July 11, 2020

You Can Hear the Pennywhistle Blow

Here’s a short post, just a few words to accompany the new podcast on ‘Uncle John’s Band’ –

The Pennywhistlers were a group of American women whose specialty was uncannily-accurate renditions of Eastern European choral folk songs. Folklorist Ethel Raim formed the group with her friends in 1962, with the goal of bringing the traditional music of other cultures to American listeners. They became relatively popular in folk-music circles during the ‘60s and frequently performed at folk festivals and on radio programs, singing mostly unaccompanied Balkan, Slavic and Yiddish songs (though they’d throw in some American folk tunes as well). 

They released a few albums:
“The Pennywhistlers” (Folkways, 1963) (Reissued on Verve in 1966 as “Songs from Everywhere.”)
“Folksongs of Eastern Europe” (Nonesuch, 1966) (The whole album was on youtube last month, but has been taken down. Not on CD.)
“A Cool Day and Crooked Corn” (Nonesuch, 1968) (A more subdued effort, also not on youtube or on CD.)

In his autobiography, folksinger Theodore Bikel mentioned “a group of seven women from the New York area who were known as the Pennywhistlers. They had been organized by Ethel Raim and specialized in Eastern European choral or group songs, sung mostly a cappella… These women were the closest to the real thing in authenticity in the United States, a tribute to good musicianship and a good ear.”

In her quest for authenticity, Raim traveled to Bulgaria in 1965 to see the national folk festival there and pick up material in person. (She would later do field recordings of Bulgarian singers, including this track sent into space on the Voyager record.) Since she didn’t know the language, when learning Bulgarian folksongs Raim would transcribe the syllables, then ask a Bulgarian speaker to figure out the words. Her efforts paid off in the very authentic-sounding singing styles on the Pennywhistlers' albums.
Here’s one recent interview with her:

At some point, Jerry Garcia heard of the Pennywhistlers and their versions of Balkan traditional songs. All through the ‘60s, Garcia had an interest in folk singers from different traditions, whether it be old whaling shanties, gospel quartets, Bahamian spirituals, or the Georgia Sea Island Singers:

Along with many other people, he was particularly enchanted by Bulgarian singing. When Garcia & Phil Lesh were guest hosts on KMPX in April ’67, Garcia introduced a song from “the Bulgarian folklore scene,” praising the “unaccompanied two-part singing…just the weirdest intervals you ever heard.”  
This track was from the 1966 “Music of Bulgaria” album on the Nonesuch label, done by the Ensemble of the Bulgarian Republic (with Philip Koutev directing). Rhoney Gissen reports that Owsley also loved the "Bulgarian Women's Choir" album, and they would play it at his house ("Jerry loved that"). Another fan of the album was David Crosby, who praises it to this day.

This album was occasionally played on KMPX; the DJ mentioned that “we played some of this on the air here, because a lot of people reacted very favorably to it. It’s a great sound to listen to.” In the US, the Koutev Bulgarian National Ensemble could also be heard on the very similar album “Bulgaria's Great Women's Voices” (Monitor, 1963); other more academic Bulgarian folkloric-music albums available in the '60s were “Folk Music of Bulgaria” (collected by A.L. Lloyd on Topic Records, 1964), and Alan Lomax & A.L. Lloyd’s “Bulgaria” collection in the Columbia World Library of Folk & Primitive Music series (1959). (Many more well-known albums of Bulgarian female vocal choirs would be released in later decades.)
How many of these (or other collections) Garcia heard besides Koutev’s ensemble, I don’t know. But his interest continued in later years - one person reported "seeing Garcia at the Bulgarian female choir show at the Berkeley Community Theater in 1988, along with Grace Slick and David Crosby." (This was the Bulgarian State Female Vocal Choir concert on 11/18/88, a sold-out show with a thrilled audience.)

