Dire Wolf was a turning point in the Dead’s songs – the point where the Dead turned from weirdness to accessibility. For a group of former folkies like Garcia, Weir, and Hunter, they had done their best to shed any folk influences since the first album, in favor of experimentation and strangeness. Even when writing a bunch of more conventional rock songs for Aoxomoxoa, Hunter & Garcia’s tunes bore little relation to the world at large, tending to withdraw into a more private, esoteric language. While a couple songs like Mountains of the Moon had roots in old English poetry, Dupree’s Diamond Blues had been the only Dead song based on American folk tradition, and it seemed to be a cartoonish one-off. As Aoxomoxoa was finished in the spring of 1969, there was little indication of what kind of songs would come next…
In 1969 Hunter was living with Garcia in a house on Madrone Canyon Road in Larkspur. Dire Wolf’s reference to “the timbers of Fennario” was not so far-removed from their actual situation: the house was in a redwood grove. As Blair Jackson describes it, the house “sat on an acre of land, had a creek running behind it, tall trees surrounding it, and morning light that came through the branches in great golden shafts.”
Hunter wrote, “We were living on Madrone because tunes had been emerging and it seemed sensible to help the process along and incidentally feed me since I had no income source at all.”
Garcia: “We had a nice big house that we could afford to live in together, but probably couldn’t have afforded separately at that point. It was a nice place to be, and Hunter was kind of floatin’ at the time.”
Hunter: “That’s right. I was sleepin’ on floors and stuff and he took me in.”
Hunter didn’t even have his own record player (or, presumably, collection), so the music that came to him was filtered by his environment: “whatever was on KSAN and whatever guitarists, pedal steelers, and country Jerry was playing. I had no sound system of my own…
“There were certain songs more or less universally present on the radios and jukeboxes. It was more a matter of trying to resist rather than succumbing to those influences that sent my lyric writing for the Grateful Dead careening into as many forsaken and out of the way spaces as it did. [Later] I had to go all the way to Terrapin, via a probably post-Elizabethan folk song, to avoid the traffic!”
But one contemporary group did strike him – the Band. Hunter later said, “I was so impressed by the songwriting of Robbie Robertson. 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.’” He was taken with their second album, and the historical consciousness in the songs, especially The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down – “a real formative moment in directions in American music… Some of those songs are probably the father of Jack Straw and things like that.”
“First heard Big Pink sometime after having written Alligator, China Cat, St. Stephen and Dark Star. [David] Nelson played it for me . . . Big Pink wasn't an immediate ‘take’ with me. Took hearing Dixie Down the next year on the radio to make me aware of what they were up to with any kind of impact.”
Hunter said Robertson “uncovered some germinally great ideas. 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. 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…”
(Dire Wolf is set not specifically in the West, though, but in the no-man’s-land of Fennario, which Hunter probably lifted from the English ballad Peggy-o. Other Workingman’s Dead songs refer more to eastern America, like the Cumberland mines, or the bayou in Easy Wind. Hunter did do some Western songs later, but mostly – with some notable Southern exceptions – his songs would remain placeless.)
In their spare time at home, Garcia would practice scales in front of the TV (with the sound turned off), while Hunter would write songs in his room upstairs.
Hunter: “I wrote endlessly.”
Garcia: “He never stopped… The amount we set was nothing compared to the amount we didn’t set. There are a lot of songs that still deserve to be set…”
Hunter has given a couple accounts of these sessions:
“I’d be sitting upstairs banging on my typewriter, picking up my guitar, singin’ something, then going back to the typewriter. Jerry would be downstairs practicing guitar, working things out. You could hear fine through the floors there, and by the time I’d come down with a sheet and slap it down in front of him, Jerry already knew how they should go! He probably had to suffer through my incorrect way of doing them.”
“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. 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.”
Mountain Girl adds, “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. ‘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.”
Garcia said of Hunter’s song ideas, “Things come to him, you know. An idea comes by, or a picture, an image, sort of floats by, it’s all in the air... It’s a matter of being able to tune into it.”
