Viola Lee Blues was the Dead's first big jamming tune. Dating from the start of their career when they were doing mostly pop and blues songs, they designed it as a psychedelic trip: it would start as a strange old jugband tune with dark chords, a constricted groove, and wailing black-harmony vocals, but the music in-between the verses would gradually stretch out to unreasonable lengths and start accelerating until the band were playing fast, shrieking gusts of sound, tearing open the fabric of reality -- then suddenly the noise stops and the song jauntily reappears again. As one writer has said, it may have been a one-dimensional song, but that happened to be the fifth dimension! The band stopped performing it in 1970, but in their early shows it appears frequently. We have over 30 performances to explore....
The story of Viola Lee begins when Gus Cannon's Jug Band recorded it on September 20, 1928.... Many years later, in the early '60s, a folk revival was booming among the coffeehouse kids, and many of the old songs of the '20s were reissued on record, to be picked up by the 'new' folk bands. The origin of the Dead was basically as a jugband (before 'going electric') and they borrowed many songs from the folk scene, which Garcia was most familiar with. (The Dead's first single in '66 took both its sides from the '20s, one song from the Memphis Jug Band and one from Henry Thomas.) Hearing Viola Lee, Garcia and Weir were enticed by this antique tale of incarceration, and if they heard it early enough, they may well have played it in Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions. (A couple other Gus Cannon songs, Minglewood Blues and Big Railroad Blues, would also become Dead staples). Another popular folk group of the early '60s, Jim Kweskin's Jug Band, also did Viola Lee Blues (the Dead borrowed several other songs from them as well).
The Dead's Viola Lee barely resembles Cannon's original; Kweskin was more of a traditionalist and his version is faithful to the '20s:
As to how the Dead got the inspiration to take this song "out", it's probably no coincidence that it took shape at the time of the Acid Tests. They had an opportunity to play with a free format, to a zonked-out audience, and were encouraged to play more open-ended music than in the regular pop-concert scene of the time -- in short, "freakout" music could emerge. The Dead were also influenced by a broad range of music -- though initially they may have seemed like another of the early-Stones-type cover bands that littered the country, their eclecticism would take them in new directions. Garcia's primary model as a guitarist was the bluegrass music he'd been playing, and through early '66 the banjo lingers in his style with his constant stream of fast notes, though by '67 he would shift more into "rock-guitar" mode; so he was used to precise, well-practiced instrumental combos and old-time string bands with their intertwined instruments.
Lesh on the other hand was much more into jazz and classical music, the jazz of the time being a particular influence on the Dead's jamming (they revered Coltrane and Miles Davis) and giving them a different vocabulary to use when 'opening up' one of their songs. Lesh has also said they were listening to Indian music with its changing tempos, and this especially shows in Viola Lee with its steady, careful acceleration from a moderate pace to a racing inferno of notes. The Indian influence shows up more in '67 when their playing styles had matured and they were practiced enough to really venture into strange tempos and rhythm changes.
As for Viola Lee itself, the strongest influence may have been the Butterfield Blues Band and their long raga-instrumental 'East/West' -- that album came out in '66, and the Dead certainly saw them live; Garcia was interested in the blues playing of Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop. (Bloomfield did not like the Dead, but Bishop sometimes joined Garcia at shows.) 'East/West' is a very successful merging of Indian, Latin, and rock musical styles in a series of guitar solos, and it's very similar to Viola Lee in its long instrumental passages in-between statements of the theme, the changing tempos, and the way the solos accelerate into increasingly wild climaxes. (The CD East/West Live has a performance from Hollywood in early 1966.)
The very first Dead rehearsal tape we have is probably from January 1966, and they are practicing Viola Lee. (It's odd that so early on, they're using studio time to tape a rehearsal!) I don't think it's the first time they played it, they seem familiar with the basic arrangement, but it needs a lot of work, and they practice the verses and harmonies over and over. What's highlighted right away is Pigpen singing the verses with them, which would be pretty rare in a Dead song. Unfortunately, he seems pretty drunk and is not helping rehearsals....eventually he just wanders off. (But not before a very interesting bit where he plays harmonica in the song, which I wish they'd kept, but they decided to leave him on the keyboard.) Finally they decide to play the whole song straight through, and the last thing on the tape is an embryonic performance which stretches out to over 15 minutes before the tape cuts! This is when their other songs, other than Pigpen's long r&b tunes, were all normal 3-minute lengths. So they planned from the start to have a big improvisation speeding up in the middle -- but in early '66, though they had an idea what they wanted to do, they didn't have the skills yet. So the tempo changes in this early version are pretty clumsy, and it's noticeable that Weir is much more limited than the rest of the band, sticking to some repetitive chords. But it's still quite interesting as being the first improvisation we have from the band -- Garcia is trying all kinds of things, and not knowing where to go, they just keep going.....
