February 29, 2024

Mason's Children

 “Let’s make a movie, boys!”

 With these words (or something like them) Lenny Hart exhorted the Grateful Dead to appear in a Hollywood musical. A psychedelic western about rock & roll cowboy outlaws? Perfect for the Dead! They could even write songs for the movie that would be heard in movie theaters and drive-ins across the land.

 Biographer Dennis McNally writes that while Lenny was managing the Dead, he persuaded them to appear in “the film Zachariah, a bizarre western with electric guitar-slinging cowboys. Arguing that it would provide good exposure, Lenny briefly convinced them that the idea could fly. In the end, they didn’t trust Hollywood and opted out of the movie… but before that…they toured the MGM back lot and were fitted for costumes, and then Mickey, the experienced rider, took the band out for lessons at his ranch.” (1)

 Tom Constanten remembered, “We were supposed to be the band in the movie Zachariah. It got as far as touring the MGM back lot, getting fitted for costumes, and impacting the script, but no farther. The band even went horseback riding as a group a couple of times out at Mickey’s ranch in Novato.” (2)

 Rosie McGee wrote in more detail: “When the band committed to appear in a movie – a musical western called Zachariah – they had to learn to ride. I believe Mickey and Bill were the only two band members familiar with horseback riding. Everyone showed up for riding lessons at Mickey’s with varying degrees of enthusiasm… They were all game and gave the riding lessons a try.” Some of the Dead adapted to horseback better than others – Lesh & Weir were at ease and Pigpen liked to pose on horseback, but Constanten was “very uncomfortable,” and Garcia was “terrified of horses” and even fell off his horse. “That was the last time he ever rode.” (3)

 McNally suggests that it was Garcia’s horse mishap that “ended his interest in the project.” It can readily be imagined what Lenny’s interest in the project was – the Dead working on a movie meant checks from the movie studio that he could personally deposit. (He got his chance a few months later when Garcia played on the soundtrack for “Zabriskie Point,” and the check from MGM promptly vanished into Lenny’s bank account.)

 The time was late fall ’69. The film had been in the works since 1968, under the hand of producer Joe Massot: by spring ’69 it was supposed to feature Ginger Baker and the Band; but then the Band passed, and the opportunity went to the Dead. In the Grateful Dead Archives there is a script for Zachariah, an “original screenplay by Joe Massot & The Firesign Theatre,” dated 11/28/69. (4) I think the participation of the Firesign Theatre writers helped draw the Dead’s interest – they were likely already fans (the Firesign’s 1971 album “I Think We’re All Bozos On This Bus” would become part of the Dead’s self-mythology). David Ossman of the Firesign was also the voice on many Warner Bros. radio ads in ‘69 (including the Dead’s ads for Aoxomoxoa).
https://archive.org/details/gd70-12-31.aftershow.sbd.cole.6171.sbeok.shnf/gd70-12-31d1t10.shn (the last 3 tracks) ("If I were able to pronounce it, I'd tell you the title of the LP...")
(Incidentally, in the ‘80s Phil Austin of the Firesign would write a screenplay for the Grateful Dead – a Hollywood comedy featuring the Dead that never got made – which Garcia insisted on calling “The Dead Sell Out.”

 Manager Jon McIntire was interviewed about the movie sometime in late ’69, for an article that appeared a few months later:
‘Their upcoming movie is Zechariah, described as a kind of fantasy cowboy flick with a plot line closely resembling Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. Costuming has been completed for the Dead; filming may begin in April, either in Mexico or in the old back lots of MGM.
Zechariah was written by screen veteran Joe Massot (“a good flowing script,” former actor MacIntire reported), and will be produced by George England...
“If it’s done as we originally heard about it,” MacIntire said, “the movie really won’t be a western, but will be an interesting piece of surrealism. For example, when the Dead ride in on their horses they’re wearing holsters with electric guitars shoved in them and electric amplifiers strapped on the backs of the horses.
“The movie’s star (Ginger Baker) is Zechariah – the Dead have their segment of the picture when Zechariah interacts with them, lusts after the kind of lives they live and wants to be a part of them. We’re really looking forward to filming it.”’
(David Harris, “Rock’s First Family: Grateful Dead,” Circus 3/70) (5)

 But Hollywood was up to its usual tricks. Some of the film’s reviewers have pointed out that much changed between the original script and the eventual movie:  
“Firesign Theatre have distanced themselves from the film, having spoken of a script they wrote for a comic western ‘that was never made.’”
“AFI reports that the Firesigns publicly rejected the film because their original script had been changed so much. Massot, who was to be the director, resigned over artistic differences.”
“In reading interviews with various members of the comedy team, the Firesign Theatre wrote *the first draft* of this movie which was meant to be a comedic adaptation of Siddhartha, set in the old west. Then what seems to have happened was that the studio executives assigned another writer to do a re-write (and probably tinkered a bit with the script themselves) and the final product bore only a passing similarity to the original script. I do not think that the Firesign Theatre are in any way proud of this movie and don't mention it on their website.”

