serving as a nice, grounding contrast to spacey songs such “Dark Star” and “That’s It for the Other One,” or the spunky combo of “China Cat Sunflower” and “I Know You Rider.”
The Pigpen-sung “Easy Wind,” written by Hunter alone, started turning up in August 1969. Pig is convincing as a hard-workin’, hard-drinkin’ road laborer “chippin’ them rocks from dawn ’til doom/While my rider hide my bottle in the other room.” From the outset, the song featured slashing guitar counterpoint lines from Weir and Garcia and a funky R&B feel. It’s a perfect vehicle for Pig, who during this period mostly sang cover tunes, from Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle” to the Olympics’ “Good Lovin’ ” to “Lovelight.”