Dire Wolf was written one night in May 1969. Hunter later wrote:
“The song Dire Wolf was inspired, at least in name, by watching The Hound of the Baskervilles on TV with Garcia. We were speculating on what the ghostly hound might turn out to be, and somehow the idea that maybe it was a Dire Wolf came up. Maybe it was even suggested in the story, I don't remember. We thought Dire Wolves were great big beasts. Extinct now, it turns out they were quite small and ran in packs. But the idea of a great big wolf named Dire was enough to trigger a lyric. As I remember, I wrote the words quickly the next morning upon waking, in that hypnogogic state where deep-rooted associations meld together with no effort. Garcia set it later that afternoon.”
Hunter’s also said, “The imagery occurred to me in a dream. I woke up and grabbed a pencil before I was entirely awake and wrote the whole song down. I think I managed to capture the quality of the dream by writing it down before I was wide awake.”
According to McNally, Hunter had been up late watching The Hound of the Baskervilles with Mountain Girl, and she’d referred to the “dire wolf” – and the phrase stuck in his dreams.
“I remember giving Jerry the lyrics for "Dire Wolf" while he was noodling on guitar watching television. He took them and placed them aside without looking at them, continued watching TV. I said ‘I don't live here because of your sweet temper, it's to write songs!’ Somewhat startled at the vehemence of the statement, he picked up the page and got right to work setting it. The old boy often needed jump-starting.”
The song tells a dire story. As Hunter said, the narrator “is the shadow of the man in the song who is dead at this point. It’s a song by a ghost.”
The song tells us right off, “That’s the last they saw of me.” In this land, though, “the black and bloody mire,” people seem to have enough troubles without looking after each other: “the wolves are running round / the winter was so hard and cold,” and in this frozen environment, “the boys sing round the fire / don’t murder me.” Our narrator is on his own, has whiskey for supper, and prays before bed, only to find the Dire Wolf “grinning at my window.” Once the Wolf arrives, there are no more choices to make: “all I said was come on in … but the cards were all the same.” And the scene pulls back – all across Fennario, “the Dire Wolf collects his due,” as the others wait their turn.
Hunter once explained, “The situation that's basically happening in 'Dire Wolf' is it's the middle of winter, and there's nothing to eat for anybody, and this guy's got a little place. Suddenly there's this monster, the dire wolf, and the guy is saying, 'Well, obviously you're going to come in, and why don't you pull up a chair and play some cards?' But the cards are cut to the queen of spades, which is the card of death, and all the cards are death at this point. The situation is the same as when a street dude, an up-against-the- Establishment guy, approaches the Establishment and says, 'We can coexist.' Also, 'Dire Wolf' is Behemoth; that monster, the Id; the subconscious--it's that, too. Out there in a barren setting, stripped; there's no setting really, just blank white, and these characters in the middle of it.”
As Garcia soon discovered, the song also tapped a deep vein of American paranoia:
“I wrote that song when the Zodiac Killer was out murdering in San Francisco. Every night I was coming home from the studio, and I’d stop at an intersection and look around, and if a car pulled up, it was like, ‘This is it. I’m gonna die now.’ It became a game. Every night I was conscious of that thing, and the refrain got to be so real to me: ‘Please don’t murder me…’ It was a coincidence in a way, but it was also the truth at the moment.”
The Zodiac Killer became known in August ’69 after sending messages to the newspapers about his killings; he became even more well-known in October after another letter to the Chronicle proving he’d killed someone in a car one recent night in San Francisco, and threatening to kill more. He continued to send letters with more threats over the next year, though his actual victims seem to have been few, and he eventually vanished.
So the Zodiac actually emerged some months after the song was finished – but, as we’ll see, Garcia immediately made the connection between the killer and the song in live shows that October, when Zodiac frenzy gripped San Francisco. (He was recording pedal steel in the studio for CS&N on October 24; and on October 26 he mentions the Zodiac and “paranoid fantasies” onstage; so his memory of driving home in fear seems to be quite literal.)
