HOW DOES THE SONG GO?

By Nate Lapointe

Mississippi Misstep

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 I’ll use 850 words to answer the simple yet involved question I get asked from time to time, “why don’t you have epic clunkers like the Dead did?” My short answer: “I do.” Have a nice day, see you next week.

Just kidding.

I normally avoid writing about the clunkers or the mistakes in the Grateful Dead’s music. We’ve all heard Weir forget a verse in Truckin’ or maybe Jerry reaches for that next level in a jam and falls just a bit short. The drummers might flip the beat, there are on-stage gear issues, Vegas ’94 the main speakers were out for like a minute or two of “Tom Thumb’s Blues.” As Dead Heads, we accept, embrace, and even celebrate these instances. But to expose them in a column such as this doesn’t feel right.

Getting deeper into the realms of the Dead’s music involves taking notice of the intricacies that make up the arrangement of each and every song. Why is the first pre-chorus of “Eyes of the World” twice as long as the second or third? Why do the middle two choruses of “Dire Wolf” change chords from the first two or last two? Why is the coda of “Uncle John’s Band” in 7/4 time? I believe that without these and other challenges, the music would become stale. The musicians would get bored.

“Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo” has its quirks. Non-folk chord changes, including concepts such as relative minor/Major, V of V, and a key change for the coda. Additionally, the chord changes used for soloing between verses are not the same as the chords in the verse/chorus cycle. This arrangement and chord structure was established early on for the studio version from Wake of the Flood in 1973.

They generally maintained this arrangement, with a couple exceptions. One of these unicorns occurred on June 28, 1991, in Denver, CO, at Mile High Stadium, a show for which this author was in attendance. Santana opened the show with a high-energy set that was ignored by the majority of the deadheads in my section, just to the right of the soundboard. The breezy afternoon turned to a breezy evening. The third song (a later-than-typical placement) was “Mississsppi Half-Step” and it can be heard here.

After the second verse/chorus, the band is prepared to enter the second instrumental section. At 2:20 on the video, you can see they cut to the stage left camera near Vince Welnick during the “on my way” lyric and we see a man in a white shirt near Jerry’s amp. The next cut is to Jerry who is clearly distracted by whatever is happening to his left. The next cut is to Bruce Hornsby who looks even more confused than usual, obviously wondering what gear issue is taking place. During the chaos, it’s unclear whether we should listen to Vince or Jerry. Eventually Jerry takes the reins. Bruce wipes his brow, a sign of his current emotional state. At 2:49, Jerry SHOULD have come in singing verse three. Instead, he takes another shot at the solo section that should have been. A side smile from Weir at 3:02 confirms that no one really knows what’s going on. The slight arrangement alteration has scrambled Garcia’s brain to the point he comes in singing the first line of verse two and then jumps into verse three to complete the stanza. Overall, a clunker. 

As mentioned, I was in attendance for this show. I even had the tape back in the late 90’s. I recall the show being less than stellar, but I didn’t recall this particular mess. Why? Maybe because they kept playing and didn’t make it obvious to us. This exact clunk, to my knowledge, doesn’t happen again. They made the mistake. They re-chose the old arrangement.

And that’s why we don’t have clunkers very often. The Grateful Dead handed to us, on a silver platter, how to play this music. They tried all the ideas, eliminated the ones that didn’t work, and repeated the ones that did. They did this in real time, sometimes consciously, sometimes not. Sometimes verbally, sometimes not. As a student of this music I know the chord changes to this solo section and I know it only works well if we cycle through it once per solo section. I know that when I sit in with another Dead band other than Cubensis, that the chances are quite high the traditional arrangement of “Half-Step” will be followed. A huge THANK YOU to the Grateful Dead for this gift.

If interested, there’s another gear-related arrangement issue in this song on 3/10/81 involving a reverb tank. Happy listening!

Nate LaPointe is a member of Cubensis, SoCal’s premier Grateful Dead music experience. In addition, Nate has worked with many artists including Bobby Womack, Vince Welnick, and Selena Gomez. Nate currently resides in Redondo Beach, CA where he performs, teaches, and records music.