HOW DOES THE SONG GO?

By Nate Lapointe

Row Jimmy Row

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 dive into the odd timing of “Row Jimmy” and why Jerry liked to improvise over the chord changes.

“Row Jimmy” moves at a slow tempo with the studio version clocking in at 50bpm. When the tempo is this slow, the chords last longer, creating more space within the song. A slow tempo also affords one the opportunity to do things rhythmically that couldn’t be done at a faster tempo.

Most songs in American music function within phrases of four or multiples thereof. In other words, it’s very common to have a four- or eight-bar progression in which the chords change every four or two beats. For instance, “Fire On the Mountain” has a chord progression of B for one bar and then A for one bar. A musician would write that like this:

Then we just loop that and add to it melodies, rhythms, solos, etc. “Row Jimmy,” however, has a lopsided or asymmetrical chord pattern. The section of the song used for improvisation is the first half of the verse. The lyrics from verse one that align with these chords are,

“Julie catch a rabbit by his hair

Come back step, like to walk on air.”

You can hear the studio version here:

And the way a musician would write this chord progression would look like this:

Keeping in mind that each slash is a beat, you can follow along and hear the chords move at this pace. Notice in the first bar that the G chord comes on beat four, lasts through beat one of the next measure, then beat two switches to D for that beat only before going to A for beats three and four. A casual listen might fool an ear to thinking that the G on beat four is actually a new beat one.

A similar thing happens at the end of the third measure. We have one beat changes Bmi, A, G, D and then an entire bar of D. (That said, they would sometimes play an A chord on beat four during instrumentals.) Again, an untrained ear might think that D on beat four is actually beat one. In reality, we have a completely normal four bar phrase that sounds like it might be a mishmash of different time signatures, something more complex than it actually is. For a musician, this presents a challenge—a challenge to keep track of the beats in the progression. A challenge to stay alert, not defaulting to laziness and hearing beat four as beat one. A challenge to make something unique and creative within the realms of something abnormal or off balance. I believe this set of challenges helped solidify “Row Jimmy” as a first set staple throughout three different decades.

Let’s hear a version from Egypt on 9/16/78. Jerry’s solo starts at 5:07, take a listen

There are times he feels comfortable just playing through the changes and others when he likes to land on or accent the chords as if he were just keeping track of them himself. This often is the case for the third bar where we have one beat changes.

Let’s travel to Pittsburgh in 1990:

Jerry’s solo starts at 2:13. One of my favorite parts of this excerpt is right after Jerry plays a sour note, the camera jumps to Phil who is very focused on making sure the chord changes at the proper rate. We’re talking about 2:44. At 2:48-2:51 Phil plays a very cool and functional riff that pulls everyone together landing strongly on beat one for the next cycle. At 4:19, Bob Weir starts to sing the bridge by coming in alone with “That’s” instead of following Jerry’s cue to throw a solo to Brent. Brent throws a little sideways smile and proceeds to improvise over the exact same four bar chord sequence Jerry had the verse prior. At 5:15, Jerry takes the reins again at the top of the form, now using a midi patch designed to sound like a flute. Masterful camera work allows for some detailed examination of what scales and chord shapes he chooses to use for this solo. So fun!

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.