Evolution of Morning Dew as a Grateful Dead Song
and Sunday afternoon musings on the song:by Stev Lenon, 1999
Morning Dew was penned by Bonnie Dobson in 1961 and recorded by her in 1962 on the album Bonnie Dobson At Folk City. It began life as a rather plaintive, strongly emotional plea for peace in an age when nuclear annihilation was all too likely. The softness of the folk music styling and structure of the song underplayed the impact of the lyrics, capable of cutting to the bone. The song was restyled to a more rock-like format by Fred Neil. Neil also re-wrote the line, "Take me for a walk in the morning dew," to read "Walk me out in the morning dew." These two changes take the song from conception to the instruments and voices of the metamorphosing Grateful Dead.
Morning Dew's first recorded performance by The Grateful Dead was 1-14-67 at the Polo Field, Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, CA. [Not actually played that day; the album version is the earliest recording. – LIA] The band performed Morning Dew for the last time on 6-21-95, Knickerbocker Arena, Albany, NY. The song appeared 241 times in the band's setlists.
Those of us not fortunate enough to have direct access to the band's early venues, were usually first exposed to the song on the original Grateful Dead album issued in 1967. The impact of the song was instant. Like everything else on the first album it suffered from chemical engineering during recording. The tempo is several shades too fast to have the greatest musical impact possible. By late 68 the song began to approach its own tempo in the show with the music demanding to be slowed down and stretched out. The early ‘70s gave us a more stately and powerful Morning Dew which the band could open out more than any other ballad played in this period.
During the first half of the band's existence the song could and did appear anywhere in any set. It was unlikely to appear as a show opener but when the first recognizable notes appeared in Set 1 Song 1, it gave instant notice that the show would be above average. This pattern held through to the departure from touring at the end of ‘74. When the band returned to the road, a more formalized structure in set configuration relegated Morning Dew to the "Garcia Ballad Slot" after Drumz. It shared this spot with other songs of great power, Stella Blue (probably Garcia's favorite and certainly one of mine), Wharf Rat, Black Peter, and in the later years Standing On The Moon and Days Between. Garcia tended to view the ballads as songs designed to wind the show down and reach that perfect place where the only acceptable next note is silence. This is a difficult concept for some to accept and an even more difficult one to achieve from the stage. More than with any other ballad, Garcia took us there with this song.
By ‘73, the song had matured, and save for random tempo changes really experienced no evolution in the band's ability to produce the powerful effect the song deserves. Changes in keyboard players provided much of the day-to-day changes in the song. In the earliest readings, the song is a masterful interplay between Garcia and Lesh. Pigpen’s organ is there but other than provide fill, does little to change the song. That’s OK. Pigpen’s most important contributions were not keyboards.
There was a noticeable change when the Godchaux family came aboard. Keith’s bass chords dancing with Phil's profundo counterpoint while his right hand feeds riffs to Garcia as Jerry plays into the stratosphere and back down to earth much like the bombs he is singing about are pathognomic for the song during Keith's tenure.
Brent's arrival shifted the balance a bit too with his Hammond calling the dance, often between him and Jerry while Phil powered the whole from beneath. Note that Phil was not left out of the mix; he was rather more submerged in the construction and was generally more subdued after the late ‘79 period. Then in the ‘90s the duet is once more as it began, Jerry and Phil, point and counterpoint, orchestration as grand as Bach or Beethoven, a symbiosis of two musicians’ hearts and hands into one musical thought.
Each keyboardist changed the outer structure of the song. And in truth, each keyboardist had less impact upon the performance than is commonly accepted. The song, the lyric, the chord structure and the musical vision of Lesh and Garcia define the performance. The rest of the band fills and supports. Even the jazz-born stylings of Keith Godchaux or Brent’s inspired Hammond B-3 had little effect on the overall song.
The song is, when successfully performed by the Grateful Dead, entirely driven by Phil. The 5th and 6th strings as added gave immense power and presence to Phil's notes and chords. During the shows when Phil had his volume levels down, the song fails to crystallize quite correctly, needing a touch of something to make it taste just right. This is a song that should never be performed by a band with a 4 string or even a 5 string bass player. It should never be attempted by a band with a bass player who is merely an additional rhythm player. Garcia excels playing Morning Dew. Lesh powers and animates Morning Dew. Together, they generate and unleash the power and beauty resident in the song.
Which Morning Dew is best of all 241 readings? John Dwork in Dupree's Diamond News lists 13 versions in a best-of article. Many Deadheads including Mr. Dwork and Dick Latvala, keeper of the vaults, feel 5-8-77 to be the pinnacle reading. This is a very impressive show with a quite good Morning Dew (prepare to witness published heresy) but, falls far short of at least six other readings. 5-8-77 lacks something significant in sound. It is tightly performed, beautifully played and comes after a truly wonderful performance. But for me, the fire is lacking; the image never quite appears.