 One history of the group relates the tale: “The Firesign Theatre was contracted to help write a screenplay for the first psychedelic western, Zachariah (1970), produced by ABC Pictures and it was their official introduction to Hollywood, and the world of control... For the first time Firesign were being told what to do and the project slipped out of their grasp, producing mixed results. Although 90% of the remaining dialogue is in their own words, most of the hippie concepts and the scene they wrote for themselves...fell to the merciless power of the well known, unsuitable, veteran director George Englund. How could the establishment understand The Firesign Theatre? [Phil] Austin walked, but the remaining three traveled to Mexicali, Mexico for on-location rewrites and smoke-ins...”

 Director Joe Massot quit over “differences of opinion” with the studio. The Dead themselves dropped out of the film production by the end of December ’69. And even Ginger Baker found better things to do. Replacements were found, and filming continued without them. Here’s a report on the progress of "Zachariah" in February 1970, from Cash Box magazine:
"Last weekend we visited the set of "Zachariah." The flick, a rock western, is a perfect merging of the two artforms, with the music and musicians skillfully blended into the plot (as opposed to the old idea of building a plot around the musicians).
"Ginger Baker, the first rocker cast for the film, is out, being replaced by jazz drummer Elvin Jones... After a series of scheduling problems with the Grateful Dead, the film's producers switched over to Country Joe & the Fish. If the Jones move works out as well as the Fish switch, the movie will be a monster, for the Fish playing an unsuccessful but happy outlaw gang, turned in outstanding performances. When we left, one of the ABC Pictures execs was already mulling over a TV series idea with the Fish recreating their movie roles as the Crackers."
(“Meanwhile, Back on the Ranch…” Cash Box 2/21/70) (6)

 The article mentions that "the group played the Fillmore West this past weekend" (February 12-15), so the Fish were filming that month. The "scheduling problems" with the Dead were probably a polite coverup; but Country Joe & the Fish made respectable substitutes as a gang of comical rock & roll bandits. Elvin Jones stayed in the film as a gunfighter, as fast on the drums as he is on the draw; the James Gang and fiddler Doug Kershaw also appeared. (Trivia note: Banjo player Obray Ramsey of ‘Rain and Snow’ fame was also involved in the soundtrack, recording one tune called ‘Shy Ann’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CxnmtxyoWiI )

 But it must be said, the movie’s terrible. The Dead were lucky to escape this tedious crap. It was eventually released in January 1971, to not much acclaim, and flopped. The desperate and morbidly curious can see it here:

 So much for “Zachariah.” “Yes, but what about Mason’s Children?” you ask. Luckily, a newspaper review from December ’69 describes how the song was written for the movie:

 “A week ago last Thursday, the Grateful Dead, who last night opened a three-night stand at the Tea Party, sat down to a normal day's work at their digs in San Francisco.
They had just received a screenplay that demanded immediate theme music. Bob Hunter, the group's lyricist, flipped through the script and jotted down some lyrics. Jerry Garcia, the Dead's leader, glanced down at the lines and began to improvise a few chords on his guitar. The five other Dead joined in.
By the time they stopped playing, the group had composed a powerful number, based on a beefy chord progression, called "The Mason Song." The movie company decided the song didn't suit them, but last night The Dead used it to bring their first set to a crashing finish.”
(Timothy Crouse, “Grateful Dead Resurrect Dancing at Tea Party,” Boston Herald Traveler 12/30/69) (7)

 The Dead had debuted Mason's Children on Friday Dec 19th, and this article declares they'd written it on Thursday the 18th! Well, that’s probably not quite true, but the account of writing the song may be close to how it happened (the story could only have come from the Dead themselves), and it was actually called ‘The Mason’ at the time. They’d just received the screenplay from Nov 28 and lost little time composing a song for the film. But it’s also said that the movie studio rejected the song for “Zachariah” – perhaps one of the reasons the Dead pulled out of the production by the time this review was written. (Being put together rapidly for the film, with lyric ideas drawn from the screenplay, may help explain why the song's a little out of keeping with the other Workingman's Dead songs, and why the Dead dropped it after just a couple months.)

