Welcome to “How Does the Song Go?” A column dedicated to taking you deeper into the realms of the Grateful Dead’s music than ever before. Today we will examine the evolution of “Greatest Story Ever Told” by looking at different versions of the song.
The song was officially released on Bob Weir’s Ace album in 1972 as the opening track of side one. If you have access to the vinyl, go listen to that. For all intents and purposes, this is a Grateful Dead album since it contains all but one member of the band at the time. (Pig’s heath was poor at the time so he did not participate) The song actually debuted on 2-18-71 at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY. When you go listen to this version, you’re going to be struck by some differences. You’ll notice the rhythmic hits are different in the intro and verses. They are slightly less syncopated and likely closer to Mickey Hart’s original idea inspired by a pump he heard. In fact, if you go to where you go to listen to 2-18-71, you can hear Bob Weir announce the song’s debut by saying on mic, “Ok Mickey wants to call this one the pump man for reasons of his own.” I’ll let you speculate who responds with, “pump!.”
The second half of the verse(“his brain was boiling…”) does not have unique chord changes yet and just stays on the original progression. There’s also no chorus (“Abraham and Isaac…”) yet and goes directly into the composed instrumental section. THIS part of the tune was very well defined by Weir as he plays a nearly identical guitar part for the rest of the song’s lifespan in the band. (6/27/95 is the last version)
It’s also worth noting the Jerry Garcia is not using a wah-wah or envelope filter effect on these 1971 versions, of which there are sixteen, the last of which was on 4/29/71, that famous and final Fillmore East show. More on that wah notion later.
Clearly, late 1971 and early 1972 provided the opportunity to fine tune the composition because they bring it back forty-five shows later on 3-5-72 at Winterland in San Francisco. This time it’s got new chords for the second half of each verse by going to the relative minor and a dominant chord, classic and useful tools for creating some movement in music. And what else? A much-needed chorus! The harmony in the chorus goes V-vi-ii-I which, on paper, is completely wrong. Conventional harmony would have us going vi-ii-V-I. I’ll point out more peculiar Weir chord changes in coming columns. The fact remains, it sounds good. If it didn’t, the left-hand monkey wrench lyric wouldn’t be running through your head right now. But still no wah from Jer in March of ’72.
We will travel to England next week and see how the band approaches the song. See you there.