Uncle John's Band
New Speedway Boogie
When the Grateful Dead convened to record Workingman’s Dead in February 1970, they were intent on change. They wanted something lighter, simpler; something closer to a folk or country record than a psychedelic one. Conveniently, they were also deep in debt to their record company and trying to extract themselves from a recent—and costly—drug bust. Their previous album, Aoxomoxoa, took nearly six months at the cost of more than a million dollars in today’s money; Workingman’s Dead was done in nine days.
The band was spending more and more time on Mickey Hart’s ranch up north, shooting guns, riding horses, and generally communing with the land. They were cowboys now, singing cowboy songs: the card-game gamble of “Dire Wolf,” the rustic fever dream of “Black Peter.” Robert Hunter, the band’s lyricist, became a more prominent member and, in turn, enlarged the share of narrative in the band’s sound, creating a world that felt both contemporary and oddly ancient, in which American folk figures (the train conductor of “Casey Jones,” the miners of “Cumberland Blues”) commingled with archetypes from dreams and myths. The psychedelia of Workingman’s Dead didn’t lie in sound effects, but in the way it flattened time, blurring the line between 1870 and 1970, between the frontiers of the gold rush and of the counterculture, of a past that, as it turned out, could still be felt with the correct (ahem) kind of goggles.
The album didn’t just chart a new course for the band, but for the counterculture in general. Tour buses had started running through Haight-Ashbury, turning hippies into a sideshow. Visionaries with the wherewithal were going back to the land, trying to hatch Utopia outside the glare of Nixon’s America. While the more experimental side of psychedelia branched into prog rock, Workingman’s Dead—alongside similar albums by The Flying Burrito Brothers and The Byrds—helped plant the seeds of what eventually became Americana, bridging the philosophical orientation of the hippies with folk and country, reclaiming old-fashioned music for a new generation. With Workingman’s Dead, they reached into the books and caught a glimpse of the future.