 At their next stop at the Fillmore East on 1/3/70, they introduced Mason’s Children with a joking story of its origins:
Phil: “This here song we wrote for a movie which was gonna be shot in a parking lot – no, it was a drive-in restaurant – no, it was a drive-in movie – in downtown Albuquerque, was it? (Jerry: Something like that.) Yeah, with parked cars for an audience.”
Jerry: “We decided not to do it finally.”
Bob: “But we’re gonna do the song anyway.”

 Mason’s Children was one of a pair of songs Robert Hunter wrote in December ’69, along with New Speedway Boogie – they debuted at almost the same time, Mason’s on Dec 19, New Speedway on Dec 20. Both songs were inspired by the aftermath of the ill-fated Altamont festival. Hunter wrote in his Box of Rain lyric collection that Mason’s was “an unrecorded song dealing obliquely with Altamont” – very obliquely, since it’s hard to see the connection! Though the lyrics are almost like a nursery rhyme and seem to tell a simple tale, they remain obscure and have given rise to much interpretation. Could Hunter have taken inspiration from “Finnegans Wake?” “Stranger in a Strange Land?” “The Cask of Amontillado?” or the secret rites of Freemasonry? The debate continues… (I’m tickled by one summary: “rather morbid lyrics about a burial of a beloved friend that goes wrong.”)

 The notion that Hunter may have just pulled ideas for the song from an early screenplay for “Zachariah” remains an unexplored angle. But I’m not sure if he really did get anything from the script – the finished film bears no relation to Mason’s Children. (There is an old hermit, mentor to the young Zachariah and equivalent to Siddhartha’s ferryman, who dies, leaving his pupil to tend his garden; but that’s a slim resemblance.) Hunter himself remembered Mason’s as an Altamont song and seems to have forgotten the “Zachariah” connection. When Blair Jackson asked him about it, “Hunter recalled that around that time the band had written a tune for a rock Western they were approached to appear in called Zachariah, and perhaps ‘Mason's Children’ was that song.” (8)  

 The song was originally called ‘The Mason’ – note that the newspaper article called it ‘The Mason Song,’ and Hunter still just called it ‘The Mason’ in the ‘90s. (The Dead even sing "the mason" and "the mason's children" in the song. They might never have called it ‘Mason’s Children’ before tape-collectors gave it that name.) Garcia was asked about old outtakes in one 1981 interview: “There wasn’t a whole lot, no. There were one or two tunes that we were working on – ‘The Mason.’ It’s sometimes called ‘The Mason’s Children.’ It’s been circulated some in the underground tape circles in the United States. I don’t know where the hell they got a tape of that from! We may have done it in the studio but I don’t remember really.” (9)

 Mason’s Children didn’t last long in concert. There are only 19 known live versions – the Dead played it in almost every show for about a month in Dec ‘69/Jan ’70, then less frequently to the end of February, before dropping it. Let’s take a look at the performances:

Eager to play the song, they start the electric set with it – a new fun rocker! It’s a little rickety, but they’ve rehearsed the song well and they have it down. The playing’s somewhat tentative and rigid compared to later performances, but this isn’t very noticeable, and Garcia’s solos are strong & snappy. The harmonies are about the same as they’d always be, without many changes, and the arrangement of this song was also fixed from the start: two verses & chorus, solo, two verses & chorus, solo, repeat chorus.

Mason’s starts the show – this one’s much the same, but a little more sluggish. TC’s organ swirls atmospherically, and Garcia soars in the second solo.
(Released on Dave’s Picks 6.)

Phil teases the bassline, and they jump into the song. This one’s a little more punchy as they’re getting tighter, but Garcia’s solos are a lot weaker than the night before. Still, the solo breaks are really propulsive – you can feel the energy jump up when they stop singing.
(Released on Dave’s Picks 6 bonus CD.) (6:20)

From a rowdy outdoor festival performance, this one has a false start, stopped when Pigpen urges the crowd to move back: “You can either move back or you can stay, but if you stay you might get smashed. So it’s your decision.”
Lesh: “Now we told ya, all right?”
Pigpen: “The warning is there, we have – ah well, forget it, just do what you want!”
A boisterous Mason’s with loud vocals follows (someone yells “turn it down!” after the first verse). The first solo is already extra-excited; but then Garcia launches into a nearly five-minute-long second solo which takes off into nearly Other One-type spaces, opening up the song for some real jamming.
Another brief false start while they work something out and Pigpen taps on his conga drums (I don’t think he plays these during the song, though). The vocals seem tighter in this one; I think the drumwork’s getting busier, and there’s a little more variation in dynamics. This time, it’s the first solo that Garcia stretches out into a four-minute-long wiry jam, breaking the boundaries of the song. The second solo’s pretty powerful too, though it trails out and he has trouble getting back to the song – apparently he broke a string!  
This ends the first set – Garcia announces afterwards, “I gotta fix a string…  We’re gonna take a ten-minute break and come back and play for several hours.” (The announcement’s cut on the Archive copies.) This version’s the “crashing finish” mentioned in the review above. This would be my pick as the most exciting Mason’s, or a close second to 12/28 which has the edge in energy.

