With 'Workingman’s Dead,' the Grateful Dead Shifted from Uncommercial Jam Band to One of the World's Most Popular Acts
The final burst of new Workingman’s Dead songs arrived in November and December 1969, ironically, right after the release of Live Dead, which had virtually no overt country and folk textures.
Musically, Garcia described the spry and speedy “Cumberland Blues” (which he co-wrote with Phil Lesh) as a blend of Bakersfield country and up-tempo bluegrass. Lyrically, Hunter paints a picture of a coal miner’s woes in and out of the mines. Like the other new songs, it took the Dead’s fans to some completely new places that, miraculously, fit in with all the other, stranger spaces their earlier material occupied.
“Black Peter” was a dire Hunter-Garcia folk blues about a man on his deathbed, while “Uncle John’s Band” was an upbeat anthem that became an instant favorite of everyone who heard it. The influence of Crosby, Stills & Nash—friends of the Dead’s whose harmony-filled first album had been ubiquitous since the summer of 1969—was obvious, and though the Dead weren’t at that level as singers, they had an undeniable vocal chemistry, and that song, in particular, had a reassuring glow that drew listeners in, made them feel that they too were maybe part of “Uncle John’s Band.”
The last Workingman’s song to be born was “New Speedway Boogie,” Hunter’s somewhat enigmatic commentary on the early December 1969 Altamont Speedway Free Festival. The event—a West Coast version of Woodstock—was marred by violence, including the death of concertgoer Meredith Hunter by a member of the Hells Angels, who were there to provide security.
“New Speedway Boogie” rumbles along ominously—a modified shuffle/boogie—as Garcia sings in broad metaphorical terms about harsh realities, lessons learned (or not) and the broader takeaway: “One way or another, this darkness got to give…”
By the time “Speedway” was introduced, the Dead had already decided to make an album in the winter of 1970, cutting at Pacific High Recording, a relatively new addition to the San Francisco recording landscape. They had spent many months and more than $100,000 of Warner Bros.’ money making Aoxomoxoa, so this time they were determined to take their relatively simple and straightforward new songs and record them as live as possible in the studio.
“Workingman’s Dead was done very quickly,” producer/engineer Bob Matthews told me in 2004. (Matthews’ familiarity with the band extended all the way back to the Mother McCree’s days with Garcia, Weir and Pigpen.) “We went into the studio first and spent a couple of days rehearsing—performing—all the tunes, recording them onto two-track. When that was done, I sat down and spliced together the tunes—beginning of side one to end of side one, beginning of side two to end of side two. I got that idea from [the Beatles’] Sgt Pepper’s: ‘Before we even start, let’s have a concept of what the end product is going to feel like, sequencing-wise.’
They rehearsed some more in their rehearsal studio, and then they came in and recorded [on one of Ampex’s new 16-track machines]. But at all times there was the perspective of where we were in the album.” The Dead had further honed their chops by playing a series of acoustic sets during the winter of 1969–1970, mixing versions of their new songs among folk and country covers.
The entire album was recorded and mixed in about 10 days. Overdubs included Garcia’s pedal-steel parts, Pigpen’s harmonica, various acoustic and electric guitar parts and, of course, the vocals, which were certainly at a level the Dead had never achieved before. The noted San Francisco poster artist Stanley Mouse and his partner Alton Kelley conceived of the now-iconic front cover: the band and Hunter in workingman’s duds standing on a nondescript street corner. When Warner Bros. boss Joe Smith first heard the finished record, he announced to all within earshot that, unbelievable as it might seem, the Dead had made a hit record.
Smith was right. The album immediately took the Dead to a new level of popularity, and when they followed up Workingman’s Dead with the tonally similar and equally momentous American Beauty (“Ripple,” “Brokedown Palace,” “Sugar Magnolia,” “Truckin’ ”) just a few months later, they solidified their place among the great bands to survive the Sixties.
The Dead never stopped playing long, jamming tunes, even as they continued to carve out one slice of distinctive Americana after another through the early Seventies. But Workingman’s Dead turned the Dead into a song band, and it was the launch pad for everything that came after it. It was a big gamble, a radical change in direction, but it paid off like a royal flush.