I have of late embarked on an ambitious project: To upload my entire CD collection onto my computer, thus relieving my household of the need to see my 1500 or so compact discs stacked upon bookshelves. My wife has drawn a line; she thinks it looks “collegiate.” So into the ether they go.
By far the greatest single percentage of the collection is Grateful Dead music; in addition to their studio albums, I collect their live albums, and I suppose I probably have about 200 Grateful Dead CDs. Someday, when I have abundant free time, I’ll count them. They have been in heavy rotation lately as I put them onto my hard drive, and they make me realize again what an incredible talent Jerry Garcia was. I don’t want to wax rhapsodic; if you like him, you know what I’m talking about, and if you don’t, you won’t care.
Except I will say that one of the things about Garcia that, in my opinion, is not widely enough appreciated was his status as a musical historian. He loved American music—bluegrass, blues, country, folk, cajun—and he loved to explore it, and he helped to preserve a lot of it. It’s something that the Dead’s cult status sort of overwhelms, but it’s one of Garcia’s really enduring contributions.
I was thinking about that while listening to “Whiskey In the Jar,” a song the Dead never played in public which was put out on their collection “So Many Roads.” It’s a traditional Irish folk song, meaning no one has any idea who wrote it, and in this version, recorded in 1993, the Dead are sort of screwing around in the studio and they just start playing it.
It goes like this:
As I was goin’ over the Kill Dara Mountains,
I met Colonel Pepper and his money he was counting.
I drew forth my pistols and I rattled my saber,
Sayin’: “Stand and deliver, for I am a bold deceiver!”.
Musha rin um du rum da, Whack for the daddy-o,
Whack for the daddy-o, There’s whiskey in the jar-o
After a couple verses, the band stumbles to a pause as some of the band members clearly don’t know the material, and you can hear someone—Phil Lesh, maybe?—say in puzzlement, “What is the name of that?”
“Whiskey in the Jar,” Garcia says, in his endearingly geeky speaking voice.
“I haven’t heard that in 30 years,” Bob Weir says.
“Right, I haven’t either, I just remembered it,” Garcia says.
And you can envision Weir smiling as he says, “The whole song, words and all…”
“It’s got great lyrics,” Garcia continues. “It’s a cool song. It’s a cool song.”
I love that passion in his voice, that level of enthusiasm for a song that many of us would find the opposite of cool, because it’s not edgy or dark (well, it’s sort of dark) or cutting-edge. But what Garcia loves about it are things worth appreciating: its storytelling, its language, its mythology. He’s right: It is cool.
“I guess that’s Irish?” Weir says.
“I hope so,” Garcia responds.
And then comes I think one of the most beautiful and powerful moments in the Dead’s huge recorded repertoire, as Jerry, without anyone else playing, slowly begins to sing the next verse, and you realize what a wonderful singing voice he had, aged yet timeless and so full of experience—not unlike, it occurs to me, a good whiskey—and then, one by one, the rest of the band kicks in, following Jerry’s lead, figuring it out as they go along.
Jerry Garcia’s been dead for almost 20 years. I wish he’d had more time, but my gosh, he gave a lot during his life.
You can hear the above below.