Whether Hunter had a melody of his own in mind, Garcia promptly gave Dire Wolf a cheerful, perky folk-song setting, much simpler than the usual Dead song. (It’s unusual for the music to be in such ironic contrast to the lyrics in a Dead tune.) He thought of it from the start as an acoustic tune, and as early performances would show, may have had trouble thinking of a band arrangement for it. How could the Dead play this little song? – with two guitars? with pedal steel? with bass or organ? who would even sing it? And how could such a short ditty fit into Dead shows without disappearing?
The Dead tried out a number of different answers in the first few months of the song’s history, before it finally settled into its final shape. But one surprising development became clear in those months: it wasn’t the song that would change to fit the Dead; it was the Dead who would change to fit the song.
The early Dead took pride in their dense, unapproachable songs like Caution or New Potato Caboose that no one could sing along to. Mickey Hart boasted, “We were improvisationalists. We’d play for two or three hours, sing for 45 seconds off-key, and play for another hour. We were not one of your better vocal groups… In the old days, we used to play all this really strange stuff hour after hour, and we’d leave the Fillmore laughing, ‘I wonder if they can whistle any of those songs? Nooooo!’ Well, with Workingman’s Dead that changed. You could whistle our songs.”
The sudden change came as a welcome surprise to Hart. “I remember how warm and fuzzy it made me feel. The electric side was so fun and so stimulating and so rewarding and so energetic, and then all of a sudden we were starting to explore the soft side of the GD. And I thought, what a beautiful thing – acoustic guitars. It was cold out there in the electric, feedback GD world. It was a great cold, a wonderful freeze, full of exploratory moments and great vision, but here we were exploring the soft side…”
Garcia was equally pleased by Hunter’s progression in songwriting. In later years he wasn’t thrilled by the songs he and Hunter had put together in 1968:
“All those Aoxomoxoa songs, a lot of them are cumbersome to perform, overwritten… A lot of tunes on there are just packed with lyrics, or packed with musical changes that aren’t worth it… There isn’t a graceful way to perform them… Those were the first songs me and Hunter did together, and we didn’t have the craft of songwriting down. We did things that in retrospect turned out to be unwise, just from the point of view of playing songs that people enjoy…”
Garcia said in ’71, “When Hunter first started writing words for us originally, he was on his own trip and he was a poet. He was into the magical thing of words, definitely far out, definitely amazing. The early stuff he wrote that we tried to set to music was stiff becase it wasn’t really meant to be sung. After he got further and further into it, his craft improved… He’s gotten to be really a craftsman at it lately. In the last year or so, he’s gotten to really understand what it is to sing words… Certain things you can sing real gracefully.”
Garcia felt there was a big advantage to now having songs that could be sung gracefully – on Workingman’s Dead, “I liked all those tunes… I felt that they were all good songs. They were successful in the sense you could sing ‘em, and get off and enjoy singing ‘em.”
In fact, Garcia was so proud of now having a singable song, in fall ’69 he would make a point of repeatedly asking audiences to sing along to Dire Wolf!
Dire Wolf came when it was needed. Garcia’s interest in country & folk music had lain dormant during the early years of the Dead. But in the spring of ’69, the Dead started reintroducing a lot of old covers to their sets that they hadn’t done in a long time – mostly a mix of blues, R&B, folk, and country tunes. (There’s a list in my acoustic-sets post.)
Clearly the Dead were itching for new material. Most of the Aoxomoxoa songs were being played live, but they still sought some more diversity in the sets, more traditional-sounding tunes. Possibly the extended stay in the studio working on Aoxomoxoa limited Garcia’s songwriting time; but after the recording wrapped up around March/April ‘69, he started turning out new songs with Hunter.
More than that, Garcia started immersing himself in country music styles. In May 1969, Garcia started playing pedal steel with John Dawson.
Dawson recalled, “Garcia had stopped in Denver at a music store that had a bunch of pedal steels in it. So he bought one and brought it back. I bumped into him at the Dead’s practice place in Novato near Hamilton Air Force Base. I asked Jerry if I could come over to his house and listen to the steel guitar… I brought my guitar when I showed up so he would have something to accompany. I showed him a couple of tunes that I had been working on… Jerry set his steel up and accompanied what I was doing, building up his chops. It sounded good.”
