50 Years Later: Revisiting The Grateful Dead’s Crowning Studio Achievement ‘Workingman’s Dead’

At the time of its release on June 14th, 1970, The Grateful Dead’s fourth studio album Workingman’s Dead was unlike any other in their discography. In the wake of a bust in New Orleans, with their business organization struggling and in debt to their Warner Bros. Record label, the band was also confronting seismic cultural changes that caused profound alterations in the music they were creating: the new-found emphasis on folk and country styles outweighed that on the blues during their early days. Yet even today, this bittersweet collection of original songs, just over a half-hour in duration, recorded within a single month in the same year it came out. remains a testament to simplicity as a refuge from chaos and bad fortune.

Inclusive from the very first tune, “Uncle John’s Band,” the Dead offers music as a source of community, not unlike the ancillary purpose of protests across America in the wake of George Floyd’s tragic death. Adorned with the most mellifluous vocal harmonizing the group had committed to record at the time, its predominantly acoustic textures also presented a marked departure from the electrified psychedelia of, for instance, Aoxomoxoa. Upbeat as is this opener, however, “High Time” belies its title, its mournful air effectively balancing the gaiety and optimism of other Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter compositions that follow. 

For instance, the sprightly “Cumberland Blues” offers another bright spot in the sonic picture this iconic band’s painting here. As does “Dire Wolf,” even if it posits the ominous title figure as a somewhat (unintentional?) comic figure a la our current commander-in-chief. The intensity of performance grows almost imperceptibly over the course Workingman’s Dead and, accordingly, the entire sextet displays an uncanny rhythmic surety during “Easy Wind;” Ron “Pigpen” McKernan’s guttural vocal delivery meshes faultlessly with the dual drumwork of Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart.

The latter would leave the group in 1971 for reasons that remain nebulous even today. But, regardless of the backstory, his departure rent the solidarity of a lineup in place since 1968, reminding all too clearly how seemingly random circumstance can bring adverse without notice: who would’ve imagined that before the pandemic came under control, civil unrest would plague America? So too works the tale of “Black Peter” in both musicianship and composition as the exquisite vulnerability in Garcia’s singing imbues with tenderness lines of Hunter’s steeped in bitter ironies that echo over the years.

Such exposition of paradox (if not its resolution) is the brilliance of “New Speedway Boogie.” The Grateful Dead sound absolutely prescient here as, just weeks following the Altamont concert of December 1969 (where an attendee was knifed to death during the Rolling Stones’ set), they tried to assimilate the sequence of events behind the debacle/disaster. In so doing, the group foreshadowed the fracture(s) within our fifty states in recent years, divisions neatly encapsulated between its opening and closing lines: ‘Please don’t dominate the rap, Jack, if you’ve got nothing new to say…’…’One way or another, one way or another, this darkness got to give…’ Little wonder Garcia and Bob Weir both wield electric guitars on this number, while Phil Lesh’s bass prods his partners in the rhythm section to play with such emphatic precision. 

Yet if Workingman’s Dead proves anything, it is that creativity can present something of an antidote to tumult (as did the record’s even rootsier successor, American Beauty, out just five months later). The arch closing number here, “Casey Jones,” is indicative of how clean and unfettered was the sound of the Grateful Dead on this LP; astute co-production between the band, Bob Matthews and Betty Cantor, provided a burnished sonic realism that accurately captures the multiple textures of the eight performances. That was no small accomplishment in a matter of three expeditious, cost-effective weeks. 

Yet the efficiency of the studio process mirrored the economy of the brand-new material. As did the notable absence of much-extended improvisation, the likes of which this band had staked their reputation to that point in their career. Such marks of self-discipline and restraint further heightened the clarity of the statement(s) within Workingman’s Dead to the point that, five decades from the date of its original issue, the album still resounds with understated artistic and social impact. Like so much of the output of the Grateful Dead, it will also continue to speak to the future without becoming dated.

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