Bear started recording the Dead in the Acid-Test days, and many of their early shows are unlabeled. One collection of '66 shows that recently came out is undated but seems to be from February, and has three versions of Viola Lee. The first is the best; it's still clunky as the band thrashes around, but builds up to a frenzied climax before dropping back down to the verse tempo. The third version is clearly the earliest, in fact it may well be the first live Viola Lee after their studio rehearsal, since the playing is almost identical -- including the sudden, clumsy shifts in tempo -- and it does not have a climax. Even in the second version, the climax is barely there. All the other elements of the song are in place, including Garcia's spiraling lines between verses. Garcia and Kreutzmann are way ahead of the rest of the band in playing ability; already at this early date the drummer is jazzing things up.
Viola Lee seems to have been performed at most shows in 1966. It was played briskly, as more of a march than a swing; the band was still finding their style and sounded rather thin, so we don't get the waves of noise in Viola Lee that would come later. Lesh was starting to wander around on bass, but wasn't yet a full counterpoint-guitar; Weir is hard to keep track of since he is often buried in the mix; Pigpen's stabs of organ often dominate the sound as he follows the band through their jams; Kreutzmann is a standout in his ability to always be on top of where they are; Garcia buzzes around on the frets like an uptight bumblebee with high-pitched clutters of notes (which sometimes resemble Lou Reed's playing on the first Velvet Underground album, recorded at the same time).
The version on 3/19 (formerly known as 3/12) is still played slowly, and also strange in that it stays at the same steady pace rather than speeding up; even so, they botch the climax. It's still one of the nicer early versions, with somewhat hypnotic, stinging guitar notes from Garcia. (Note that in the old three-song excerpt of "3/12/66", the Viola Lee is actually from 12/1/66.) The next few versions from May and July are very similar to each other; in July the song is taken at a faster clip, they're much more confident, and they're able to handle the gradual acceleration more smoothly. What's still not done well is the climax, which is usually just a few strangled twangs from Garcia before they dive straight back into the verse. The Viola Lee on 7/16 was used for the Birth of the Dead CD; on 7/16 and 7/30 they added an interesting little intro to the song that was soon dropped. On 7/16 there is a little foreshadowing of Garcia's later style as he keeps repeating a note to signal the climax. 7/30's Viola Lee is the best of this period; it's noticeably tougher in the playing and has a good climax.
Bear left the Dead in the middle of '66, so we have a gap of four months until the next recorded Viola Lee, at the Matrix. (The owner there taped the bands that played in his club.) There is a marked difference in their style -- they're a more unified group with a heavier sound; Garcia has a better guitar tone; and they're close to the "classic Dead" style. Two Violas were taped; the one from 12/1 has the band getting deeper into the jam, with an excellent buildup, and they draw out the climax much longer than they'd done before.
A month later we have their set at the Great Human Be-In, and the Viola Lee is hot. (The recording isn't, though, with Garcia very low.) It's a mostly instrumental version perhaps due to some trouble with the mikes, so the band chugs along while Garcia wails away. The primal Dead era has arrived; with Weir loud in the mix for once, we can tell by now he has improved dramatically, with slashing chords and added textural notes that fill in a lot of the space around Garcia.
[Note that the "10/20/67" studio session has an instrumental Viola Lee that is actually an edit of this 1/14/67 performance.]
Their first album was recorded in January '67, and of course Viola Lee was the big climax. After a year of performances, they'd perfected the tune, and rarely for the Dead's studio recordings, the Viola Lee jam on the album is an excellent version. Ironically, though the Dead later criticized this album as being played too fast, the Viola Lee is quite sedate compared to live versions, not speeding up til halfway through; but Garcia's solo is lovely, with such a sweet tone.
Garcia said in early '67, "Each night when we went into the studio, we played Viola Lee Blues for as long as we wanted to play it, and we recorded it, and at the end of the week, we went through and listened to them and the one that turned us on was the one..... It isn't as good as it could have been, but it's still OK." There's a heavily edited three-minute alternate take as a bonus on the CD reissue of the first album; though it's chopped into pieces, perhaps more complete takes are still available for release as "bonus tracks" someday.
