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. This week we will compare and contrast two versions of “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” performed 20 years and 7 months apart.
Undeniable is the fact the Grateful Dead were profoundly influenced and inspired by Blind Gary Davis. A quick search will lead you to find they covered two songs previously done by the Rev.– the topic of this column, but “Samson & Delilah” as well. (Sometimes listed as “If I Had My Way.”) A rabbit hole of listening treasures if you find yourself that way.
My first encounter with “Death Don’t” was on Live Dead. My father, being a record store owner, would bring home records for me that were scratched and deemed unsellable, even from the USED bin. This particular double LP stands out in my memory because my eight-year-old ears just adored “St. Stephen” and “Lovelight” but I couldn’t stand “Death Don’t” or “Feedback.” I suppose the darkness embedded in both tracks was too much for an emotionally immature mind to comprehend. So it wasn’t until my later teens, after the Dead had busted it out again, that I even paid any attention to the song. And to be honest, I didn’t ever take the dive into learning it until after being in Cubensis for 5-6 years. I studied the two versions we’ll listen to today and I’ll share the main takeaways I gained from each.
Live Dead 3/2/69 Fillmore West
9/29/89 Shoreline Amphitheatre
From a sonic perspective, the rawness of their sound in 1969 is the most obvious difference between this version and the one from 1989. It’s very dry (no reverb) and there are no other effects on any instrument. Garcia’s guitar tone is a Gibson turned up very loudly in a medium-sized theatre. In 1989, there is delay and reverb on the vocals. Garcia uses a very saturated distortion effect on his guitar during the solo. By now, technology has allowed them to separate instruments to define them in the mix. Garcia’s guitar has a more Fender type sound to it even though he’s returned to playing his Wolf guitar from the mid 70’s.
Structurally, the 1969 and 1989 versions are identical. (we talked about FORM last week) intro, verse, verse, solo, solo, verse, verse. However, there are some clear differences in the execution. The tempo was quite slow in ’69 while the ’89 version is much faster. All while both maintain a 6/8 feel (we talked about rhythm a few weeks ago) over a 4/4 drumbeat. The Emi vamp at the top is much longer in 1969 and much shorter in 1989. They also adjusted the arrangement so that the lead vocals duties were spread across three singers. Jerry sang all the verses in 1969. In 1989, Jerry takes verse one, Bob takes verse two, Brent takes verse three, and the fourth verse is harmonized by the ensemble in three parts. The lyrics in verse one are mostly the same. We will focus on the first and second lines as the third line seems to me open to interpretation each time they perform the song. In both versions, verse one says, “Death don’t have no mercy in this land.” Verse two in 1969 is, “Death will leave you standing and crying in this land.” In 1989, Bob Weir sings, “Death don’t take no vacation in this land.” After the two choruses of guitar solo, Jerry returns to sing verse three saying, “Death will go in any family in this land.” In 1989, Brent sings the “standing and crying” verse in the third slot. In 1969, the fourth verse would have Jerry coming back to this same “standing and crying” verse while in 1989, they reprise verse one in harmony.
In 1969, Jerry’s voice is clean and not yet aged. He doesn’t know how to control it yet, resorting to falsetto frequently. The emotional content is unrefined and dripping with LSD. By 1989, the emotion is focused and direct. The intention is clear and executed without hesitation.
If you looked at a lyric sheet of this song, you’d likely notice it’s got four phrases per verse. As we dive into the chord changes, I’ll keep this four stanza approach. Each line has four bars, making the total for each verse 16 bars. The first line is Emi, G-B7, Em, Emi. This remains the same in both versions. The second line in 1969 is Emi, A-D, G, B7 which is how Rev. Gary Davis played it. In 1989, they modify the second line slightly by playing and Ami instead of A Major. The third line from 1969 is Emi, Emi, Ami Ami which is a departure from the original Davis version in which he changes the fourth chord to a relative major, C Major. The Dead use this original chord change when they bust it out again in 1989. The fourth and final line is the same in all versions, Em, G-B7, Emi, Emi, same as the first line.
Have a great week!