“I had a gig at this coffeehouse in Menlo Park called the Underground, playing Wednesday evenings, and I invited Jerry to come down and join me. It was just the two of us – me on guitar and Jerry on pedal steel. I would play my own songs and I was also doing covers – Dylan stuff like I Shall Be Released, and Merle Haggard’s Mama Tried, and Del Reeves’ Diesel On My Tail.”
Around this duo, the New Riders would coalesce in June; by that time Garcia had taken to playing pedal steel occasionally in Dead shows as well, and debuted Dire Wolf. It was the start of a turn that would take the Dead deeper into country music over the next few years.
Years later, Garcia talked about the Dead’s entry into country music:
“We're kind of on the far fringe of it, but we're part of that California Bakersfield school of country and western rock 'n' roll – Buck Owens, Merle Haggard. We used to go see those bands and think, "Gee, those guys are great." [Buck Owens' guitarist] Don Rich was one of my favorites, I learned a lot of stuff from him.
So we took kind of the Buck Owens approach on Workingman's Dead. Some of the songs in there are direct tributes to that style of music, although they're not real obvious... But certainly there was a conscious decision. And then that, of course, led Hunter and me into the gradual discovery process of crafting a song, putting a song together that is singable, that has the thing of being able to communicate at once at several levels, and that you can feel good about singing…
Some songs wear well and some don't. You perform them a few times, their time is over, that's it. Others, the more you perform them the richer they get, the more resonant, until finally it doesn't matter what the words are about anymore… Country and western songs are so directly narrative, if you don't get the point the first time you play it, it's a failure.”
Immediately after Dire Wolf, Hunter & Garcia realized they were onto something, and continued the roll of folk & country-based songs.
Casey Jones, like Dupree, was an actual character transformed into folk legend in the early 20th century. Casey had been the subject of numerous old folk songs (including one, the ‘Ballad of Casey Jones,’ that Garcia later performed acoustically), but Hunter & Garcia decided to put their own slant on it. Garcia later said, “There’s a whole tradition of cocaine songs…then there’s a whole group of Casey Jones songs; so we thought it would be fun to combine these two traditional ideas and put them into one song.”
Hunter said the song was born when “I wrote the words ‘drivin’ that train high on cocaine, Casey Jones you better watch your speed’ on a sheet of paper in a notebook. Just an observation. Chanced on it sometime later and thought it'd make a great hook to a song, which I then wrote.”
Garcia recalled, “He had the words, and the words were just so exquisite, they were just so perfect that I just sat down with the words, picked up a guitar, and played the song. It just came out… I always thought it’s a pretty good picture of what cocaine is like: a little bit evil, and hard-edged, and also that sing-songy thing…”
Casey Jones started out live in June with a long, rambling jam intro, which took a couple months to be dropped entirely. The song became more hard-edged & driving as the year went on, losing its initial bounce - it took a while for Garcia to streamline his aimless solo. Versions of Casey Jones from this year tend to sound lumbering, with Constanten’s jaunty organ rather incongruous – it picked up a lot of steam once he left.
Hunter & Garcia then tried their hands at an old-style country ballad, High Time. Hunter said, “For High Time, I wanted a song like the kind of stuff I heard rolling out of the jukeboxes of bars my father frequented when I was a kid. Probably a subliminal Hank Williams influence…a late-‘40s sad feel.”
But later Garcia said that High Time was “the song that I think failed on that record… It’s a beautiful song, but I was just not able to sing it worth a shit.”
(McNally suggests that Hunter wrote it so Garcia could play pedal steel on it. Live, that wasn’t possible; but Garcia does add some pedal licks to the album cut.)
At any rate, High Time also went through some changes – live in ’69, it was very quiet, skeletal & wispy with a long instrumental intro, but was condensed to a more straightforward, poppy version for the album.