Garcia starts it right out of Uncle John’s Band. It’s a solid take, maybe a little subdued, but it seems like there’s increasingly more ‘breathing room’ and variations in the playing. The first solo’s longer in this one too, but Garcia’s more restrained tonight and doesn’t step out as much; the second solo’s quite short. In a hurry, he zips right into China Cat when the song’s over.

This one has a longer intro as Garcia lays out the groove with a slinky New Speedway-style line – overall it’s a better, punchier performance than 12/30. Garcia digs into repeating patterns in his playing, with two strong solos. (You can hear the audience howl after the first solo!) The song in general is improving, not so much because the vocals are getting better, but the playing’s getting more textured and hard-hitting, swirling densely in the jams. Things are looking up for 1970…

This one opens the new year with a dramatic twist, bursting out of the “Also Sprach Zarathustra” orchestral intro. Bear’s Fillmore East mix is also much clearer than his rather congested mixes in December ’69, so this is a good one to hear the organ and drums in wide separation. The effect is to make it sound more clattery & bare than the earlier versions. (Bear’s still adjusting the mix as it progresses, so Weir’s guitar also gets turned up in the second half.)
But performance-wise, they’ve stripped out the jams and this is the shortest version yet. There’s been a change in Garcia’s approach: his first solo simply restates the vocal melody (which will be the norm going forward), and even his second solo is a lot more subdued than he’d been playing before. The trend in 1970, it seems, is to turn this into a shorter pop song.
(The SBD has the first few seconds clipped.)
(Released on Fallout from the Phil Zone & Dave’s Picks 30.)

After China>Rider, they abort High Time and decide on Mason’s instead, and Phil gives the audience a little introduction to the song (quoted above). This one comes in the middle of the late show rather than opening the early show, so you’d expect a more expansive performance. Far from it! They zip through this one in a hurry, even skipping the last chorus, and Garcia pares his solos down to the minimum, making this an even shorter Mason’s. It seems they want to tighten the song to album length. On the other hand, it’s also the best-recorded version so far, sounding very crisp; the drumming stands out, and you can tell they have the vocal harmonies down.
(Released on Dave’s Picks 30 bonus disc.)

A tight & punchy Mason’s – this one’s even more rushed; it’s like they’re trying to see how quickly they can finish, speeding up each transition. (They've also changed the intro to a more straightforward rock riff.) But for me, even if they have it more ‘album-ready’ the song’s potency is reduced when all the jam action is limited to the second solo, which is cut down to a minute, before it can really get going. When the song ends, Garcia immediately segues to a slow Black Peter.

The stage announcer checks to see if the audience have taken their shoes off on the gym floor. This done, it’s time for another Mason’s – this one’s much like 1/10, except more energetic, sloppy & exuberant. (The second solo almost takes off before they rein it in.) Pigpen’s congas are very audible in this one, which I didn’t notice in earlier versions; along with the busier drumming it makes this version extra-percussive. This time, Garcia segues to a slow High Time.

This one’s slower-paced, and one of the drummers is trying out a steady tumbling drum-roll through the song. Constanten’s very low in the mix. This version feels tired and sluggish, though the second solo tries to reach liftoff until Garcia gives up and awkwardly yanks the band back to the last chorus. One of the weakest versions. Black Peter follows once again.
(Released on Download Series vol. 2.)

A tight version with more spring in its step; this is the best Mason’s of January ‘70. The second solo finally opens up again to a little three-minute jam, revisiting the December ’69 energy and stomping to a climax. Garcia segues to Black Peter again after some quick tuning.
This would be the last version with Tom Constanten, who left the band a week later in New Orleans. The song would lose a little charm without his jaunty organ whistling round the vocals and chirping through the chords.
(Released on Workingman’s Dead reissue CD & Dave’s Picks 19.)

Counted off at a brisk clip, this is a raucous post-bust performance, one of the most energetic & crunchy Masons. The second solo catches blazing fire – but has a significant cut in the middle at 4:40 just as Garcia’s heading into a new space (it was probably at least as long as 1/24). Garcia plays the little descending line at the end which Constanten used to play.

