HOW DOES THE SONG GO?

By Nate Lapointe

Stuck Inside the Chord Changes With the Voice-Leading Blues Again

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’ll look at the chord changes to Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” and analyze the notes Jerry chooses to play on the downbeats of each change during his guitar solo. The version we are working from is 6/19/89 at Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, CA. 

Now that you’ve had a chance to enjoy the performance, I’ll proceed to ruin it for you. The song could be described as repetitive, or maybe as first set filler. But I’ve got a strong case for its inclusion in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s shows. For Bob Weir, I believe he enjoyed the challenge of learning and memorizing all those lyrics, in this case, ten verses’ worth. The story is intriguing and the imagery is palatable. I’ll leave that analysis to you. 

Let’s jump ahead to the first guitar solo, which begins at 3:28. Despite appearing to be a simple song, it actually changes chords 23 distinct times during each verse. “Memphis Blues” is in the key of E(I) and includes A(IV), B(V), C#mi(vi), and G#mi(iii). Below is a chart that shows each chord change, the time code from the YouTube video, the note that Jerry plays at the beginning or downbeat of each change, and how that note functions within the harmony being played.

time code chord Jerry’s note function
3:28 E B 5th
3:30 C#mi C# root
3:31 E G# 3rd
3:33 C#mi E 3rd
3:35 E B 5th
3:37 C#mi E 3rd
3:38 A A root
3:40 B B root
3:41 A A root
3:43 E B 5th
3:45 C#mi C# root
3:46 E B 5th
3:48 C#mi C# root
3:50 E B 5th
3:52 A scale
3:54 E E root
3:55 G#mi G# root
4:01 E G# 3rd
B/D# F# 5th
C#mi E 3rd
B G# 6th
A F# 6th
4:06 E riff E root

Ok, let’s back up a tad. It’s common to think of chords and notes as separate entities. To think of the rhythm guitarist and the lead guitarist doing different jobs. In reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Harmony is melody. melody is harmony. Neither lives in a vacuum. Neither can exist without the other. Music just sounds better when a note from the chord is played when the chord changes. Rephrased: Music just sounds better when the chords match the notes of the melody on strong beats. Strong beats are downbeats, often the ones and threes of a four beat measure or bar. In some compositional strategies, the chords are born of a strong melody. In others, a melody is born from chord changes. The above analysis could be done to any Western “melodic” piece and the result would look similar. 

It’s the author’s opinion that the strongest improvisors are the ones whose improvisations most mimic their compositions. Elements that are often viewed at opposite ends of the spectrum are actually very close to one another, as if we made this spectrum three dimensional and bent the ends towards each other, like black holes converging to create a wormhole. Jerry Garcia was exactly this type of musician.

Ok, back to earth. Chord tones are the root, third, fifth, and when applicable, the seventh. The majority of what Garcia does during a guitar solo is to try to make interesting combinations of chord tones connecting the chord changes. Now scroll back up to the chart above showing how each note functions with its corresponding chord change. Of the 23 changes in the verse of “Memphis Blues” Garcia hits a chord tone on 20 of them for a rate of 86.96%. Let’s clarify the three oddities: at 3:52 there’s no note on the down beat, he rests and then runs up an A major pentatonic scale quickly, creating motion and urgency leading to the end the phrase before landing on an E major chord, an excused departure from chord tones and voice-leading, behaving as a musical gesture. The other two oddities occur during the one beat changes ending the chorus from 4:01-4:06. The 6th is a color tone, a note from the scale that is not included in the chord. If we string the three notes together, G#-F#-E, the result is a pleasing resolution to the most exciting and climactic part of the segment. Again, an excused departure.

If Grateful Dead music were ever described to you as “noodling” or “mindless,” please show the perpetrator the chart we used today. Garcia is clearly functioning the way a classical or jazz musician would function, allowing harmony and melody to inform one another to create something beautiful and magical. This extraordinary feat is carried on song after song, night after night, sometimes at a very high rate, as is the case today, a new chord every ~1.5 seconds.

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.