9-18-87 is far superior for it's sheer power and energy. 9-18-87 is probably the best performance with Brent on keyboards. 5-2-70 has more energy. 5-26-72 has more intense jams. 11-8-79 has tremendous Phil presence, always a marker for a great reading. Newly surfaced soundboards of 10-19-73 offer a superb early reading, probably my favorite of this 73-74 period. Which is my overall favorite?
Of all Morning Dews I have encountered my favorites arise from the high plateau of Lady With A Fan/Terrapin Station. 5-22-77 provides one moment of supreme delight springing from Terrapin Station (without Lady With A Fan) following an elegant Estimated>Eyes> Wharf Rat. This is an absolute feeding frenzy for Lesh and Garcia with the second of perfection occurring as a grace note on an ascending riff by Garcia as Lesh feeds chords of incredible power to the band. Listen to the song. You will know the single note I write about if this is the best reading for you. If not, keep listening.
Even more impressive and my favorite reading is 6-7-77. A full Lady With A Fan>Terrapin Station follows Drumz and Lesh realizes Morning Dew needs to be next. Garcia agrees and the result is Morning Dew as performed by a rock and roll orchestra tuned to the tonality of a Bach organ. This is the Morning Dew to record for musical posterity. This is at 15 minutes, 23 seconds by my watch, one of the longer readings around. Garcia soars on the first jam and reads the vocals well. The second jam is a high-octane sequence of crescendos and ascending riffs with long examples of "fanning". Lesh refuses to end the song and keeps pushing Garcia to new explorations of the musical space while thundering counterpoint and harmony with the impact of a bomb exploding underground and shaking the world around you. That night in Winterland, it must have felt like an Arclight going in on the Ho Chi Minh Trail; a sensation with which I am all too familiar. When the song finally ends, Jerry's voice, stretched, thin and so poignantly real, cracks on the final word. “Guess it doesn’t matter anywaaaaaaay!” It should crack. This is perfection achieved partly by accident, partly by exhaustion, partly by emotion. The show should end right then. But here comes Weir with an instantaneous Around And Around. Ah, well! Jerry tried, Phil tried, I agreed, Bob disagreed. Bob started another song. That's what made them who they were. This is, for me, the ultimate performance of Morning Dew.That's how a great Dew affects me: cold chills of flashback down my spine, visions of mushroom clouds, ‘Duck and Cover Drills,’ overwhelming sense of pathos and impending loss. Then the music sweeps over me and it’s today again!
Will I change my mind? Maybe. I have yet to hear all 241 readings. So if there is a better version out there, I want to listen to it.
One thing is for certain however; the meaning of this song is not debatable. I have read threads on various usegroups debating the meaning of the song. Is it about a dying lover/friend? Is it about ecological disaster? What does this song mean?
This was the end of the age of above-ground nuclear testing. Strontium, cobalt and other radioactive isotopes sprayed into the stratosphere from national displays of bigger and bigger bomb detonations. They fell to earth in rain and dew, clung to the grass and were ingested by cattle. Strontium 90 fell from the skies daily and there were warnings not to let children and pregnant females drink milk. Strontium can replace calcium in physiologic uptake. We were all at danger of having a skeleton that would serve as a nightlamp long after we were otherwise dust. The very morning dew was becoming deadly. ‘Can’t walk you out in the morning dew, my honey!’
I am 52 years old as I write this. It is impossible for me to hear the song performed by anyone in any fashion without flashbacks to The Cuban Missile Crisis, as a 14 year old helping to dig a fallout shelter into the hillside through a hole knocked in a neighbor's basement wall. We were all glued to TV sets and radio played continually on either 640 or 1240 kHz stations, waiting for the high pitched scream of the ‘Emergency Broadcast System’ to announce that only Conelrad would now be trying to send us anything over the electromagnetic spectrum. The world was within 11 seconds of nuclear war. Overlay this image with scenes from the movie "On The Beach." ‘You didn’t hear no baby cry today;’ isn’t it a shame you never will again. ‘Thought I heard a young man moan this morning!’ ‘You didn’t hear no young man moan!’ ‘Don’t you worry about all those people.’ ‘Guess it doesn’t matter anyway!’ And it wouldn’t have. That's what Morning Dew means. Total ecological nightmare, social destruction and a dead world caused not by means beyond our control but within our control.
Dark Star became The Grateful Dead’s signature platform for a jam. Throwing Stones was perhaps the most politically active song they performed. Morning Dew was the most powerful plea penned by our generation for nuclear disarmament. Nobody performed it better than The Grateful Dead; no one ever will.