The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum

Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll: "Uncle John's Band"

Wednesday, May 30: 12:42 p.m.
Posted by Rock Hall
Grateful Dead's "Uncle John's Band" is one of the Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll

The Grateful Dead capped the Sixties with Live/Dead, a double-album that confirmed them as masters of acid-improv. But the spring of 1970 found the group's sound radically redirected on Workingman's Dead. Breezy harmonies and beer-soaked ballads replaced the previous blend of liquid noodling and lysergic lyrics, and no song illustrated the change more succinctly than the opening track, "Uncle John's Band." Jerry Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter recalled the song's origins in a 1991 interview with Grateful Dead historian Blair Jackson. According to Garcia, "At that time I was listening to records of the Bulgarian Women's Choir and also this Greek-Macedonian music, 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." Eventually, Hunter received a tape of the band's finished arrangement. "I played it over and over [and] kept hearing the words 'God damn, Uncle John's mad'... and 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." The deliberate downshift throughout Workingman's Dead reflected close listening to the Band's first two albums. Said Hunter: "I was so impressed by the songwriting of Robbie Robertson, I just said: 'Oh yeah, this is the direction. This is the way for us.'"

Grateful Dead: The Long, Strange Trip is now on exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio. Among the artifacts featured in the exhibit are artist Stanley Mouse's six portraits of Grateful Dead members, which appeared on the back cover of 1970's Workingman's Dead.


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