Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Sugaree"
By David Dodd
Here’s the plan—each week, I will blog about a different song, focusing, usually, on the lyrics, but also on some other aspects of the song, including its overall impact—a truly subjective thing. Therefore, the best part, I would hope, would not be anything in particular that I might have to say, but rather, the conversation that may happen via the comments over the course of time—and since all the posts will stay up, you can feel free to weigh in any time on any of the songs! With Grateful Dead lyrics, there’s always a new and different take on what they bring up for each listener, it seems. (I’ll consider requests for particular songs—just private message me!)
“If that jubilee don’t come….maybe I’ll meet you on the run.”
Garcia is one of those collections of songs that seems borderline unbelievable, 44 years later. But then, the same could be said of most of the albums—song collections all—from that era: the golden age of story songs by Hunter and Garcia.
I remember having to face the question: side one or side two? Side one is the impeccable suite of perfect songs: “Deal,” “Bird Song,” “Sugaree,” and “Loser.” Side two is the exploration of sonic spaces and the incredible opening up into “The Wheel.” I loved them both, but it was all about the mood of the moment. CDs don’t offer the same choice. And iTunes one-off downloads rob us of all context.
“Sugaree” is a story song utilizing all the subtle tricks in Hunter’s arsenal. He lays out a character, addressing another character, the Sugaree of the title, in terms that could mean several things, and offers a glimpse of a shared past and a possible future that awaits. But even in the song’s present moment, what is occurring or has just happened?
Garcia’s setting of the lyric is just as mercurial as the words themselves. The performances could settle into a wide range of tempos, and the instrumentals between the verses could roar to life and then descent to a whisper.
I have read a wide range of interpretations over the years. If you want some fun, take a look at the series of proposed interpretations voiced in the “deadsongs” conference on the WELL. Just to give you an idea, they range from well-argued position to well-argued position proposing a variety of possible scenarios including one involving two slaves newly-arrived in the New World, all the way to the relationship of a john to a prostitute.
You may have seen Robert Hunter’s liner notes on the song, written for the Garcia box set All Good Things, in which he wrote:
"Sugaree was written soon after I moved from the Garcia household to China Camp. People assume the idea was cadged from Elizabeth Cotten's ‘Sugaree,’ but, in fact, the song was originally titled 'Stingaree,' which is a poisonous South Sea manta. The phrase 'just don't tell them that you know me' was prompted by something said by an associate in my pre-Dead days when my destitute circumstances found me fraternizing with a gang of minor criminals. What he said, when departing, was: 'Hold your mud and don't mention my name.'
"Why change the title to 'Sugaree'? Just thought it sounded better that way, made the addressee seem more hard-bitten to bear a sugar-coated name. The song, as I imagined it, is addressed to a pimp. And yes, I knew Libba's song, and did indeed borrow the new name from her, suggested by the 'Shake it' refrain."
So there you have Hunter actually telling us how he imagined the song—a rare glimpse behind the curtain.
But the point, as always, is not about reality. It’s about the listener’s perception, about the variety of ways a song can be heard, and heard differently over time, or how it can be convincingly explained in many differing ways.
Each of the listeners who took time to lay out a theory of the song’s meaning had spent time with the words. As we all do, whether we are conscious lyric listeners or just let the words wash over us as part of the overall music. (Sometimes I wish I understood no English at all, so I could hear these songs as pure sound, because that’s a definite component of what Hunter does. The “sh” sound, repeated over and over in this song, for instance, is a hushing sound, or a windy sound, or a percussive, impossible to intonate sound made by the mouth, like brushes on a drumhead.)
And it’s that investment in the words, or in the sound, that leads us to want to hear a song over and over—because we can never get to the bottom of it. Its meanings are endless, and the musical variations are endless, too.
I’m grateful for this song for several reasons other than its inherent greatness. I’m glad that it sent me looking for Fred Neil, and for Elizabeth Cotten. I’m glad that I was forced to familiarize myself with the concept of Jubilee—a concept that seems, at its core, utterly civilized and lacking in today’s unforgiving world of foreclosures and job loss and constant indebtedness. Why shouldn’t there be a cleansing of the accounts every 49 years? What a great idea! Slaves were freed. Debts were forgiven. All this happened in the 50th year. Clean slate.