This is the first Mason’s to be part of a big jam suite, and it has an odd entrance. St. Stephen falls apart after “another man spills” – it sounds like the drummers are trying to start Alligator, but the others reject that and pummel their way into a jam instead, which isn’t quite the usual Stephen jam but is more like a Mason’s jam. So Garcia starts Mason’s proper and they blaze through it. The tumbling drum style is sounding more natural by now; the second solo is quite hot, but unfortunately cut very short. (This could be due to the reel flip, which is undetectable on the CD release.) After the song Weir announces they had an equipment failure: “Mickey went right through his drumhead.” But they carry on.
(Released on Dave’s Picks 6.) (4:42)

The Fillmore West audience is calling requests; Weir replies, “Just relax and take what you get.” The Dead deliver the longest Mason’s of 1970 – but sadly, a troubled one. Garcia stretches out the first solo: not because he’s feeling inspired, but because he’s trying to tune his guitar on the fly, so it’s the sound of a struggling Garcia. The band’s doing their best to create a surge, and the second solo starts better, more exploratory – but then Weir’s sounding very out-of-tune, and then there’s a source cut to a murky audience tape during the second solo at 7:12, muffling the climax, and then Garcia forgets to play the little lick at the end of the song. Oh well, time for tuning! On the bright side, the drums are recorded very well, so this is a good one to hear the drum interplay – Mickey brings out the cowbell.

Mason’s finds itself embedded in another jam suite. This time, Garcia starts it out of a colossal Not Fade Away, substituting Mason’s where you might expect the NFA chords. It’s amazing how quickly the Dead switch to the new song – they’re singing the verse within 15 seconds. But this isn’t a great Mason’s – the singing isn’t so good, the playing not so dramatic, and the solos are very short. Garcia had already been playing in this style through Not Fade Away, so he felt no need to stretch out the solos here. Instead of finishing the song, he heads straight for Caution from the solo. Though this was one of the first well-known Masons, it’s mainly just notable for its unusual placement between two giant jams.
(Released on Dick’s Picks 4.)

Mason’s comes out of Not Fade Away again. As NFA is ending, Lesh is pushing the Mason’s bassline (starting at 12:50); the others come to a stop and Weir tries suggesting Good Lovin’ instead, which the drummers agree to, but Lesh overrules them and they continue with Mason’s. This awkward start is soon rendered moot by a giant tapecut at :38 which wipes out half the song, and almost all the vocals. The tape returns in time for the second solo, which is all right but not too exciting. The highpoint of this Mason’s comes at the end, when Garcia & Lesh play the final descending lick in counterpoint. This ends the show: “Goodnight now.”

Once again, Mason’s is part of a rock & roll jam suite – Weir starts it up after the Other One. And the opening arrangement has changed! It’s now the ‘Jumping Jack Flash’-style riff they’ve worked up in the studio, and the song is taken at a much slower pace. The slow tempo emphasizes the harmony vocals, but even some enthusiastic singing doesn’t really bring this tepid version to life. Then, like on 2/14, Garcia & Lesh exit the loopy second solo into Caution; but this time Caution lasts less than a minute before they decide to wrap up the show-opening Lovelight instead.

 So what were they up to in the studio? During February 1970, they’d started recording Workingman’s Dead, and Mason’s Children was one of the songs intended for the album. Sometime during the sessions, they came up with the slower arrangement – per Jerrybase, recording started on February 7 at Pacific High Recording (perhaps a lost initial demo session), but the date of the outtakes we have is unknown. I believe they devised the new studio arrangement after Feb 23 – it doesn’t make much sense for them to be playing the slow version in the studio earlier on while reverting to the old arrangement live. (For instance, notice how on 2/28 Lesh plays the bubbly bass part at the beginning that he did in the studio, and on no earlier live version. The little turnaround Lesh & Weir play at the ends of the verses also comes from the studio arrangement, and hadn’t been heard earlier.)

 About three minutes of false starts of Mason’s Children in the studio can be heard in the Deadcast:
The basic track isn’t for a demo (Garcia isn’t even playing) – they’re trying to get an album take. (I think someone calls take 23!) The trouble is, one of the drummers (probably Mickey) is trying a complicated drum syncopation which is throwing everything off, though it’s neat to hear.

 Sometime afterwards, they dropped that idea, got rid of a drummer, and simplified the opening, finishing a basic track that they dubbed their vocals onto:
The So Many Roads version:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gJFnU8VZkH4 (edited to 3:27 – solo break cut)
The instrumentation is ‘live’ without overdubs (Garcia may have recorded his guitar separately), but it’s odd to hear the song given the full Workingman’s vocal treatment with double-tracked voices. The arrangement is shortened from the live versions –the second solo break & final chorus are dropped. (Garcia also never got around to recording a lead guitar part, hence the lack of a solo.) Note that the So Many Roads version is a completely different mix with more vocals. In the circulating outtake, you can hear Garcia’s two vocal parts on left & right (with the other vocals more buried).