Garcia soon went into the studio for a demo session of these three songs:
http://archive.org/details/gd1970-01-01.studio.smith.91324.sbeok.flac16 (Though dated 1970, I think this session is from May or June ’69 – the way Garcia is performing these songs sounds like it’s before he started playing them with the Dead.)
There are several versions of Dire Wolf – the session starts with an extended instrumental intro & false starts. Garcia uses the studio opportunity to overdub himself with a snappy second guitar accompaniment, to see how it sounds. (I’m pretty sure the second guitar is also Garcia, and it’s definitely an overdub.) He starts off the session with a 5-minute version where he runs through the verses twice, but this pales next to track 11, where he repeats all the verses five times in a mammoth 11-minute rendition!
Dire Wolf was first played live on June 7; High Time on June 21, and Casey Jones on June 22. As the new songs entered the setlists, some Aoxomoxoa songs left – the Dead stopped playing Dupree’s Diamond Blues and Mountains of the Moon in July, and Doin’ That Rag in September. (Cosmic Charlie hung on mainly as an epilogue to the Cryptical suite; and it’s hard to say whether China Cat would’ve survived if Rider had not been attached to it.)
It was a couple months later, in August, before the next new song emerged – this one a blues song written for Pigpen. Hunter recalled, “How I wrote Easy Wind was, I’d been listening to Robert Johnson and liking Delta blues an awful lot. So I sat down to write a blues a la Robert Johnson. I played it for Pigpen and he dug it, so he did it. My arrangement was a little bit closer to one of those slippin’ and slidin’ Robert Johnson-type songs because it was just me and a guitar. Then when the whole band got a hold of it, it changed a bit, as they always do. Still, a lot of that original style crept over into the band’s version.”
Even so, Hunter felt that “I wanted it to have the spark and forward drive of one of [Johnson’s] tunes. I failed, but I got another kind of song.”
The next batch of Workingman’s Dead songs didn’t arrive until November/December. By then, a new element was in play: the Dead had started hanging out with Crosby, Stills & Nash, and listening to their singing. As a result, some of these late-fall songs feature lots of trio singing. That’s another story; but note that the spring ’69 songs feature mainly just Garcia singing with some key Weir harmonies in the choruses.
It’s also worth mentioning that in spring ’69, as he’d done for most of Aoxomoxoa, Garcia had arranged the songs and brought them complete to the Dead, as finished products; he’d even recorded solo demos. For some of the fall songs, the procedure seems to have been much more elaborate as the whole band was involved in the song compositions – Lesh gets a songwriting credit on Cumberland Blues; Lesh and Weir on Mason’s Children. Garcia mentioned that “Uncle John’s Band was a major effort, as a musical piece. It’s one we worked on for a really long time, to get it working right. Cumberland Blues was also difficult in that sense… [A few months later] Truckin’ is a song that we assembled; it wasn’t natural and it didn’t flow and it wasn’t easy and we really labored over the bastard, all of us together.”
Hunter described the process: “One of the reasons Workingman’s Dead had such a nice, close sound to it is that we all met every day and worked on the material with acoustic guitars, just sat around and sang the songs. Phil would say, ‘Why don’t we use a G minor there instead of a C?’ that sort of thing, and a song would pop a little more into perspective. That’s a good band way of working a song out.”
Here is a brief history of how Dire Wolf progressed through 1969:
http://archive.org/details/gd69-06-07.sbd.kaplan.9074.sbeok.shnf - Garcia starts the show by playing it on acoustic, mostly solo. (Did the others even know the song yet?)
At the Bobby Ace show on 6/11/69, Dire Wolf was the only new song played among a bunch of country & Everlys covers. Alas, there’s no tape!
http://archive.org/details/gd69-06-14.sbd.skinner.5182.sbeok.shnf – closer to the later Dead versions, with Garcia on electric (turned down); Garcia still sings it by himself, and is accompanied only by Lesh and some light drums. Some moments of awkwardness when Garcia attempts to solo.
http://archive.org/details/gd1969-06-21.sbd-late.bove.2195.sbeok.shnf - a rethink! Now Weir plays acoustic and sings, while Garcia plays pedal steel.
http://archive.org/details/gd69-06-27.sbd.samaritano.20547.sbeok.shnf - the same, but jauntier. (Released on the Workingman’s Dead CD reissue.)
