***Ken's note: I know there are lots of Grateful Dead fans out there. And I also know that all of you know more about the Dead than I ever will. I don't intend for this blog to be a serious, historical or otherwise official interpretation of "Uncle John's Band". Like a Tarot reading, this is just what I think and feel about this song today, and how I think it might resonate with those who have come here for this particular message. I profess no expertise and mean no offense.***
This one’s been in my head off and on for a while now.
Both the song and the band mean many different things to different people.
The song started showing up as part of Grateful Dead concerts in 1969, finally showing up an album the following year.
You can check out the lyrics at a number of places online, and dissect individual lines and phrases. Maybe it is a kind of commentary on the time, as acts of violence here and the continuing war in Vietnam slammed the door on the Summers of Love.
Or it’s just a remembrance of, maybe even a long for, happier times. And a reminder to be kind.
Likewise, you may have your own opinion or interpretation of the band, itself. The Grateful Dead certainly evoke a variety of feelings.
Some see them as a kind of blues/folk band, leading an endless caravan of devoted followers back and forth across the country.
Others elevate them to an almost deity status.
There’s also the literal interpretation of their name, “grateful” and “dead”.
And then there are those who dismiss them as a relic of a drug culture that has moved on without them.
Here’s what I know, and what it means to me.
“Uncle John’s Band” was the first Grateful Dead song I knew of. That is, it was the first song I’d heard and knew it was by the Grateful Dead.
The line “Come hear Uncle John’s Band, playing to the tide” made me put this on my Beach Trip tape when I was a teenager. I doubt there are a lot of people who associate the Grateful Dead with going to the beach, but once I’d made that connection, it remained.
It’s also about taking a break from all the things that make us all so busy, to think things through and, what’s most important to me, just enjoy the music.
It took the Dead the better part of a year to get this song the way they wanted it, so it could be recorded for one of their albums. How often do we rush something rather than having the patience that would have required? I often find myself trying to cram seventy minutes into an hour, where everything I need to do seems to be indelibly stamped with ASAP and TOP PRIORITY.
I also find it ironic that the Dead didn’t even take their own advice, touring to the point that the music and the road were almost all there was. I find it all too easy to immerse myself in a new project where hours evaporate. At least, I hope it’s only hours, and not days-weeks-months-years.
So it seems each different analysis I do have the possible meaning for this song seem to circle back around to the same theme. Take a break. Stop and think.
Maybe stop and don’t think. Just for a moment.
By the way, the quality of this video isn’t great, but it is kind of historic. It’s from1970, the summer the Dead finally recorded this song. In fact, this is the Grateful Dead in the KQED studio in San Francisco.
So take a break, even if it’s only for five minutes and forty-two seconds. And listen to Uncle John’s Band playing to the tide.
Ken Kessler has always been interested in psychic phenomena, and like Mulder on the X-Files, wants to believe. But like most, he tends to look for, and accept, rational explanations. (More)