10.  Cassidy (Reckoning, 1981)

There actually is a studio version of this song on Bob Weir’s solo record, Ace, and it’s not bad—but the acoustic version on Reckoning is, for me, the perfect one.  Named after a friend of the band (the daughter of a woman who used to live with Bobby), it’s obviously a personal song—but it feels like an old folk standard.

Further listening: Dire Wolf, Jack-A-Roe, and Bobby’s wonderful take on the traditional song, “Dark Hollow.”

Covers:Two for the price of one! Suzanne Vega does this song, with China Doll.

9.  Franklin’s Tower (Blues for Allah, 1975)

Blues for Allah is my favorite GD studio album, largely because it feels like a live show.  It’s full of spacey jams and sonic experimentation, but it also has some of the deepest songs in the band’s catalog.  The lyrics to Franklin’s Tower resonate to my core—I used to sing this song to me kids when they were little.  “In another time’s forgotten space, your eyes looked from your mother’s face…”  “If you plant ice, you’re gonna harvest wind…”  “May the four winds blow you safely home…”  I just love this song so much.

Further listening: From the same album: Bob Weir’s “Feel Like a Stranger,” a bluesy jam that feels like the spiritual brother to this song.  Check out the versions of these songs on the band’s live album, “Dead Set.”  Also recommended: “Help on the Way.”

Covers: The Meat Puppets!

8.  Bird Song (Reckoning, 1981)

Another song that’s as good acoustic as it is electric.  It was originally about Janis Joplin, but Phil’s modern take on it changes the pronoun from female to male, and makes it about Jerry Garcia.

Covers: There are some, but none compare to this acoustic version from “Reckoning.”

7.  Fire on the Mountain (Shakedown Street, 1978)

It’s bizarre that FotM appeared on Shakedown Street, which is the slickest and most dated of all the Dead’s albums (a close second is Go to Heaven), because Fire is one of the band’s most improvisational songs—at least when it’s done right, and done live.  With Mickey Hart writing the music (and performing a rap version on very rare occasions), and Hunter on lyrics, the song debuted during what I (and many others) consider to be the band’s best musical year: 1977.  Live, it would usually come out of Scarlet Begonias—a song much like China Cat Sunflower in that it was basically a love song to a hippie chick.

The best version is from the Cornell show (May 8, 1977), widely available all over the internet, and clocking in at 26 minutes.

Covers: First, Mickey Hart’s rap version. And then a nifty little satire…

6.  China Cat Sunflower/I Know You Rider (Aoxomoxoa, 1969 (just China)/Europe ’72 (China/Rider))

After 1970, China Cat was almost never played alone—the bouncy, jangly hippie song went directly into a cover of Blind Lemon’s, “I Know You Rider,” and the pairing was generally referred to as China Rider.  And perhaps no two songs better exemplify the entire Grateful Dead ethos.

On the China side, it’s a Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter original about girl skipping around in the sunlight.  It’s 200% hippie, and it probably makes anyone who isn’t likeminded wince and squirm.  I Know You Rider was a blues standard, a classic, which was a genre the band covered often—and very well.

Further listening: For other great blues covers, check out Beat It on Down the Line (a Simon Fuller song, which would begin with a intro countdown that would often go on for 20 or 30 beats), Cold Rain and Snow (a personal favorite), and Deep Elem Blues.

Covers: Ryan!!!! And I love Hot Tuna’s take on Rider, a song that, of course, is not a GD original. And then former Pavement founder Steven Malkmus does both together…


Related Posts

About The Author