Dire Wolf was done the same way on 7/4; but by 7/11 they’d reverted back to Garcia on lead, and he even gives the song an intro: “This is a song about the dire wolf.”
http://archive.org/details/gd69-07-11.sbd.hanno.4644.sbeok.shnf - very energetic; also notable for Constanten playing in Dire Wolf for the first time. (Garcia still sings solo.)
We’re then missing a few weeks of Dire Wolves; the next one on 8/29 is much more subdued & sloppy, as the other players slowly join in. It’s also notable since Garcia sings the whole song twice in a row, which he’d do a few times.
Our next surviving Dire Wolf, from 9/27, is a poor audience recording, but is notable since it’s the first one where Weir sings harmony. (And Garcia sings the song twice through again.) Garcia’s guitar breaks are starting to get snappier.
A month later, on 10/24, Dire Wolf has slowed down, and Constanten gives it a tootling organ intro, which makes the audience clap along. The song is much stronger now.
On 10/26, in the wake of the Zodiac killer revelations hitting the newspapers, Garcia makes his first reference to that. It’s also his first request for the audience to sing along: “This song is dedicated to the Zodiac, and also to paranoid fantasies everywhere. And everybody can sing along if they feel up to it. It’s real easy to sing.”
http://archive.org/details/gd69-10-26.sbd.fink.9509.sbeok.shnf (The song drags - either the tape’s slow or the Dead were really tired that night. The next version on 10/31 is better.)
On 11/1 Garcia gives an unusual double intro to the song: “This is a song about the wolf’s at the door and what you do when the wolf comes to the door.” After singing the song once through, he adds, “It’s an easy song - you can all sing along really easy, man, it’s super easy – fun.” Then he sings it all again!
We’ll pass over the rather lethargic versions of the next month, to note Garcia’s various introductions. Generally at this time the Dead would vamp a long, bouncy two-chord intro to the song, encouraging people to clap along, and sometimes Garcia would ask them to sing as well. For instance –
12/5: “This is a song you can all sing along on.”
12/11: “You can sing along if you like; a little paranoid fantasy tune.”
1/2/70: “This is a song with an easy chorus, and you can even sing with it – it’s fun!” (This version is much chirpier than the December renditions.)
1/16: “This is a song you can sing along with, a little paranoid fantasy song.”
1/23 has an amusing bit where, over the intro, Pigpen sings “gonna find her” a la Searchin’, and Garcia says, “This is 1970, Jack, not ’56!”
1/31: “Gonna do a little paranoid fantasy song for ya, which you can sing along with if you can pick up on the chorus; the chorus is real easy.”
2/1: “It’s a simple little song and I oughtta teach you the chorus to it… This is a little song you sing when you’re walking home alone and it’s dark, and there’s phantom figures stirring in the background. (Weir: “Things that go scrape in the night.”) The chorus goes like this…” Then he starts with the chorus.
After this, Garcia stops introducing the song pretty much, with perhaps some isolated exceptions like 5/7/70 – “Here’s a song you can all sing along with us. This is a little paranoid in the streets mantra - if you want to think of it that way.”
The song was tightened up a bit in 1970, as they stopped doing the long intros in March. (Perhaps an example of studio discipline rubbing off on the live shows.) A couple times it segued out of the Cryptical reprise: 2/11/70 and 4/15/70. Dire Wolf would also migrate between the acoustic & electric sets that year. Most of the acoustic examples on the Archive are in audience copies, but here’s one good SBD:
According to the Workingman’s CD liner notes, Dire Wolf was recorded on February 16, 1970. By this time they’d played it at least 40 times live, so it would not have been a hard song to do. (Apparently the album mixing wasn’t finished until April, though, even if the actual recording went quickly.) Garcia adds a chirpy pedal steel part to give it a country feel – actually a little reminiscent of his Teach Your Children licks (which had been recorded in October ’69). I wonder if, ever since June, Garcia had intended to record Dire Wolf with pedal steel?