 The Deadcast asserts there were “a dozen-and-a-half takes of Mason’s Children;” but as the album sessions progressed, the Dead stopped working on this song, deciding not to put it on the album. Producer Bob Matthews recalled, “We looked at each other and said, ‘We’ve got an extra tune,’ and left it at that… It did not fit with all the other tunes, as far as the general artistic feel, the type of music.” He remembered it being discarded during the initial demo rehearsals for the album, but I think the tune made it at least to the end of February before it got zapped.

 Later on, Robert Hunter would play it frequently in his solo shows over the years. On 8/18/83 Hunter introduced it: “Here’s that other Altamont song, the one that was never recorded.” On 10/11/97, following its release on Fallout from the Phil Zone, he talked more about the Altamont connection: “Seriously, it’s nice to have that song get out on a record at long last – I was always saying, ‘Why don’t you put ‘The Mason’ out?’ ‘Well man, it sounds like a hit record.’ Pardon me! Now it’s very safely dated; that’s the other Altamont song. The mysterious verse – it goes, ‘Take me to the reaper man to pay back what was loaned / If he’s in some other land, write it off as stoned.’ The Stones ran up an immense phone bill on Altamont, from Mickey’s ranch, and they stuck us with the damn thing and split off to England. ‘Course, you don’t need to know that, erase that from the tape… The Stones don’t need to pay their own fuckin’ phone bills, man, they’re the Stones! One of the perks is having the Dead pay your phone bill.”

 Whether this verse really refers to the Stones’ phone bill, it’s illuminating to hear that Hunter wanted the song released, but the Dead rejected it because it sounded too much like “a hit record!” (Of course, they’d crafted it that way.) While Workingman’s Dead has other pop songs that might have been hits, Mason’s Children does stick out as being the least Dead-like – as Matthews said, “It didn’t seem to fit.” In a way, it’s the counterpoint to the equally short-lived and little-regarded ‘Till the Morning Comes’ on American Beauty, which is almost a remake of Mason’s in the same style.

 It’s interesting to hear Hunter’s later solo versions of the song. In 1978, Hunter played it in a medley of New Speedway Boogie>Mason’s Children – a pairing of his Altamont songs. (He also plays it with a kind of ‘Wake Up Little Susie’-style rhythmic lilt that’s missing in the Dead’s version.)
Later examples from 1997 where Hunter played Mason’s on its own:

 Despite Hunter’s pleas, the Dead lost interest in Mason’s before the album sessions even finished. They abandoned the song immediately after recording it – not even bothering to finish the recording, and later forgetting they’d even taped it. One sign of their lack of attachment to the song was that once they decided not to put it on the album, they were done with it, and promptly stopped playing it live.

 Garcia later shrugged, “‘Mason’s Children was an almost song. I guess it’s got a famous underground reputation, but really it never quite collected itself into a song. I never was that happy with the lyrics.” (10) Phil Lesh felt that “the song was a lot of fun, but it wasn’t enough fun for us to keep doing it – I think it sorta got lost in the shuffle.” (11) And he wrote when he included it in Fallout from the Phil Zone, “Maybe we just decided we didn’t dig it all that much at the time (maybe we never performed it that well, either).”






(Times aren’t exact, this is just to compare approximate lengths of the guitar solos between versions.)

                        FIRST             SECOND        SONG TIME

12/19/69        2:05-3:10        4:40-6:00       (6:27)
12/20/69       2:00-3:30       4:55-6:20        (6:47)
12/21/69        2:00-3:30       4:55-5:50        (6:20)
12/28/69       2:15-3:25         4:45-9:25        (9:55)
12/29/69       1:55-5:55          7:10-9:05        (9:30)
12/30/69       2:05-4:30        5:45-6:55        (7:20)
12/31/69        2:45-4:50        6:05-7:35        (8:02)
1/2/70            1:40-2:35        3:55-5:35         (6:00)
1/3/70            1:50-2:35        3:30-4:35         (5:03)
1/10/70          1:20-2:00       3:10-4:15          (4:40)
1/17/70          1:20-1:55         3:05-4:05         (4:35)
1/18/70          1:35-2:05        3:25-4:50         (5:22)
1/24/70         1:25-2:00        3:15-6:05          (6:32)
1/31/70          1:20-2:00       3:15/5:40          (6/06)
2/2/70           1:30-1:55         3:05-4:10         (4:42)
2/5/70           1:25-3:45         5:00-7:45         (8:10)
2/14/70         1:30-1:55         3:00-3:45         (3:47)
2/23/70         (xxx cut)         1:05-3:10          (3/37)
2/28/70         1:50-2:25        3:55-5:10          (5:10)



