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Workingman’s Dead—8 
 
Released: June 1970

1) Uncle John’s Band 2) High Time 3) Dire Wolf 4) New Speedway Boogie  5) Cumberland Blues 6) Black Peter 7) Easy Wind 8) Casey Jones

 

Undeniably, The Grateful Dead are a difficult group to review.  Difficult because they are so well loved and so well hated.  There does not seem to be a happy medium among the public and critics alike.  In glancing at other reviews of the band, it is a general trend that most reviewers not from America dislike the Dead, while most of their support comes from the New World.  The reason is simply because the Grateful Dead are an American band.  They sing about American problems and American issues; how being American effects common folks and gives them common problems.  Their lyrics are blunt and unflattering to the characters they represent, but paint a true portrait of American rural life in the 60s/70s. 

 

Never was this truer than on “Workingman’s Dead.”  All of the songs deal with a drifter on the road, searching for something: love, money, revenge, a new beginning.  And while they are story songs, dealing with specific characters (Casey Jones, Uncle John, Black Peter…) each of the characters could be substituted with America itself.  For example:  “Casey Jones, you’d better watch your speed.  Trouble ahead, trouble behind, and you know that notion just crossed my mind.”  Yes this song is about Casey Jones and his travels, but it also deals with where America was heading in the troubled time of the 60s.  Or in “New Speedway Boogie,” “I don’t know, but I’ve been told, if the horse don’t pull you got to carry the load.  I don’t know whose back’s that strong, maybe find out before too long.”  This could represent an average American farmer and his everyday hassles, but it could also be saying that it’s time for a revolution.  Because their lyrics can be taken either way, the Dead are one of the only bands that appealed to both the hippies and the rednecks (the farmers and working class).

 

The music on “Workingman’s Dead” is yet another reason the rednecks love the Dead so much.  It is country roots rock and tells stories in slow to mid tempo acoustic guitar (also occasional electric soloing thrown in) with Garcia’s emotion-filled voice of the everyman.  While the songs are boring at times, the album is strangely compelling and has instances of true melodic excellence: the opener “Uncle John’s Band” and the closing “Casey Jones” particularly.  Sandwiched between these two gems are faster numbers: “Cumberland Blues,” “New Speedway Boogie,” and “Easy Wind” and the tediously slow: “High Time” and “Black Peter.”  While the faster songs are well crafted and will get your toe tapping, the slower songs are so slow, that they might as well be prescribed instead of Valium.  The remaining track, “Dire Wolf,” is somewhere in the middle.  It is a little sluggish, but Garcia’s slide playing is so catchy and uplifting on this song about murder that it makes a beautiful contrast.   

 

Overall this album is scarred by the slower numbers, but is still extremely enjoyable for any fan of country/rock or folk music.  It does not have any of the long, spacey jamming the Dead seem to be known for (although when the Dead played these songs live, they typically jammed out on all of them) and is well crafted and produced.  However, if you are not a fan of down home, sit-out-by-the-fire, guitar-dominated, vocal harmonizing, storytelling songs—this is not the album for you.          

 

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