Grateful Dead's U.S. Blues

Something about the song “U.S. Blues” has always seemed truly bizarre.

The Grateful Dead came out of the 1960s counterculture. While they were playing their songs and growing into a legend, the youth in this country were demonstrating, rioting, and trying in a thousand ways to say “Fuck You” to the Establishment (remember?): burning draft cards, burning the flag, flying the Viet Cong flag, whatever. There were radicals like the SDS, the Weathermen (name taken from “Subterranean Homesick Blues”) planting bombs and really trying to overthrow the whole system. Jerry Rubin went to be grilled by the HUAC wearing a uniform from the Revolutionary War. Just to flip off the system! They attacked or mocked symbols of American patriotism wherever they could, because they were seen as symbols of imperialism and a very bad war in Vietnam.

Some thought of rock music combined with political revolution as a natural team-up. Bob Dylan sang of “music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air.” Todd Rundgren sang about “revolution on the TV” and asked the musical question “Are you only just a rock-‘n’-roll pussy?” There was a lot of pressure in the “Movement” to be ideologically pure and totally committed to overthrowing the government, and not just be playing around.

But not everybody in the so-called counterculture was so passionate about politics or the war, or so radical about destroying the United States. A lot of the hippies were just about getting high, taking trips, innovating music and art, or just plain partying and getting stoned. The Grateful Dead definitely appealed more to the latter type. Hunter’s lyrics in “Ripple” expressed the typical cynicism with “leaders”: You who choose to lead must follow, and if you fall, you fall alone. . . .

Then they came out with “U. S. Blues.” They took traditional symbols of American patriotism and — forget about political theory — just had fun with them.

Red and white, blue suede shoes, I’m Uncle Sam, how do you do?
Gimme five, I’m still alive, ain’t no luck, I learned to duck.
Check my pulse, it don’t change. Stay seventy-two come shine or rain.
Wave the flag, pop the bag, rock the boat, skin the goat.

In the Grateful Dead Movie, the psychedelic animation that accompanied this song featured the trademark Grateful Dead skeleton. But he was dressed in the Uncle Sam uniform. Here was the old-fashioned symbol of the government and the nation reimagined as a party animal. “Blue Suede Shoes.” That’s all you need to say and everyone from the rock ‘n’ roll generation understands the significance immediately without needing any explanation. Kevin Ayers also used this trope in “Stranger in Blue Suede Shoes”, one of the best marijuana songs ever.

Wave that flag, wave it wide and high.
Summertime done, come and gone, my, oh, my.

Only a few years before, antiwar demonstrators had been burning the flag. Now here come the Dead, waving it “wide and high”! The animation in the movie shows the skeleton “Uncle Sam” riding down the road in an open car flying a huge American flag. What’s going on here? Have they turned into right-wing jingo patriots all of a sudden? Planning to kill the Commies? No way, nothing like that. Waving the flag is just a fun thing, a cool thing to do because it’s fun and we’re gettin down and partyin, man, because that’s what summertime is all about.

The Grateful Dead in this song are so far beyond all the divisive political issues that had just torn up this country that they can ignore them as if nothing had happened. Uncle Sam and the flag are cool because, hey, rock ‘n’ roll & partyin & summertime are what America’s all about. The Beach Boys sang “Endless Summer.” Alice Cooper sang “School’s out for the summer! School’s out forever!” What else is there?

The next closest thing to this I can think of is Austin Powers in his mod Union Jack car. Cool Britannia.

The Dead are not even trying to mock or flip off the system by having fun with patriotic symbols. There really is no political subtext to this song at all. They’re just about having fun, period. “Postmodern” is what they call the pastiche of bits of old ideologies rearranged in a subversive way. But this song doesn’t even have anything to do with that. Uncle Sam has been reborn as a rock-‘n’-roller. He parties with old-time showbiz characters. It is totally innocent of politics…

I’m Uncle Sam, that’s who I am; Been hidin’ out in a rock and roll band.
Shake the hand that shook the hand of P.T. Barnum and Charlie Chan.
Shine your shoes, light your fuse. Can you use them ol’ U.S. Blues?
I’ll drink your health, share your wealth, run your life, steal your wife.

…Or is it?
“Share your wealth, run your life?” Oh what the heck . . . maybe that’s just to make a silly rhyme.

*Wave that flag, wave it wide and high.
Summertime done, come and gone, my, oh, my.

Back to back chicken shack. Son of a gun, better change your act.
We’re all confused, what’s to lose?*

You can say that again.

Wave that flag, wave it wide and high.
Summertime done, come and gone, my, oh, my.

Remember that the Dead came out of the folk movement.

