Workingman's Dead like a lot of great albums was recorded during a period of uncertainty and tension, the band were severely in debt to their label Warner Brothers, they had just gone through a drug bust while on tour in New Orleans and their manager Lenny Hart had fleeced the band of $150,000. The general idea was to get into the studio and get out as soon as possible. The genesis of the album had occurred under a growing friendship with Crosby Stills & Nash, who influenced the band in the use of the voice, especially in close harmonies. It's also evident that The Bands first two albums also influenced the album, but it's also likely that the band were looking to move away from their earlier psychedelic explorations and move closer to the music that bought them together which was a mixture of country, bluegrass and rhythm and blues.
Uncle John's Band demonstrates the layered vocal textures and close harmony that the band were exploring, it was also an example of the growing inclination at the time to look at the rich legacy of folklore and storytelling, to look away from the drama that was enfolding at the time. Like The Band, the dead focused on stories from the shadows, deep in the southern tradition, tales of jackballers, train drivers and murderers. Uncle John's Band hints at something darker but it offers redemption at the riverside,
Come here Uncle John's Band by the riverside
Got some things to talk about, here beside the rising tide
Come here Uncle John's Band playing to the tide
Come on along, go alone, he's come to take his children home.
Dire Wolf sounds like pure Bakersfield country, something that Buck Owens might have cut in the mid 60's. Jerry Garcia provides the beautiful pedal steel that wafts gently through the song. The harmonies are tight and the drumming from Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart has that loose Levon Helm feel. It's a great story song, it has that southern gothic feel, a man isolated in the cold woods is tracked by a wolf, the man begs for his life as the protagonists sit down to a card game, the devil in pursuit of another soul. New Speedway Boogie to my memory came out of the tragedy that occurred during the Rolling Stones set at Altamont in 1969, it could also speak of something greater, a lot of voices were talking in the late 60's and the message seemed to be getting lost, the Dead sum it up in the first line,
Please don't dominate the rap Jack,
If you've got nothing new to say.
Cumberland Blues sees the band shift it up a gear with some raucous boogie, Garcia then floats in with some rollicking banjo work, it's a familiar tale in the American folklore, tough times in the mines, the hardness of that life and the desire for something better, a reward almost. Easy wind is brilliant, barnyard bluesy and funky, mean and dirty with keyboard player Pigpen McKernan the ramblin jackballer, working hard and playing even harder. It's a song that seemed to sum up McKernan's own life, his health already beginning to deteriorate from alcohol abuse.
I been balling a shiny black steel jackhammer
Been chippin rocks for the great highway
I live five years if I take my time
Ballin that jack and drinkin my wine
Casey Jones the engineer is travelling on a line of trouble, trouble ahead with a train running on the same track, the mysterious lady in red and Jones himself high on cocaine, complete with sniffing noises before the song takes off! On display is Garcia's dexterous playing built on the back of his love of bluegrass and blues. His playing is both melodic but also possesses a certain fire especially on Easy Wind.
Workingman's Dead provided the Grateful Dead with a commercial breakthrough and it also resonated with overseas audiences. It's a great album, a combination of the beauty of traditional American music married with that sense of telling tales from the shadows, it seemed to be about looking for stories to distract the artist and the listener from what was going on at the time. Maybe it was to reinforce that their had been hardships before and to look back was to look forward to find the answers.