June 3, 2021

A Few Words on Me & My Uncle

“Here’s a song about wanton death and destruction. Called Me and My Knuckle.”
--Bob Weir, 10/27/71
No song was played more often by the Grateful Dead than Me & My Uncle. It was the first of their cowboy songs, a genre they would embrace and make their own. Mike Wilhelm of the Charlatans once called this a song about “greed, treachery, violence, and murder” – what could appeal more to the outlaw Dead? Drinkin’, gamblin’, and killin’ (and sometimes woman-stealin’) were their favorite occupations in song. From El Paso to Jack Straw to Mexicali Blues, Bob Weir was especially enticed by tales of killers on the run in the Wild West; and Me & My Uncle started the trend.
Given this song’s central role in the Dead’s repertoire, I thought I’d write a few words on its early history. But where did it come from? Not from one of Marty Robbins’ “Gunfighter Ballads” or the pages of John Lomax’s “Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads”….no, this song wasn’t some well-known traditional classic, but had a much more recent birth. When Garcia & Weir were forming their jugband in Palo Alto, it had yet to be recorded; the song they’d play hundreds of times was still being dreamed up by a fellow folkie out in New York. 
John Phillips, who was then a member of the folk trio the Journeymen, wrote Me & My Uncle sometime in 1963 and passed it on to Judy Collins, who introduced it to the world on her 1964 live album:
Apparently Phillips thought little enough of the song, he’d already forgotten about it and didn’t bother recording it himself at the time. A few other folkies picked up the tune from Collins’ album (including the up-and-coming Joni Mitchell), but it was still fairly obscure, by no means a widespread folk standard. 
The song was brought to San Francisco by “Curly Jim” Stalarow, a colorful character from Texas who hung out with the Dead at 710 Ashbury in ‘66/67. (More has been written about him here and here.) According to one friend, he came with a surprising claim: “He told me he was at the party where Me and My Uncle was written and had provided some of the lyrics himself. He said Phillips never credited him for his part but he didn’t really mind.” Whether or not this was true, the song grabbed the ears of a couple of local musicians. 
Bob Weir said he learned the song from Curly Jim. But Phil Lesh remembered it differently: “We saw Dino Valente do it. That’s where we picked it up.” Valente was indeed playing it in solo gigs (he was playing regularly at the Kuh Auditorium in San Francisco through the fall of ’66). He would later record a passionate acoustic 12-string version on his 1968 album (the only cover song on the album). 
When Weir started singing it in ’66, his delivery was much closer to Valente than Collins, in his singing style and the lyric changes. A number of the lines changed from the original are the same in Weir’s & Valente’s deliveries. For instance, Collins has the cowboys loaded down “with gold and silver…just after round-up,” but now they’re loaded “with liquor and money…so soon after payday.” In Collins’ card game, “from the beginning, uncle starts to win / Them Texas cowboys, they was mad as sin.” But now, “my uncle starts winning, cowboys are getting sore / One cowboy calls him down, and then two more” – the cheating accusation is also brought out more dramatically. When the fighting starts, Collins “grabbed a bottle, slapped him in the jaw,” but the men are more deadly: “I shot him down, before he saw me,” shouting “goddamn!” when they shoot their second man. Collins’ “God bless cowboys, and god bless gold” is traded for the more direct “I love them cowboys, I love their gold.” 
Due to all the similarities, it seems likely that Curly Jim taught his version of the song to both Weir & Valente. For detailed lyric comparisons, see:
Weir picked up the song sometime in the fall of ’66, most likely after the Dead’s move to 710 Ashbury when he would have met Curly Jim. The song first turns up on a Dead tape in the 11/29/66 show at the Matrix – Garcia introduces it with a drawl, “We’d like to start off the second set with a cowboy song.” Two versions show up on the 12/1/66 tape (probably compiled from a couple of Matrix dates) – the first time, the Dead get lost and stop playing midway, shouting, “We can’t agree!” (A surprisingly rare occurrence in Dead shows.)
To me, the song sounds fresh, like they’d just started playing it – the Dead are excited enough by it to play it in every show, but not yet practiced enough to avoid the breakdown. Compared to later Dead performances, the delivery is more breakneck and desperate, and much more jammed-out with a lengthy intro before the vocals and a longer solo. Garcia keeps up a flurry of notes, and Pigpen’s organ blows through the song like a desert wind. (One comparison might be to the early, more “country-jam” versions of Casey Jones before that song got smoothed out.) The next taped performance on 3/18/67 already sounds a bit more relaxed, though it still has the dark feel.