Despite the variety of musical backgrounds of the different members, which makes their music so interesting, the earliest incarnation of the band was Mother Macree’s Uptown Jug Champions (which featured Garcia, Weir, and Pig Pen), based in Palo Alto.

Jerry Garcia always said he wanted to be one of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys…and indulged himself by performing this most American of musics with Vassar Clemens in the “Old And In The Way” group.

Now, see Griel Marcus’s recent book INVISIBLE REPUBLIC, which is ostensibly a history of Bob Dylan’s (and The Band’s) THE BASEMENT TAPES, but which is really a paean to the Harry Smith ANTHOLOGY OF AMERICAN FOLK MUSIC.

This multi-record set from the early 1950s was an enormous influence on the folkies AND the rockers, in that it opened their Eisenhower-era eyes to what Marcus calls the “Old, WEIRD America.” All those old murder ballads and surrealistic narratives, plaintively and pre-psychedelically howled amidst frailing banjos, let the young 'uns see that there was plenty of cool stuff going on right here in the United States, by cracky.

60’s Youth was saying “Fuck You” to the ESTABLISHMENT, as you say…to LBJ, to Nixon, to the Military-Industrial Complex.

Not necessarily to the America of Daniel Boone, Abraham Lincoln, and Louis Armstrong.

I just need to say that the fellow singing along with the band in Grateful Dead Movie is far and away the happiest American I’ve ever seen.

He oughta be on a stamp or something.

I readily concur with what others have already said. IMO, what I was loved about the Dead (apart from the musicianship, songwriting, playing, etc…) was the evocative lyrics that Hunter was able to come up with. His love of traditional American mythology is so much a part of his writing style it ought to be studied in high-school history classes. Listening to some of those Garcia/Hunter tunes penned in the early 70’s will reveal as much about American folk history as any textbook.

I am glad other people have noticed this (although I suppose it isn’t a terrifically great notion) about the Dead. The Band for me on their first two albums have that same vibe - very powerful stuff.

For the record, I believe that the definitive version of U.S. Blues comes out of a great jam in Boston 6/28/74. Thankfully, they released this show as part of Dick’s Picks series - it is Volume XII

I don’t have anything to really add to the discussion …

… but that’s one of the best OPs I’ve ever seen.



I may be in a minority, but I have a bit different take on the tune than the OP. While I agree with most everything said, I ask that you consider the time frame of the “counter revolution”. While “US Blues” seems to lack the irreverence of other, angrier songs, there is something stinging here.

Think about post WW II, Cold War, Fearing the Bomb, Cuban Missle Crisis time. There was an Austerity(?) associated with the power that was the USA and this was exemplified by the Uncle Sam of the war effort recruitment posters. Uncle Sam was, of course, fictional, but he was the upright citizen who was recognized by all Americans - the physical embodiment of all those J. P. Souza marches. He would never submit to communism, never compromize himself, and never, ever compromize the United States for his own benefit. He would rear up with great anger and smite the enemies of democracy. While not a person, he was the “perfect American”. His shit didn’t stink and he probably never needed to wipe. Always lifted the seat and never left piss dribbles on the toilet. He was above reproach.

Along comes Robert Hunter and shows us that Uncle Sam is just another dude.

Red and white, blue suede shoes, I’m Uncle Sam, how do you do?
Gimme five, I’m still alive, ain’t no luck, I learned to duck.
Check my pulse, it don’t change. Stay seventy-two come shine or rain.
Wave the flag, pop the bag, rock the boat, skin the goat. *

He will aviod confrontation (learn to duck) and ain’t gonna get worked up about nuthin’(check my pulse…).

Heck? Where did this guy come from and what the hell happened? Just 8 years ago he was the embodiment of America, now he’s cavorting with the “everyman”, acting loke any commoner.

*I’ll drink your health, share your wealth, run your life, steal your wife. *

What happened? Apparently, he left the starchy life of politics and embraced “pop” culture.

*I’m Uncle Sam, that’s who I am; Been hidin’ out in a rock and roll band.
Shake the hand that shook the hand of P.T. Barnum and Charlie Chan. *

Yep, Uncle Sam is now quite different from his earlier visage. He’s quite likely to take a hit off your joint while getting a hummer from some flower girl.

Now, the question is begged, did he change or did the true Uncle Sam come come shining through?

While not overly subversive, it is a song that makes quite a statement, IMHO.

I’m going to have to disagree about the defining version being from Boston - check out the 1974 Miami set and you will hear a BLISTERING version that is, by far and away, the best I’ve ever heard. Spanish Jam>Dark Star>U.S. Blues. Just incredible. Send me your email address if you want and I’ll spin a copy of the tape for you.