Hmmm….the 50th year. Hadn’t thought about that, but it will be the Jubilee Anniversary.
When I first hear the song live in concert, I simply could not believe how it could stretch out. I only knew the studio version up until that show at Winterland in the spring of 1977, and then wham! they played it. I was sitting in that spot you used to be able to go, up behind the band, looking out from their perspective over the rest of the crowd, focusing a lot on the drummers, but it seemed they played instrumental choruses heaped one upon the next, building in intensity, and then, as I mentioned, “shhhhh…” down to a whisper. “Please don’t tell ‘em that you know me.” Shush.
You wrote :"...Winterland in the spring of 1977...I was sitting in that spot you used to be able to go, up behind the band, looking out from their perspective over the rest of the crowd, focusing a lot on the drummers..."
Thanks so much for evoking that great memory! That was one of my favorite spots in Winterland. You could sort of look down over the back part of the stage. Jerry would smoke in between songs - the cherry on his cigarette would trail in the dark. It sat on his amp during songs. Such an intimate and great place to see the band and see the audience the way they did. You could see that poster that was there for years, "1578 days since last SF Dark Star", always up to date. For years! Then they played it finally. Sign was back at the next show - "3 days since last SF Dark Star". Smart aleck Deadheads!
After first hearing this a long time ago I developed this false recollection that the first verse went, "When they come to take me down," etc., in that vein. It changes the song from one of self-preservation to one of self-sacrifice, which is how I thought of it until I really paid attention to the lyrics. That sentiment might please me but that's not the song and it's probably just as well--or for the better--that it's not.
I recall parts of an interview in Guitar Player magazine from late 80s ,early 90s, where JG was discussing writing Sugaree. My memory is surely hazy but I believe he asked Hunter to change the lyrics from something to Sugaree...Jerry wanted the "shucka-shucka" sound from shake it shake it sugaree. It surely works. Please do not take this as "gospel"....it is simply what I think I remember from 30 years ago.
PS...I also hear "bring out your dead" when he sings about the wagon round.
I for real have always thought of the 'bring that wagon round' line as a little dark, like a vision of the times of the black plague and bringing out your dead, or death in general, like it's your 'time to go' just as it says in the song. That's kinda a morbid way to look at it, I know, but that vision always came to me from those lyrics. Weird minds think alike I guess...
Portland, Or, Memorial Coliseum, '73. They played "Sugaree" in the first set, and I had nrver heard it before. Completely blew me away.
Pimps & prostitutes! Go figure. This song made me a Deadhead hearing it on WBRU in my dorm bed at 2:30 in the morning '71/72(?). The "please forget you knew my name" struck me as an aching sacrifice of love to protect a to-be-lost lover. Heard it soundcheck Friday night at Watkins Glenn as I wended my way back into the festival and my companions, not realizing it was live at first. Three tears later it became our wedding song when I married "my darling Cindy Jean". Too many wonderful versions to pick a favorite. Always a smile and a chill.
After seeing a KFC ad last night featuring the Youngbloods' version of "Get Together", it occurred to me that we should all be thankful that The Estate of Jerry Garcia doesn't have full control of the songs, lest we be urge to "Shake it and bake it, Sugaree."
Chris(py) Robinson and his merry band did a fine job in "Live at the El Rey" from eleven years ago:
and from the Dead Covers in the winter of '11/'12, Cubensis' cover of Sugaree is still a beauty, imo.
I certainly wouldn't mind having my cover blown.
heh heh...heheheh heh heh
For some strange reason someone told me long ago that this song is about a dog about to be put to sleep.
Even though that makes less and less sense the more I think about it; I still think of a Dumb Dog strutting around the Back Yard, barking like a Cool Fool, in the Pouring Rain.
Then again...long ago as a young, red blooded man, the line
"Shake It-Shake It-Shake It my Sugaree"
lead me to think of One Thing and One Thing Only...nudge nudge...
"Looking for a Lover Who Won't Blow my Cover and She's So Hard to Find"