Grateful Dead album - 10:01
Viola Lee was probably played at most 1967 shows; but since Bear wasn't with the band, we have little to listen to from this year. The Viola on 3/18 is pretty similar to the album cut, but much more energized. All the shows from '67 are bursting with energy, and the whole second half of this show is fantastic; Viola Lee swings more than in '66, the acceleration builds up gradually, Garcia's playing is very sharp, and the climax roars. There's also a longer solo section after the climax as Garcia winds things down. I might note that by now (as on the album) Viola Lee finally has its striking opening chord (in '66 they just opened with the bass riff), which sounds similar to the Hard Day's Night chord but becomes more doom-laden over time.
Though Woodstock would give them a reputation as a band that blew it when they played big events, the Dead played a wild show at Monterey. Given an unenviable slot in between the Who and Jimi Hendrix, it's often forgotten that the Dead played just as noisy a set (though they didn't smash anything); and since they didn't appear in the movie or any soundtrack compilation, for years one could wonder whether the Dead played anything worth hearing at all. But finally their set surfaced, with another wonderful Viola Lee (and an early Alligator) -- and even better, a video of the Viola Lee has also turned up! (I have to wonder when this will be officially released.....if they're putting out the lackluster Egypt shows, can Monterey be far behind?) Lesh by now has become a driving force, pushing the bass upfront into a duel with Garcia and producing monstrous surges of noise; they're increasingly tight, and starting to draw the climax out to the brink of endurance.
Monterey video - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=axAfNjgdey4
It's also worth mentioning that a brief bit of the Dead performing Viola Lee in the Avalon Ballroom around this time was used in the movie Petulia:
Petulia snippet - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5owegbqcrjo
Viola Lee appears again in the fragments from the Dead's Toronto shows. The 8/4 version is the most exciting yet; Garcia is blasting from the start, and they stretch it out to 20 minutes for the first time. It particularly resembles an Indian raga here. Even the ending chord gets special treatment; earlier it had rattled for a little while (as on the album), but here it leads into a brief burst of feedback and the merry-go-round melody. In all later performances the Dead would typically have a minute or so of feedback at the end of Viola Lee, giving it an extra-apocalyptic feeling.
A super-long Viola Lee was played in the amazing 9/3/67 show. Long famous for its Midnight Hour, when the rest of the show surfaced it turned out to be a highpoint of '67 with some strikingly advanced jamming, in which Lesh and Weir spin magical webs of sound. The Viola Lee is very laid-back, with the band interested in exploring new corners of the music. Garcia's dizzying three-note lines between the verses are stretched out longer than before; this would become a common feature, sometimes winding out so long it seemed the song would never come back. The improvisation is unusual as they take their time; at one point it's just Garcia and the drums playing (like in a '68 Alligator), and then the others rumble back in and continue. Also by mid-'67, Garcia no longer had to play constantly through the jam, but sometimes lets Lesh and Weir groove on the rhythm for a while before he comes back in; this would be an occasional technique in '69 and afterwards. After the climax explodes and they return to the groove, Garcia hangs onto the main riff for quite a while, repeating it over and over almost as in an Other One as if he's about to start a new jam; this also became a regular part of the song for the next few performances.
A couple audience recordings around this time should also be mentioned. The tape from 9/15 is pretty distant and hard to listen to; it seems like it would be a super show if it had better sound. The tape labeled 1/27/67 is clearly the wrong date (and is usually the wrong speed), and probably comes from another September/October show; it has another frenzied twenty-minute Viola Lee with Garcia upfront. Pigpen's keyboard is pretty loud in these recordings; he seems to have been much louder in the halls than in the soundboard mixes, but also in these '67 shows, that chintzy organ is a bigger part of the sound than it would be later on.
(An aside: At this time, Lesh would sometimes use the bass line of Caution in the middle of Viola Lee, as they start speeding up. Caution of course had been one of their first recorded songs, and was played at a couple shows in early '66 but then apparently dropped until it re-appeared as the tail of Alligator in mid-'67. It is basically a straight copy of Them's 'Mystic Eyes' with different lyrics but the same bass, harmonica, and guitar parts; listening to the early live version from 1/8/66, it's striking how little the song changed in later years -- the structure is the same, the main difference is Pigpen's extended harmonica solos.
