Today we look at “Jack Straw,” a favorite since 1971

Deeper into the realms of the Grateful Dead’s music than you’ve ever gone before
by Nate LaPointe

Today we look at the song “Jack Straw,” a Dead favorite since 1971. It stayed in the band’s repertoire all the way until July 8, 1995, which was their second to last show. One could argue that the definitive version is the one from the Europe ’72 album, which was from May 3, 1972 in Paris, plus vocal overdubs. Which leads us to the crux of this episode. See, we are used to Garcia and Weir trading verses: you know the “I just jumped the watchman,” and “Hurts my ears to listen,” from verse 1, and subsequently, “Gotta go to Tulsa,” and “Ain’t no place a man can hide, Shannon,” from verse 2. But it wasn’t always this way. 

Jack Straw was written by Robert Hunter and Bob Weir. Hunter did most of the lyrics and Weir did the music, but Weir ALSO chimed in on some lyric writing. In fact, in an interview in May of 2007, Weir said:

”I don’t watch much TV, but one night I was home, it was late, and an old version of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men came on. I was mesmerized. We were coming out of the Workingman’s Dead phase, and Hunter had this lyric. I grabbed it, and we came with a little sketch of heartland Americana, a balled about two ne’er-do-wells. It was patterned on Of Mice and Men, but we tried to put a twist or two on it. Same story, different context.” (May 2007)

So from its debut on October 19, 1971 until the middle of the Europe ’72 tour, Weir sang both of the aforementioned lines in each verse. Further analysis of the storyline reveals that there are essentially 3 voices happening. 

There’s the narrator: “We can share the women, we can share the wine.”

There’s Shannon: “I just jumped the watchman.”

And there’s Jack Straw: “Hurts my ears to listen.”

We’ll go into further analysis of who’s saying which line, but first, please go listen to the Europe ’72 version from Paris…

So you heard the verses trading back and forth between Garcia and Weir, but it wasn’t always that way. On May 7th (Bickershaw), four days after Paris, Weir would sing Shannon’s lines for the last time.  Check it out.

On May 10th in Amsterdam, Garcia takes over on those two verses. You can hear that he’s new to it because he blows the lyric, “took his rings four bucks in change,” and says, “2 bucks,” instead.  

And again, he blows the, “Gotta go to Tulsa,” line…

Being the lifelong student of music that he was, Garcia clearly does some homework after the show and they try it again the next night, May 11, down the road in Rotterdam. Take a listen.

He gets it pretty close this night.

Remember, the version YOU know from Europe ’72 is from May 3. It has Garcia singing those verses but they were overdubbed later in the studio. It’s true, most live albums have overdubs, even the Dead.

Next week we examine WHY this change in vocalists happened. Until then, stay cool.