The Rolling Stone review of the album noted that Dire Wolf “is a country song. Garcia’s steel guitar work is just right, and everyone sings along to the ‘Don’t murder me’ chorus. The country feeling of this album just adds to the warmth of it.”
Dire Wolf made an instant impression with audiences and reviewers, even when they hadn’t heard it before. Before the album release in June 1970, it was known as ‘Don’t Murder Me,’ and you see it referred to that way sometimes in show reviews. (Casey Jones was known as “the Train Song.”) The Cash Box review of the 9/27/69 show singled out one song from the Dead’s show: “Don't Murder Me, surely one of the finer blues renditions to be heard around these parts in some time.” Robert Christgau in his review of the 6/20/69 show called it “a brilliant original.”
Aside from a few lapses in the ‘70s, Dire Wolf remained in the Dead’s sets up to 1995. It’s probably a song that will never grow old, one that will always be accessible even to people who dislike or have never heard of the Dead. Its role as a turning-point in the Dead’s songwriting has not often been remarked – but after some earlier false starts, this is when the new, catchy campfire-song band emerged, and when they learned how to use traditional Americana in their songs.
Hunter said of this time, “It was pretty much a start in writing a narrative based lyric whose antecedents were folk, country and old timey – definitely not pop-based… Dire Wolf is probably as close to a definitive ‘Hunter’ lyric as you're gonna find. I believe it to be sui generis, opening up a field of personal mythos that proved fruitful over the years.”
ftp://gdead.berkeley.edu/pub/gdead/interviews/Hunter-SilbermanGoldenRoadInterview-2001.txt (I used many Hunter quotes from this interview)
All unattributed Hunter quotes – Silberman 2001
Garcia/Hunter dialogues – Jackson 1991; in Goin’ Down the Road
Hunter, “I was so impressed” – Jackson 1991
Hunter, “uncovered some germinally” – Jackson 1988; in GDTR
Hunter, “I’d be sitting upstairs” – Jackson 1991
Hunter, “When we lived together” – Relix, date unknown
Mountain Girl, “Hunter was up” – Jackson, Garcia p.164
Garcia, “Things come to him” – Signpost 1972
Hunter, “The song DW was inspired” - 7/29/96 Hunter journal
Hunter, “The imagery occurred” - Relix 1986
Hunter, “is the shadow” – Relix 1986
Hunter, “the situation” - to Michael Lydon, quoted in Music Never Stopped p.108
Garcia, “I wrote that song” – Krassner 1985 interview
Hart, “We were improvisationalists” - Music Never Stopped p.106
Hart, “I remember how warm” - McNally p.319
Garcia, “All those Aoxomoxoa songs” - Jackson/Gans 1981; in Conversations
Garcia, “When Hunter first started / I liked all those tunes” – Signpost 1972
Dawson, “Garcia had stopped” – One More Saturday Night p.167
Dawson, “I had a gig” – Jackson, Garcia p.167 [coincidence!]
Garcia, “We’re kind of on” - Musician 1991 interview w/ Costello
Garcia, “There’s a whole tradition” – Jackson, Garcia p.165
Garcia, “He had the words” – Signpost 1972
Hunter, “For High Time” – CD liner notes
Garcia, “the song that I think” – Signpost 1972
Hunter, “How I wrote Easy Wind” - Golden Road 1993
Hunter, “I wanted it to have” - CD liner notes
Garcia, “Uncle John’s Band” – Signpost 1972
Hunter, “One of the reasons” - Gans 1977; in Conversations
Reviews – on Deadsources
i have always thought the line "600 pounds of sin" was one of hunter's best lyrics.ReplyDelete
LIA, speaking in my role as a self-referential wonky obscurist, this is an absolutely brilliant post. I was vaguely aware of the various bits and pieces that you refer to here, but I had never seen them put together in a formal timeline. This is just an amazing post.ReplyDelete
Thanks! Comments from wonky obscurists always welcome.ReplyDelete
"600 pounds of sin" is great. No one can win against 600 pounds of sin...