(Another thing to hear in 1/8/66 is the strong influence of Freddie King on Garcia's playing -- Garcia at that time was a Freddie King disciple, and even did one of King's instrumentals in the 3/19/66 show. As he said, "Freddie King is the guy that I learned the most volume of stuff from. When I started playing electric guitar with the Warlocks, it was [the first] Freddie King album that I got almost all my ideas off of, his phrasing really.")
On 3/12/66 (formerly known as 2/25, now on the Rare Cuts release) they take Caution out a bit more with a strong Chess feel; it was clearly a good live number, more developed than Viola Lee was, so it's odd that they wouldn't play it more often that year. But the idea is very similar to Viola Lee -- speed, accelerating rhythm, and long instrumental wildness. Lesh would still be playing the Caution riff in the 1969 Viola Lee, but I wouldn't call it a "Caution jam", just a push to the rhythm.)
One more Viola Lee survives from '67, a solid textbook version with Garcia blazing his way through the jam while Lesh constantly pushes him and Weir and Pigpen keep a steady underpinning.
We have some more Viola Lees from early 1968, all played in a one-month period. The first, from 2/2, is awesome; it seems like the universe is being sucked through the tape as the climax blows up. They stumble a bit coming back to earth again.
The Lake Tahoe shows were among the coolest finds of recent years, and a big surprise when they appeared since no one expected more shows from this oddly incomplete tour to emerge. 2/23 has a rather stop-and-start Viola Lee, in which Garcia keeps dropping out when you think he's going to keep going. It doesn't help that the power cuts out just as they're building to the climax, so after a little drum break they restart and decide to head back to the song again.
2/23/68 -- Dick's Pick 18:37
An even more remarkable discovery came this year when two more Viola Lees from this tour were released as Road Trips bonus tracks. Pigpen is up-front and pushing the band through the jams (especially on 1/23), showing how central he was in the band's sound.
Viola Lee on 1/20 explodes right out of the gate, but seems to dissipate as it goes along - the jam doesn't build up so smoothly, like they're getting stuck; and there's a calm spot in the middle when Lesh stops playing for a while (which makes me imagine Garcia getting furious at him). The meltdown itself is long and great; they don't go into feedback at the end, but just quietly stop (it sounds like Garcia cuts out).
On 1/23 Garcia tells the audience, "Well the cops say you can't dance....you can still take off your clothes and wriggle around!" The band sounds very excited - Garcia just swoops into the jam, and his playing is vicious. They steadily pick up speed, only pausing briefly when Garcia changes his tone - the meltdown is bone-crushing as reality turns inside-out. Garcia hits some metallic Hendrix-type chords on the way back to the verse - this Viola Lee is a clear rival to 2/2/68.
1/20/68 - 20:26
1/23/68 - 21:18
The 3/3 show has surprisingly good sound for an outdoor '68 show recorded on dying batteries. The Viola Lee I think is rather disorganized and sloppy, perhaps because it was the first tune and they weren't quite ready, but they get together for a fiery second half.
Viola Lee isn't heard for another year. Whether they just stopped playing it, too many shows are lost to know. But it resurfaces in three April '69 shows -- a month when they were starting to shake up their setlist and bring back old songs that they hadn't played in a while. At each show it is the last song or encore.
The 4/6 Viola Lee is very strong, enthusiastic and concise, without any signs of rust. Pigpen's keyboard is prominent in the sound during the jam (I think this is usually an accident of the mix, since he generally played all through the song but is often low in the recordings). Garcia lays back for a while after the verses as the rest of the band churns away, and then they rush into the climax. But coming back to the verse, the power is cut and the drums stumble on -- Weir says, "It seems someone's trying to tell us something" -- and they sing the last verse to the crowd's delight.
On 4/21 Viola Lee starts slowly and awkwardly, but builds into a great version. They really take it out to a ferocious fire-spitting climax, and the feedback at the end stretches to five minutes before it cuts....
On 4/26, as the story goes, the Dead were trying to play as long a show as they could; the night before, the Velvet Underground had opened and gone for so long that the Dead could only play an hour; so on the 26th the Dead opened and had their revenge. A twenty-minute Viola Lee encore wasn't enough, they had to add fifteen minutes of feedback to the strains of What's Become of the Baby! (An interesting comment on the Velvets.) The Viola Lee itself is mesmerizing as the Dead seem to be building on the earlier performances, using the slow pace to explore the jam more and add new '69 motifs. Lesh even hints at the Seven, which the Dead hardly ever played.