1.       McNally, Long Strange Trip p.307
2.      Constanten, Between Rock & Hard Places p.77
3.      McGee, Dancing with the Dead
6.      https://www.worldradiohistory.com/Archive-All-Music/Cash-Box/70s/1970/CB-1970-02-21.pdf (p.28) - The article also mentions that the Fish would appear in "Arrowfeather, a Roger Corman sci-fi movie about a gas that wipes out the adult population." (This would be released later that year as "Gas-s-s-s - or - It Became Necessary to Destroy the World In Order to Save It," and Country Joe & the Fish play in a concert scene.) It was filmed in December 1969. According to Corman, he was originally going to have the Grateful Dead in the movie, but just before filming they asked for more money to appear, so the budget-conscious Corman replaced them with Country Joe & the Fish.
9.      Ken Hunt, “Jerry Garcia: Folk, Bluegrass & Beyond” part 2, Swing 51 #7 - http://deadsources.blogspot.com/2021/05/march-1981-jerry-garcia-interview.html
10.  Steve Marcus interview, October 1986
11.   Lesh, AOL forum online chat, June 1997


  1. (This is Corry342--sign-in issues) Fantastic research. I simply had no idea about the Firesign Theater or Ginger Baker. It explains why the Dead might have considered involvement (notwithstanding Lenny's reasons).

    For the record, I sat through Zachariah once, I think I rented the video. Calling it bad overrates it--it's not only really bad, but really dull. It's not bad-funny, but bad-boring, highly-not-recommended no matter how many Elvin Jones or Fish records you have.

    1. Yeah, the movie's garbage - dumb, dull, and interminable.
      James Gang aficionados might like their appearances. There's a soundtrack album too. It could sorely have used "Mason's Children!"

      I'm not sure just why the Dead decided not to do the movie. "Scheduling problems" might have been an issue - their February tours fell during the movie's shooting schedule - or maybe Garcia vetoed playing on horseback. But most likely, they didn't trust Hollywood in the first place and wanted more control over their appearance. Once their made-to-order song was rejected, they probably realized (rightly) that their creative involvement wasn't going to be rewarded.
      But it's funny that in the same month, Country Joe snapped up two movie appearances that the Dead turned down.

    2. I don't know the whole Zachariah story but Firesign Theatre talked once or twice during their radio shows in 1970 about how it went off the rails.

  2. The unedited 4:10 studio Mason's containing room for a Jerry solo was released on a sampler CD for So Many Roads.

  3. Indeed, when the SMR box set was released, they made a cut @1:52 of 34secs, the space allotted for the solo, heard intact on the sampler/promo version.

    Such a great rundown of The Mason, and so great to see the blog running again. Still crossing fingers for a 1970 List of Shows.

  4. The full studio Mason's should have been on the Angel's Share release!

    Meanwhile, by coincidence, a new AUD of 2/5/70 came out today. Actually, it's the same AUD recording that circulated before, but more complete and sounding a little better. (Why someone would circulate a few random songs from the start of the show and keep the Dark Star to himself is beyond me.) The tape's either lower-gen or a better transfer than the earlier snippet, so it doesn't sound quite as murky, and could serve as a better patch for the incomplete Mason's SBD.

    1. This changes our conception of the setlist. Adding the previous SBD, 5Feb70 is now:
      China Cat>Rider; Big Boss Man; Black Peter; Mason's Children; Seasons; Race is On ; MΜ Dark Star>The Other One>Alligator// The Eleven>Caution>NFA>Cumberland; E: UJB
      This would be unusual, and much longer than the rest of the run (and on the first night). Perhaps the previous SBD is origin-hanky?

    2. The full Feb 5 show is about two & a half hours, so it is the longest of the run, however the difference isn't huge. Feb 6 is two hours - Feb 7, the tapes are 90 minutes but missing the end of the show - and Feb 8 is almost two & a half hours.
      What makes Feb 5 unusual is the little pedal-steel set (repeated on Feb 7 but not the other nights), and the long jam suite in which they seem to throw in every jamming theme they can think of.

  5. The versions starting on 1/10/70 have a slightly different, better guitar riff than the first ones.

    1. That is true, and it's not just a slight change! I feel differently - the intros up to 1/3/70 are much more slinky & bubbly. After 1/10 they switch to more of a regular rock riff, for a faster start - part of trimming the song down and making it more "poppy," I guess.