The song then disappears from Dead tapes for two years. Most likely they dropped it in mid-’67 as they became entranced by more psychedelic fare. It was resurrected in April ’69, one of the many songs the Dead dusted off from their early repertoire in spring ’69 when they sought to expand their setlists. (There’s a list of the spring ’69 revivals here.) It would soon be joined by other country songs as the Dead took a step away from mind-melting rock and started covering more down-home country material.
It shows up on 4/27/69 in a surprise segue from Turn On Your Lovelight – aside from some small stumbles, the Dead had clearly been rehearsing this tune. The song’s arrangement was now less rushed, and simplified down to the form they’d play for years to come. It immediately became a regular part of their sets.
5/7/69 is notable for the long intro jam harking back to ‘66, probably an onstage warmup – this would be the last jammed-out version. (Also note Pigpen on congas, which he’d typically play on this song in ’69.) 5/10 sees the song return to the concise format it would remain in, with Garcia’s characteristic intro lick in place – it’s also a strikingly aggressive version. The song would become steadily more relaxed after this.
A couple other unusual versions from ‘69:
6/6/69 – played without Garcia; Wayne Ceballos plays a solo instead in Garcia’s style.
6/28/69 – John Dawson sings harmony vocals. (Weir also says, “The guy playing banjo back there is Peter Grant,” but I can’t hear the banjo.)
Later in ’69, Weir made a significant change to the song. He had been singing the traditional end to the song: “I left him lying there by the side of the road.” But from 10/26/69 onwards, Weir changed the last line to: “I left his dead ass there by the side of the road” – a much sharper ending.  
Another lyric change appeared later on. Normally in the song, Weir’s reaction when a cowboy starts to draw is swift: “I shot him down lord, he never saw.” But starting in ’72, sometimes Weir made it sound more like a saloon brawl:
“I grabbed a bottle, cracked him in the jaw.”
Here’s an early example (which comes out of a botched WRS Prelude) –
This line was from Judy Collins’ version of the song. This lyric variation was fairly common from ’72-74, and later years – there’s a list here:  
And often, as here, Weir brought out a more comic moment in the lyric: “I’m as honest as a Denver man can be – that’s me!” I think this variation started sometime in 1970 and became more frequent thereafter. (When he sang it in Denver, 11/21/73, there was no reaction from the crowd.)
Me & My Uncle was played several times in the acoustic sets in early 1970, sounding more somber in that setting.
Sometimes it was all-acoustic: 2/23, 4/25, 5/7, 6/5.
And sometimes Garcia would play subdued electric guitar: 3/8, 4/18, 5/1, 6/7.
In these last three versions, John Dawson sang harmony with Weir.
Me & My Uncle was also a regular in the New Riders’ setlists in ’69-70 as well. Aside from the pedal steel and the clunkier band, Dawson’s rendition was all but identical to Weir’s. On 8/9/69 where he sings it himself, he sings the “dead ass” final line, a couple months before it shows up in the Dead’s version – possibly Weir took the change from him!  
Other times, Weir would sing a few songs in the New Riders’ set and Dawson would add harmony, as on 5/2 & 5/15/70.
Another early version like this is in the Dawn of the New Riders box set, from 8/28/69. It’s curious that here Weir sings “dead ass” with Dawson, while he was still singing “lying there” in the Dead’s versions.
The song didn’t change much when Tom Constanten left the Dead in January 1970. His chirpy circus-like organ backdrop gave the song a jauntier feel in ‘69, but the band was heading for a more stripped-down bare-wires style, and he was easily dropped.
After Constanten left, Pigpen continued playing unobtrusive organ in Me & My Uncle through 1970, filling in the background. He’s usually mixed low, but a few shows have the organ higher in the mix (like 6/4, 6/6, or 9/18).
The arrangement became a bit starker in 1971 though, as Pigpen apparently stopped playing organ in this song – for instance, the live album version (from 4/29) has no organ. For a stretch in ’71, the Dead played this song as a quartet, and this was perhaps when they came closest to their cowboy-band ideal. (It was this incarnation that Garcia called “a regular shoot-em-up saloon band.”)