4/26/69 -- Fallout from the Phil Zone 19:43
Lesh mentions in the notes to Fallout that none of the later versions of the Seven seem to have survived. Possibly they played more Viola Lees that summer (a lot of shows are missing), but a couple Sevens do survive on audience recordings, and this one is the best:
Viola Lee then disappears again until 1970, when fortunately they played it a number of times, some of them among the best versions. Oddly, they played it two days in a row in the same theater. 3/20 has a solid Viola Lee, the highlight of the evening. The 3/21 early show is very laid-back (at least the Dead are, not the audience), and Viola Lee comes out of, of all things, He Was a Friend of Mine. After a very nice climax, they start doing the Seven theme again (flashback!), this time the whole band doing it; then Lesh starts the Cumberland Blues riff while they're playing the Seven, and they switch immediately to Cumberland -- a very smooth segue!
From a great show, 4/12, we have an excellent, light-footed Viola Lee; and from the legendary 5/2 we have a ragged but definitive version. The song was well-suited for 1970: in that year the Dead played an aggressive style in which the three guitar lines danced around each other in multiple rhythms, and r&b-styled tunes like Good Loving, Dancing in the Streets, Not Fade Away, Easy Wind, Man's World, and Hard to Handle became centerpieces for the band's new hard-edged jamming. Viola Lee was slowed down to a sultry groove, the better to gradually kick up the pace until lightning strikes the guitars and an unearthly squall erases time and space. Pigpen still played keyboards throughout the jam (especially notable on 4/12), though he was not as dominant in the sound.
5/2/70 -- Dick's Pick 16:35
7/11, like the rest of that Fillmore East run, is sadly only available in a lousy audience tape in which the audience is louder than the band. These shows would be acclaimed as some of the best of the year, if soundboards were available. (Technically, this is actually the 7/12/70 show, since the two nights got mixed up on initial tape datings.) The Viola Lee is clearly superb, if only it could be heard; it's amusing to hear the excited audience singing along with the lyrics.
Finally, on 10/31, the Dead were having an 'off' night, but pulled out Viola Lee once more. It's a very slow version which turns out to be the weakest in years (though Garcia's guitar tone is sweet); they start speeding up quickly and it sounds just like a Cumberland Blues jam, the Viola Lee intensity isn't there; so after a while they switch to Cumberland, and say goodbye to Viola Lee.
Much more can be said about the song and how the Dead played it, but that's enough for a start.....
The longest meltdown in Viola Lee? It's a close tie between 8/4/67 and 1/20/68! But you may be surprised by the actual lengths.
I timed 17 of the top Viola Lees, basically breaking them into sections: the verses, the buildup, and the meltdown. (The ending part of the jam leading back into the last verse is usually just a minute or two with a few exceptions, for instance on 3/21/70 when they go into the Seven jam.)
I timed the meltdowns starting from when Garcia stops playing individual notes and starts fanning (though Lesh often starts trilling earlier) since that sounds like a recognizable 'start point' in each version. You can see there's hardly any difference in time between the climaxes. (Sometimes Garcia will return to a stream of notes in-between fanning, for instance on 12/1/66 which is why that climax seems timed so much longer than most of the later ones.)
_______verses > jam > melt > reentry
12/1/66 -- 3:53 > 8:05 > 1:15 > :25
3/18/67 -- 3:29 > 7:14 > :37 > 1:46
6/18/67 -- 3:27 > 6:38 > :45 > 2:03
8/4/67 -- 4:07 > 10:13 > 1:17 > 2:37
9/3/67 -- /1:28 > 13:56 > 1:03 > 5:55
11/10/67 -- 3:51 > 7:18 > :41 > 1:40
1/20/68 -- 4:39 > 12:11 > 1:19 > 1:19
1/23/68 -- 5:06 > 11:23 > 1:02 > 2:54
2/2/68 -- 3:12 > 6:30 > :40 > 1:28
3/3/68 -- 4:37 > 9:50 > :58 > 4:51
4/6/69 -- 4:58 > 4:24 > 1:02
4/21/69 -- 5:36 > 4:44 > 1:06 > 1:41
4/26/69 -- 6:37 > 10:26 > :53 > 1:00
3/21/70 -- 4:50 > 5:47 > :52 > 3:58
4/12/70 -- 5:26 > 5:41 > :51 > :49
5/2/70 -- 4:56 > 7:02 > 1:02 > 1:40
7/11/70 -- 5:03 > 9:07 > 1:06 > 2:08