  6. Speaking of the Firesign Theatre, their Bandcamp site has a set of their Warner Bros. ads from 1969. The Aoxomoxoa ads are tracks 32-34. https://firesigntheatre.bandcamp.com/album/jack-poet-loves-you

  7. A newly discovered 1970 Dark Star and a dive into the Mason, it's a weekend full of surprises! While spelled differently, "Zachariah" always makes me think of the Biblical Zecheriah. I don't know much about the prophet or the book, but apparently he was stoned to death, which should be mentioned just as an amusing connection to the final line of the song. Perhaps some theological scholar could illuminate some obscure way Hunter might have connected the name of the film with the biblical character (which likely didn't factor into the songwriting at all - if it was even titled yet to begin with - but as Deadheads it's our duty to find connections, even if we have to make them up).

    I also prefer the earliest arrangement. For me it's the rare Dead tune that started its life almost perfect and almost devolved with each performance. 2/5/70 being an exception for both it's length and performance. I can see how one could consider it "commercial Dead," as once you hear it you've got it in your head for a while.

    One last thing, all lyrical transcripts of the song should include the spoken "HEY!" You know where the "HEY!" belongs.

    1. Yes, I feel this song reached its peak early and took a quick downhill turn in Jan '70 as they worked on tightening it up, so to speak, mostly axing its jam potential. (In a way it parallels Casey Jones, which started off long & rambling but then was streamlined into more of a commercial pop song.)

    2. Aside from their deliberate attempts to tinker with it I think it is the one song that really lost something when TC left, accounting a lot for why I prefer the earlier takes. 12/28 is my go-to if I need to reference a Mason's.

  8. The movie "Zachariah" - about the only thing good about it seeing Elvin Jones drumming.

    The lyrics to "Mason's" - I always tried to rationalize them as Robert Hunter's mix of the folk song "John Barleycorn" and the Edgar Allen Poe story "The Cask of Amontillado".

    The GD also 'missed out' on being in "Medicine Ball Caravan".

  9. I should mention, the lyrics the Dead sang have significant differences from the lyrics Hunter later used.

    The Dead:
    "Taught them all he ever knew
    They never knew so much before
    They may never know so much again"
    "All his children ran and hid
    They never hid so well before
    Swore they'd never show their face again"
    "Swore they'd never had such times before"

    "Taught us all we ever knew
    We never knew so much before
    We may never know so much again"
    "All us children ran and hid
    We never hid so well before
    Swore we’d never show our face again"
    "Swore we’d never had such times before"

    In Hunter's version, "we" are the mason's children and the point of view is mostly consistent - except in the first verse the children are still "they," for some reason. In the Dead's version, it's unclear who "we" are since the children are someone else. But I'm not sure all these pronoun switches have ever troubled any listeners.
    (And yes, even in the studio version, Garcia sings "the mason died on Monday" and "the mason's children cooked the stew," although Mason is used as a proper name in another verse. Apparently he was a mighty mason named Mason.)

    1. Thanks for the words, LIA. If I read those as a post-Altamont commentary, I take it as Hunter, the band, the 'Woodstock generation' - they all learned a hard lesson. The 'hiding' part - after Altamont, many fingers were pointed at many people / entities, everyone took off, and no one was there to take the blame: the Rolling Stones left for England, the SF bands all said 'not me', Sam Cutler was left behind more or less, and etc.

      p.s. thanks for a most interesting and insightful!!!

    2. I don't think this is an original thought (believe it was framed this way in one of the bios), but I've long heard Mason as a stand-in for the Diggers and/or their collective energy that seemed to reach a turning point with Altamont.

  10. Damn right, a mighty man was he. The pronoun switches don't seem worth weeping over to me, it's what Mason would have wanted.

  11. Really impressive work! Thanks very much. Another plea for a full 1970 List of Shows.

    1. I'm surprised so many people are clamoring for a 1970 List of Shows!

  12. Oops ... I inadvertently posted this on Charles' Chico essay.

    The first time I heard “Mason’s Children” was on Henry Kaiser’s “Those Who Know History Are Doomed to Repeat It,” and I was surprised at it being a Grateful Dead cover. Thanks for the background! My favorite Dead version is at the Miami festival, with Pigpen sort of advising the crowd before the song starts. Must’ve been an adventure!

  13. I never was a big fan of Mason’s and gosh knows I’ve tried for many years. Maybe it is because of the inherent “hit potential”? Who knows. It always reminded me a bit of Born to Be Wild but not nearly as groovy as that one. You brought up Till the Morning Comes which is an interesting parallel. That is a much better song, in my opinion, but it shares in common with Mason some lyrical shortcomings (I’m being nice here). ;)

    Kept up the great work!

  14. There's a copy of the Zechariah script in the GD Archives.