As to the meaning - I recall that Hunter just hated explicating tunes, and much rather preferred that the listener glean their own meaning. To me its always been just a little celebration of America (warts and all) - even when it was still called “Wave That Flag” and hadn’t really evolved into “U.S. Blues.”

My, my,my what good times those were. I can still hear them now…“like the static from a far away radio.”

I may take you up on that. By an odd coincidence I was spinning Dick’s Picks XII last night (the first disc: China Cat through Sugar Mag). I threw disc 3 on today after reading **thermalribbon’s **comment, and I got to say that the '74 Boston’s definitely tasty, rising out of that nifty 28-minute jam. If '74 Miami beats it, I want to hear it.

dammit guys! :toeing dirt: Now I gotta spend even MORE money and buy DP XII.

Thanks for the offer plnnr. Send my an email if you are serious. If you (or anyone else) need any of the Dick’s Picks, I’d be glad to burn you a copy.

Errrrrrr…not that I want to drive Spritle into the poorhouse, but I should remind you that burning copies of a concert recording that the Grateful Dead makes available for purchase would be copyright infringement.

I realize that this is a bit of a gray area, since the band has always been cool about tapers and bootleg swapping…but I’d be more comfortable if you stuck to trading cassettes of shows that aren’t available from GD Productions.

And remember…if nobody BUYS Dick’s Picks, Dick’s Picks will stop HAPPENING. And none of us want THAT, right?

Back to the OP, I disagree. To me anyways (and of course, the beautiful thing about art is it can mean something different to you), “US Blues” and the Dead in general were indeed about celebrating America – but not just the John Birch establishment vision of America, instead the awe-inspiring variety and creativity of its people, and especially the country’s tradition of independent thought and willingness to challenge the establishment.

They’re celebrating the incredible place that produced PT Barnum and indeed produced Charlie Chan from one immigrant strain, taking pride in the revolutionary and subversive place that produced Thoreau and Joe Hill, Patrick Henry and Tom Paine, Robert Johnson and Elvis, even Jesse James and all the other drifters and outlaws that run through the Dead’s songs.

To me, the song is about taking the flag back from the John Birchers, and reminding us of all that America really stands for – not just McCarthy, but Martin Luther King, not just football teams, but volunteer fire departments, not just military bands, but Hank Williams and the Grateful Dead.

Anyway, that’s just my view. As Dennis Miller says, I could be wrong.

Spritle and Quercus, thank you—you have added to my appreciation of this song and of the Grateful Dead in general. Your understanding of it and mine may not be very far apart after all.

Ukelele Ike and thermalribbon, I like how you brought out the Grateful Dead’s organic connection to the timeless depth of American folk music, reaching way back to the early origins of this nation. One other group that was tuned into that was The Band. In particular, one of my very favorite Dead songs with that timeless folk quality is “Brokedown Palace.” Hunter & Garcia really outdid themselves on that one.

In a bed, in a bed by the waterside I will lay my head
Listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul

It resonates with the gentle spirit of America from some timeless bucolic past. So beautiful it puts tears in my eyes.

Then there’s “Half Step Mississippi Uptown Toodeloo” with the lines

They say that Cain caught Abel
Rolling loaded dice
The Ace of Spades behind his ear
And him not thinking twice

They had a talent for digging up the seamy side of old-time pop culture. That verse has the feel of something from over 100 years ago, and reminds us of how closely frontier Americana was tied in with the Bible (good or bad), especially down South. Ever notice that practically all American music has its roots in the South? Gospel, country, bluegrass, ragtime, jazz, blues, rock-‘n’-roll: it’s all Southern. Doesn’t matter what part of the country you come from, California, Minnesota, or whatever, if you play roots music of any kind you’re bound to be connected to the South.

You don’t have an email address listed. I’d be happy to spin the tape, but I don’t know how to get in touch with you.

“She was just 14, but she had the body of an 8 year old.”
-Bob Weir, when asked by Al Franken about the origins of the line in “Mexicali Blues.”

Why would Uncle Sam’s pulse “Stay 72, come shine or rain”?

Because that’s the year Nixon was re-elected. C’mon folks. As it has been, so it shall forever be.

What is it with springtime newbs and the resurrection of things long dead?

I suppose we should be grateful.

Funny, I’ve always understood the lyrics to be completely tongue in cheek, an ironic lament to the fact the system survives no matter what anyone tries to do. That’s why it’s the US “Blues” our man is suffering from.

Anyway, you can go here to check out the 74/06/28 Useless (it’s the second set closer, of course – last song of the set, for the unitiated), and I agree with plnrr: I’m not impressed. I’ll see if I can find the Miami version as well — do you have a date on that one, plnrr? I might be able to save you some trouble.

Nevermind I think I found it: Jai-Alai Fronton 23 June 74?

Concur immediately its a much better version.