There has been some question over which version of Hound of the Baskervilles they were watching - scholarship has not been able to detect this. I'd like to think it was the 1939 b&w version with Basil Rathbone; but there was also a Hound made in 1959 by Hammer Films, in color with Peter Cushing, and that might have been the one on TV.
What's interesting is, with a Sherlock Holmes film in Hunter's mind and the song set in Fennario, Dire Wolf is very much a British-inspired song!
But Garcia had it in mind as kind of a Bakersfield country song from the start - not just in its pedal-steel guise, but also if you hear the '69 demo, Garcia's doing straight country flatpicking on second guitar (similar to El Paso). Weir's harmony-singing is also right out of that genre.
One thing I think I've observed elsewhere is that Garcia certainly lost no time in 'going country' in May '69. The previous months had been pretty busy - a 2-week eastern tour in February; another one in April; finishing endless studio work on an album AND working on the live-album tapes at the same time.
Yet, within 2 or 3 weeks of coming home at the end of April with his new pedal steel, he's already out playing it in a country duo. He & Weir were probably both pushing for more country songs within the Dead (Weir even more so, I'd guess, since he sang most of them).
Also, we don't fully know what Garcia was up to in 'off-stage' country or bluegrass sessions - as the February tape with High Country at the Matrix shows, he could have been pickin' away with other guys every week and we wouldn't know.
At any rate, in mid-'69 I get the impression that he & Hunter are intentionally trying out different 'regional' genres: "let's do a Casey Jones song - let's do a country ballad - let's do a delta blues - let's do a bluegrass song - etc."
Let's not forget that in Oct 1977 Garcia and the band changed the key of Dire Wolf from A major to C major. The first instance of the key change is 10/16/77, the last show of a short mid-October tour, and it stayed that way until the end.ReplyDelete
Thanks for the tip. That was shortly after the song got reintroduced, after not being played for 3 years. The key change does make the song sound brighter, though it also was more of a strain for Garcia's voice.Delete
Listening to these '77 examples reminded me immediately why I like '69 more!
Thank you very much, great essay (as usual)ReplyDelete
Dire Wolf is one of my favorite GD original songs.
Wow, thanks so much for this fun and informative post. This is really helpful in illustrating how the group 'transitioned' from heavy psychedelia into more of a country/wild west kind of thing. A shotgun ragtime band as it were. Workingman's Dead is such a fine collection of songs, Dire Wolf one of the better tunes. (And for some reason, i've always felt UJB out of place here.) Anyhow, thanks again for the post; they are always such fun to read.ReplyDelete
And if i might submit a query for a future post: any chance of shedding some light on the year of 1975? Seems like there might be some interesting things going on there..
Hmm - I shed some light in my short guide to 1975 studio sessions; I hadn't intended to return to that year anytime soon, but it might come up again in the course of things...Delete
Just a general comment - wanted to say how much I enjoy this blog. The information here and the pointers are just great. Thanks!ReplyDelete
A small note on the song's origin: the idea came to Hunter after an evening where the Hunter/Garcia household was watching Peter Cushing's 1959 "Hound of the Baskervilles" on TV. Hunter recalled that they "were speculating on what the ghostly hound might turn out to be" (no one knew the story already!), and someone suggested it might be a dire wolf.ReplyDelete
Now, a dire wolf is never mentioned in the film (or the book), so it's just a random remark that stuck with Hunter. They may have heard the term anywhere - dire wolves were part of the prehistoric California wildlife (many of them were found stuck in the La Brea tar pits, for instance, and Ice-Age humans would have encountered them).
But, the film does have frequent warnings to beware the nearby Grimpen mire, where you'll sink to your doom if you step off the path:
Needless to say, someone eventually sinks. The mire stuck in Hunter's head, and became the "black and bloody mire" of the song.