Anyway, sometime in fall 1969, Garcia put on the Pennywhistlers’ “Folksongs of Eastern Europe” album, and ‘Shto Mi e Milo’ was the first song he heard:

Interviewed by Blair Jackson in 1991, Garcia remembered the moment well:
“I was listening to records of the Bulgarian Women’s Choir, and also this Greek-Macedonian music, these Pennywhistlers, and on one of those records there was a song that featured this little turn of melody that was so lovely that I thought, ‘Gee, if I could get this into a song it would be so great.’ So I stole it. [Laughs.] Actually, I only took a little piece of the melody, so I can’t say I plagiarized the whole thing. Of course it became so transmogrified when Bob and Phil added their harmony parts to it that it really was no longer the part of the song that was special for me. That was the melodic kicker originally, though.” (Goin’ Down the Road, p.222

A brief song history of ‘Shto Mi e Milo’ is here: 
It’s a traditional song from Macedonia (also claimed by neighboring Bulgaria) – I couldn’t find its age, but it's frequently performed: there’s a recording as early as 1908. (It’s a rather popular song for women’s choirs to sing, with plenty of videos available.) 
I think the Pennywhistlers' version was its first appearance on an American album; it's listed as a Macedonian song (as Garcia recalled), and perhaps was one of the fruits of Ethel Raim's field trip to the Balkans.

The Pennywhistlers also sang the song in Pete Seeger’s 1966 “Rainbow Quest” TV show:
The melodic bit that caught Garcia’s ear would later become the line, “Whoa-oh, what I want to know…” This was a surprise to me. I had thought that a catchy bit like the “Come hear Uncle John’s Band” riff or the initial verse line would have been the first inspiration for the song, but no, it was a twisting little melody that he’d use to awkwardly round out the verse – not the most obvious hook in the song. (It’s possible this wasn’t the only song to fire his imagination – for instance another Macedonian song, ‘Iz Dolu’ on the Pennywhistler’s “Cool Day” album, seems to have some melodic resemblance to the Uncle John’s verse, though that could just be a coincidence or my imagination.)

Once Garcia had put together the instrumental skeleton of the song, he and the Dead jammed on it at length as a loud blazing rock tune, trying out different variations. At this point the lumbering 7/8 riff in the song had become a prominent feature, repeated over and over at beginning and end. They made a rough tape of their rehearsal and gave it to Robert Hunter to write lyrics for the song. 
Hunter recalled, “That came from a tape that the band made of a tune of Jerry’s. They had the whole tune together, drums and everything – in fact I still have that tape – and I played it over and over and tried writing to it. I kept hearing the words ‘God damn, Uncle John’s mad,’ and it took a while for that to turn into ‘Come hear Uncle John’s band’…” (Goin’ Down the Road, p.222)

Meanwhile, Garcia didn’t even wait for Hunter to finish the words before he started showing off his new tune at Dead shows. It appeared as an instrumental jam at three shows in early November ’69 – in the Alligator jam on 11/1:
in the Dark Star on 11/7:
and in Dark Star again on 11/8:

Hunter finished the lyrics later that month, and the Dead worked up a singing arrangement. Garcia would later tell Rolling Stone, “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.” (Signpost p.70) Perhaps under the influence of Crosby Stills & Nash, the song was now filled with group harmonies. (Garcia later mentioned, “They never actually worked with us, [but] having them around and sitting down and singing with acoustic guitars was such a turn-on for us that we just got into it.”) Ironically, the song first inspired by a choral folk tune had moved through a fast-paced blasting rock phase and then become a gentle calypso-flavored choral folk tune again.

After some practice the Dead were ready to debut the finished song on 12/4/69, closing a show at the Fillmore West:
The band introduced the song with a disclaimer: “Well, seems we blew most of the set just trying to remember how to play, so we’re gonna blow this part of the set remembering how to sing a song that we just learned how to do – we just barely know it, we’re gonna just try it though. What the hell.”
There are no instrumental elaborations yet, but vocally the song is pretty much complete. The performance is understandably tentative – they're uncertain how to end the song, so after some audible confusion they end it by repeating the first verse.

The next performance on 12/12 is much more solid, with extended soloing – there’s a lovely moment at the end where Garcia, stuck for a verse, just “la-de-da’s” his way through it and dives into another jam. (Then they segue into a brief Friend of Mine.)
They rehearsed the song some more that week, and by the next performance on 12/19 they have the song down and the ending is finalized (though there’s no jamming).
On 12/26 they easily adapt the song to an acoustic format, where it works perfectly in the most charming performance yet:

From there, the song’s progress to album is briefly told. After only about 14 more live performances, the Dead were ready to record the song, and quickly wrapped it up in their studio sessions in early March 1970. They picked it as the first song on the Workingman’s Dead album, and also selected it to be the single. (Phil commented, “Uncle John’s Band was picked because it was obvious.”) Warner Bros. felt it was too long and profane for airplay, so an edited version went out to stations, trimmed for AM listeners:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bg7jlrs4ioQ (in mono and profanity-free for radio play)
Afterwards, Garcia groaned about the single: “I gave them instructions on how to properly edit it, and they garbled it so completely and we didn’t get a chance to hear it until way late, and it was…oh fuck, what an atrocity.” 
Weir complained about it, too: "I wasn't pleased - they hacked it to ribbons. It was absolutely necessary, everything they did, but we should just never have tried it. It didn't get us all that much exposure."


Nonetheless, the single did well – while their previous singles like ‘Dark Star’ had flopped and disappeared without a trace, Uncle John’s made it to the top 100 and found plenty of listeners. Garcia claimed, “I have no interest about singles so I don’t want to bother about it… It would be nice to have a single, but a hit single usually means 12-year-old audiences.”
12-year-olds remained rare at Dead shows, but the crowds trying to get in soon swelled to unmanageable size as the Dead experienced the first pangs of success. Garcia may not have admitted it, but the influence of folk music on his songwriting had played a small part in making him a rock star. 
(“If I could get this into a song it would be so great…”)

As for the Pennywhistlers, they might never have heard of the Grateful Dead, but they probably could have sung Uncle John’s Band better than the Dead did!
And as for actual pennywhistles blowing…the Dead didn’t use them, but a slide-whistle did make a memorable appearance in one of the shows where Uncle John’s was introduced, playing the national anthem  



Though not a very well-known group outside folk circles, the Pennywhistlers received some positive notice in the press. The Boston Globe called them “a group of women who sing music from the Balkans with magnificent verve and musicianship.” (8/27/67) 
The Globe also reported on the 1968 Newport folk festival: “The Pennywhistlers, who don’t whistle at all, but are a well-disciplined choral group of seven girls, did a series of Slavic-Balkan songs.” (7/27/68) 
The Chicago Tribune, reviewing Songs From Everywhere: “The seven American girls who make up the Pennywhistlers have remarkably acute ears, both for the sound shades of language and the pitches which make music… They are real experts.” (12/18/66) 

The longest article I found came from the Kingston Daily Freeman, NY, 8/17/68: 


On August 20, the Woodstock Playhouse Tuesday Folk Concert Series will present the Pennywhistlers, seven young women, who although born in the U.S., have a great love for the music of the Danube, Russia, and the Slavic lands. They bring to their audiences the intricate rhythms, earthy vocal qualities, and engaging harmonies of the peasant music of Eastern Europe. True to their heritages, they also sing Yiddish – all are from Jewish families and can speak Yiddish – as well as American traditional and contemporary songs. 
The Pennywhistlers have appeared on campuses across the country, at Lewisohn Stadium, Philadelphia and Newport Folk Festivals; come to Woodstock direct from their appearance at this year’s Newport Festival. They have also performed on TV and radio and have recorded on the Folkways and Nonesuch labels. Concerts at Carnegie and Town Halls led the New York Times to call their recital “brilliant and surprising, polished and joyous… A good deal of the group’s material is drawn from the glorious folk-choral tradition of Eastern Europe, laced with athletic leaps, wild harmonies, dissonances, rough edges and surprising intervals… Not only is the material completely fresh and appealing, but the performances were equal to the repertory.” 
For an evening of pure enjoyment, the Woodstock Playhouse is the place to be next Tuesday night. There you’ll hear Bulgarian planting songs (the group’s director, Ethel Raim, recently returned from a research trip to Bulgaria and Eastern Europe), Hungarian live lyrics, and Croatian hymns, “many of them sung a capella – sustained by the septet’s own strong harmony,” according to a Time magazine review. 
Francine Brown, Shelley Cook, Joyce Gluck, Alice Kogan, Deborah Lesser, Ethel Raim, and Dina Silberman make up The Pennywhistlers. They are being hailed as one of the most exciting singing groups to come along in years and they’ll be at the Woodstock Playhouse for one night only, Tuesday, Aug. 20 at 8:40 p.m.”


