Bob and Betty and the origins of Workingman’s Dead

David Gans, Just Exactly Perfect Festival 9/28/19 | Photograph © Bob Minkin

Excerpt from This Is All a Dream We Dreamed: An Oral History of the Grateful Dead by Blair Jackson and David Gans. published by Flatiron Books. Signed copies are available from http://perfectible.net

Bob Matthews: After the experience of Aoxomoxoa — so much time, so much loss of direction, so many hands involved — on Workingman’s Dead we spent a couple of days rehearsing all the tunes and recording them on 2-track. “Before we even start, let’s have a concept of what the end product is going to feel like.” We learned from Sgt Pepper that every album had a beginning of Side One and an end of Side One that segued mentally into the beginning of Side Two and out through the end of Side 2.

I gave copies to each of the band members, and they went back to the rehearsal studio in Point Reyes and practiced with that concept in mind. So when they came into the studio, there was a vision in everybody’s mind about the continuity and the emotional feel of this project.

Betty Cantor-Jackson and Bob Matthews | Photograph © Bob Minkin

Betty Cantor-Jackson: Bob would handle the board most of the time, and I would do all the setup, handle the room, set up all the microphones, and I would run the machines. I got to do my first solo mixing on it, and it was the first record I got to master by myself.

Bob Matthews: When I delivered the Workingman’s Dead reference lacquers to Joe Smith at Warner Bros, he gave me a hug and said, “I can hear the vocals!” He was also very pleased with the fact that we did the whole album in less than 28 studio days.

Rock Scully: [Graham] Nash is the one who brought in that English thing of stacking vocals — building out the harmonies on top of each other and keeping the songs short and simple. Jerry liked it simple, and he liked that presentation. He liked singing together, those harmonies.

Robert Hunter: It’s what Garcia and I wanted to do. It gets back to our folk roots. It’s what the first album was supposed to be, actually. A lot of the songs on that are really just folk tunes rocked up. “Viola Lee,” “Cold Rain and Snow” — those are folk songs. Garcia and I knew we could write better songs than that; we knew that idiom cold.

Jerry Garcia: We didn’t mean for people to start taking a lot of cocaine when we put out [“Casey Jones”]. It’s clearly an anti-coke song. The words aren’t light, good-time words — it’s just the feeling of it. We were manipulating a couple of things consciously when we put that song together. First of all, there’s a whole tradition of cocaine songs, there’s a tradition of train songs, and there’s a tradition of Casey Jones songs. And we’ve been doing a thing, ever since Aoxomoxoa, of building on a tradition that’s already there. Like “Dupree’s Diamond Blues.”

Bob Weir (1970): Bob and Berry and origins of Workingman’s Dead… we found sort of a happy medium, where we could do both extended improvisational stuff and songs. From a record company standpoint and the way the media’s set up these days, it’s easier to sell songs than it is to sell improvisational long pieces. That’s one of the restrictions of the art of making a record [which] encompasses the music, how long the piece is going to be, how appealing and how accessible it is the audience. By accessible I mean easily understood. As opposed to John Coltrane, who played some dynamite music — I mean some really fantastic music — but he was never any superstar. And he had not much of an audience, because not many people could understand what he was playing…

 [Workingman’s Dead] was a sudden change for the record-buying public, but it was a gradual change for us, because over the period of months before that, inasmuch as we’ve been hanging out with David Crosby and Stephen Stills, and just blown out by the fact that they really can sing together; and we began to realize that we had been neglecting our own vocal presentation for instrumental presentation. And so we started working on our vocal arrangements, and choral arrangements. As it turned out, the next record we did had a lot of that on it.