When Keith Godchaux started touring with the band in October ’71, he introduced piano to the song, adding a dash of saloon atmosphere that fit naturally. It still took him a little while to grow into the song – his second live version shows him not quite at home in it yet (he’s more at ease in one a couple months later).
In 1970, Me & My Uncle started to appear in a few song medleys –
2/14/70 Alligator>drums>Me & My Uncle>NFA>Mason’s>Caution
2/28/70 Lovelight>Me & My Uncle (an idea revived from mid-’69, last done on 6/14/69 and done again on 3/23/70)
But 7/11/70 was the first time it interrupted a big jam, emerging mysteriously from the Other One and plunging straight back once it ended:
7/11/70 Other One>Me & My Uncle>Other One
This sort of thing was still rare in mid-1970 and the Dead quickly backed off from the idea for a while; the next Other One>Me & My Uncle segue on 11/29/70 would be a more traditional medley.
The same was true on 2/18/71, where Me & My Uncle incongruously took the place of St. Stephen after Dark Star to end the first set. This would also be the last version Mickey Hart played on for four years.
(Me & My Uncle had occasionally been used to close a set after a big jam earlier, on 6/8/69 & 3/23/70. But this was a very uncommon slot for the song. Here Weir says, “We’re gonna take a break, and you can watch our dust!”)
On 8/6/71, the Dead returned to the idea of using Me & My Uncle as a surreal waystation inside the Other One, bursting out of the jam and then disappearing into space again. They liked the effect so much they returned to it twice that month, on 8/15 and 8/23, then several more times in the fall (10/29, 11/7, 11/14, 11/17, 12/1 & 12/31).
Other country songs popped up within the Other One as well, but Me & My Uncle was by far the most frequent. It remained just as concise, save for a few slightly longer introductions to set it up as the song materialized from the aether. In the fall they preferred to end it with a direct transition to the Other One rhythm instead of a straight drop into quiet space (which had confused audiences in August). The cowboy songs could sometimes gain more power & punch by suddenly emerging from the depths of chaos, oases of cosmic stability within the swirling clouds.
12/4/71 had an unusual twist, in which Me & My Uncle opened the Other One suite (replaced by Mexicali Blues inside). Pigpen returned on the organ as well.
And on 12/5/71, Me & My Uncle appeared inside Dark Star instead.
In early ’72, the trend continued, with Me & My Uncle played inside the Other One on 3/26 & 4/16:
And inside Dark Star on 4/24:
But there the practice abruptly ended, and Me & My Uncle was ejected from the jam suites. (On the occasions when the Other One was interrupted during the rest of the year, it would be with He’s Gone or Bobby McGee; and Dark Star sandwiches would hardly ever be played again.) It seems the Dead finally tired of staging the song this way, and it returned to its regular place among the shorter songs.
During the Europe ’72 tour, Pigpen played organ on Me & My Uncle, giving the song extra texture along with Keith’s piano. A good example is 5/26/72:
There was an interesting band discussion before the song that night –
Weir: “Billy exercised the drummer’s prerogative last time this one came up, and said veto. But this time, he’s been overruled.”
Garcia: “Either that or we already did it.”
Kreutzmann: “Hey, I think we did this song twice.”
Weir: “If we’ve already done this one tonight, let us know.”
By this time the song had a more jaunty, rollicking feel than in previous years, perhaps nudged that way by Keith’s honky-tonk piano style. The dry, sparse setting of the 1970 performances gradually shifted over the next few years to a more happy-go-lucky approach as the tempo sped up and Weir’s delivery grew less serious. What had started as a grim western ballad of death in the desert became more of a cheerful polka by ‘73/74. I’ll pick just a couple examples from these years to show the song’s progression:
(Notice how the intro changed to resemble the start of Marty Robbins’ song Big Iron, which Weir would later cover in Kingfish.)
Keith almost always played piano on this song, but occasionally he would try something different. In an initial fall ’71 rehearsal after joining the band, he practiced on the organ, which didn’t work out very well.
On 9/7/73, he briefly tried the organ before switching back to piano. He was definitely not the organ player Pigpen had been!
Most oddly, on 6/16/74 he played a horn-like effect on the Rhodes, an instrument he almost never used on this song.  
The Dead played the song once during their 1975 hiatus, a sloppy version in which Weir forgets a verse and the drummers keep up a dead clomp. This version is mainly notable for featuring Keith on Rhodes, and Mickey’s return on drums.
Little did anyone in the audience suspect they’d be hearing the song for the next twenty years!