The direction of music was shifting by the late 1960s. The highly psychedelic scenes of rock music were beginning to come to an end. The ‘Summer of Love’ was over. Altamont killed the hippie dream. Whatever way you like to look at it, the dense jamming excursions that bands like the Grateful Dead excelled in were actually starting to go out of favour. Instead, folk music was making a major comeback as “roots rock”, a new subgenre spearheaded by Bob Dylan and his former backing group, The Band.
Most of the Grateful Dead members had their roots in the Palo Alto folk scene, which is where guitarist Jerry Garcia, keyboardist Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan and lyricist Robert Hunter all met in the early part of the decade. The “back to the land” concept was right in the Dead’s wheelhouse – they had already moved out of the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco and into the calmer hills and ranches of Marin County. The Dead were even starting to put acoustic sets in their shows, reviving old blues songs and classic folk tunes. But that wasn’t good enough for Hunter: he wanted a folk song of his own.
“When we lived together in Larkspur, the way we’d write a song was I’d sit upstairs banging away at my three chords for days and days working something out,” Hunter recalled of his writing style with Garcia. “By the time I had it worked out, you know, through the thin walls, he’d heard everything I was doing. I’d come down and hand him this sheet of paper, and he’d say, ‘Oh, that’s interesting,’ and he’d play the whole arrangement of it right away because he’d heard what I was doing and heard where it was going off.”
Before the Dead fully embraced their own roots, The Band released their debut LP, Music From Big Pink, in 1969. Hunter immediately took to the writing style of Robbie Robertson. “I was so impressed by the songwriting of Robbie Robertson,” Hunter explained. “I just said, ‘Oh yeah, this is the direction. This is the way for us, with all our folk roots, our country and bluegrass roots. It was a real formative moment in directions in American music… Some of those songs are probably the father of ‘Jack Straw’ and things like that.”
“The direction he went with The Band earlier 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,” Hunter added. “I took it and moved it to the West, which is the area I’m familiar with, and thought, ‘Okay, how about modern ethnic?’ Regional, but not the South…”
The area that Hunter found wasn’t necessarily a real place. Fennario, the setting for ‘Dire Wolf’, had its roots in another folk classic that the Dead favoured – ‘Peggy-O’. The connection with Bob Dylan ran even deeper, with Dylan having recorded one of the more famous versions of ‘Peggy-O’ on his 1962 debut album. Hunter was taking cues from Dylan and The Band, but only enough to inform his own warped vision of American history.
“Hunter was up 24 hours a day, chain-smoking, and he’d come down in the morning, and he’d have a stack of songs,” Garcia’s partner Mountain Girl recalled. “‘Wow, Hunter, these are fantastic.’ ‘Do you really think so?’ And he’d challenge Jerry to sit down right then and write a tune for it, or he might have already worked out some chord changes for it, and Jerry would say, ‘Oh no, man, that’s not the way it should be; it should be like this.’ But to see Hunter walk out of his room in the morning with a stack of freshly minted tunes was pretty exciting. It was just incredible how fast those tunes fell together once they got on them.”
Check out ‘Jack Straw’ down below.