  1. The Bulgarian State Radio & TV Female Vocal Choir toured the US in 1988 after the success of the "Mystere des Voix Bulgares" albums, with press announcements bearing praise from various pop luminaries, including Jerry Garcia:
    "They're like angels...exceptionally pure, really polished. Our song 'Uncle John's Band' was inspired by the village music of Bulgaria."
    Some newspapers reported that "trendy rock stars like Robert Plant and the Grateful Dead even began playing tapes of the choir's record to open their own concerts." (Does anyone remember this?)
    Not only that, but Garcia helped bring them to the US, according to one Chicago Tribune article: "The tour [is] largely underwritten by Nonesuch [the record label] with a small contribution from the Grateful Dead's Rex Foundation." ("Exotic Blend," 11/8/88 Tribune)

  2. Interesting article. Nice work as usual!

  3. A brief history of the Uncle John's Band intro, leading up to the album version:

    As with other Garcia songs, he initially started with the rhythm of the song, but didn't have the intro hook yet. The debut on 12/4/69 has only a short, rushed 20-second intro, with the guitars strumming a chord, a little supporting bass, and the organ providing rhythm chirps.
    In contrast the next intro on 12/12/69 is the longest at 1:15. The guitars are still rhythmically strumming one chord; the organ is looser and more prominent here than on later versions. The drum taps that would remain are present. Garcia tries out an improvised lead line which turns into a brief jam with the bass.
    Things tighten up on 12/19/69, with a 40-second intro. This is the last version where the organ's really noticeable. Weir still strums on one chord, but the bass hints at the descending song chords. This time Garcia adopts a calypso feel in his lead.
    In the first acoustic version, 12/26/69, the guitars just rhythmically strum one chord for a minute, and Garcia skips the lead.
    On 12/30 and 12/31/69, the intro's 50 seconds - as before, Garcia plays a calypso-styled lead while Weir strums on a chord. By now, Weir is varying his playing more, Phil's pushing the chord progression, and Garcia's getting closer to his eventual melody line - he doesn't have it yet but is feeling around. (And the organ's barely present.)
    The intro is drastically rearranged with the new year. Starting on 1/2/70, it's cut down to 15 seconds, which would remain the new standard for the next couple months. Weir strums one chord for a few bars, then plays the descending chords while Garcia does a brief lead, then they start singing right away. Though it's simplified, it sounds awkward at first - Garcia still doesn't play a set melody, just a little squawk. (The drummers are getting more assertive with each version, though.)
    This would remain the intro for the next month, up to 2/7/70.

    On 2/11/70, for the encore Phil introduces the song: "Now if you folks would all be kind enough to be quiet for a little while, we're gonna sing a purty little old song, with only an acoustic guitar." It's just Garcia by himself briefly playing the intro chords.
    Uncle John's Band would remain mostly acoustic for the next couple months. The next few versions in February are all acoustic and start the same: an intro strum, then the chords; but Garcia doesn't play a lead. (The same on 2/28.)
    But on 3/1/70, an electric version, they finally play the intro exactly as it is on the album - Garcia's found his melody line at last. (This version's very slow though.) The song's now ready for the studio, and the next week they would record it for the album.

    Ironically that would be the only intro identical to the album. After recording the album version, the intro was slightly changed again - on the next acoustic version we have from 3/21, it's much longer, back to 40 seconds again, as the Dead realized the value of extending it more. They dispense with the opening strum and start right out with the song chords, which are repeated a few times; Garcia also repeats his melody line. This gives the song more room to start with, and would remain the new standard in the following months.

    (Just as a trivia note, though I didn't examine the jams, 12/12/69 was pretty exploratory but by far the longest UJB in these early months was 2/7/70. It's jammed out to 10 minutes, a mammoth version when the typical length of UJB was 6 to 7 minutes, and I think it would remain the longest version for years to come.)

  4. "Here's a short post..." God bless this website.

  5. Nick points out a bit of dialogue from a newly surfaced rehearsal tape between Garcia & Welnick in August 1990 -
    Jerry: I stole part of the melody [for Uncle John's Band] from a Bulgarian women's choir record.
    Vince: I suppose they haven't called you up yet, have they?
    Jerry: Well, it's so obscure, it's just one little phrase, actually, and I just loved the way it sounded, it sounded so cool so I had to steal at least *it*, y'know. So I didn't steal any of the rest of the song, just one little phrase.
    Parish: That's why we can't go to Bulgaria.