"Uncle John's Band" as written by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter....
Well the first days are the hardest days, don't you worry any more,
Cause when life looks like easy street, there is danger at your door.
Think this through with me, let me know your mind,
Wo, oh, what I want to know, is are you kind?

It's a buck dancer's choice my friend; better take my advice.
You know all the rules by now and the fire from the ice.
Will you come with me? won't you come with me?
Wo, oh, what I want to know, will you come with me?

Goddamn, well I declare, have you seen the like?
Their wall are built of cannonballs, their motto is "don't tread on me".
Come hear uncle John's band playing to the tide,
Come with me, or go alone, he's come to take his children home.

It's the same story the crow told me; it's the only one he knows.
Like the morning sun you come and like the wind you go.
Ain't no time to hate, barely time to wait,
Wo, oh, what I want to know, where does the time go?

I live in a silver mine and I call it beggar's tomb;
I got me a violin and I beg you call the tune,
Anybody's choice, I can hear your voice.
Wo, oh, what I want to know, how does the song go?

Come hear uncle John's band by the riverside,
Got some things to talk about, here beside the rising tide.

Come hear uncle John's band playing to the tide,
Come on along, or go alone, he's come to take his children home.
Wo, oh, what I want to know, how does the song go.


Lyrics submitted by itsmyownmind

"Uncle John's Band" as written by Jerry Garcia, Robert Hunter

Lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

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Uncle John's Band song meanings
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  • +2
    General CommentAs much as the ideas presented are opinions and can not be wrong I think that everone has missed the point. This song is about what it talks about--- listening to live music--- in this case the Lost City Ramblers headed by John Cohen, hence Unsle John's Band. The Lost City Ramblers were a traditional bluegrass band that Garcia ,Hunter and Dawg ( David Grisman ) followed and taped. Which by the way is where the practice of allowing tapers at Dead shows started. The L.C.R.'s songs included lines that were incorporated into the lyrics--" The Story The Crow Told Me", "Buckdancer's Choice", "The First Day Is The Hardest Day"(that is a line in a song I do not know if it is a title) "Easy Street" and "Beggers Tune"are to name a few. The Lost City Ramblers were from the NYC are and played a lot of outside concerts along the Hudson River during the late 50's and early 60's and the Hudson is a tidal river---hence by the riverside....here beside the rising tide. At least that is what the crow told me
    thom52on November 10, 2006   Link
  • +1
    General Commentwow thats a great meaning
    you are incredibly smart
    i love this song
    grateful26guitaron December 17, 2004   Link
  • +1
    General CommentThis web site is great! I've really enjoyed your comments. Here's my take based, in no small part, on the preceding comments and others I've read in connection with this site. I think Uncle John's Band is an Anti-War (Vietnam) protest song, encouraging people to actively oppose the war either by draft evasion, refusal to serve, fleeing the country or joining the protest.
    "Well the first days are the hardest days, don't you worry anymore ...." may refer to life "on the lamb" in Canada as a draft evader, or at home as a protester with the reassurance that even though the draft dodger/protester might be lonely and uncomfortable that there truly was "danger at your door." In other words, the decision to leave/protest was wise, since the individual was likely to wind up impressed into service, via the draft.
    "Will you come with me? Won't you come with me? ...WILL YOU COME WITH ME?" Also, to me, sounds like a direct call to either "join the protest" or leave the country to avoid the draft.
    I also think "buck dancer's choice" is a reference to the draft. Based on other's comments, a buckdancer was one who moved his feet only, and in step to a set song. In other words, the buck dancer doesn't get to pick the song or "call the tune"; he simply decides if he wants to dance or not. And the reference to "better take my advice" followed with the invitation to "come with me" suggests that the singer is encouraging the listener NOT to dance to this tune (war).
    This also fits with the question "Are you kind?" Because, the inference is that a truly kind person would not want to engage in killing.
    I also agree with other postings that the "fire from the ice" is a reference to Robert Frost's poem about how the world will end. ("Some say the world will end in fire; Others say in Ice") and Frost equates fire with desire (a close cousin to "love") and ice with hate -- again a reference to the "choice" the listener has between peace and war.
    The reference to living in a "silver mine" that the singer calls "beggar's tomb" -- may be an analogy to either the war, which was "big business" for the military industrial complex or America and the American dream, which is primarily materialistic in nature. If the former, then the mine is a literal "tomb" for the powerless "draftees." If the latter, then it's a figurative tomb for the spirit of those who refuse to stand up for their principles even if it risks depriving them of life on "easy street."

    The next passage, "I got me a violin, and I beg you, call the tune" is to me, a direct challenge to the listener to get involved, make their own decision ("call the tune") and raise their voice in protest. The use of the word "beg" in this instance, emphasizes just how critical it is for the listener not to passively go along with what others are telling him or her. A violin is also another term for a "fiddle" which makes references to the notion that sooner or later, we all "pay the fiddler", i.e., the devil, for our choices.
    The song goes on to say, the tune is "anybody's choice," and that the singer is listening "I can hear your voice," meaning that everyone's voice counts. And, of course, the song ends with the refrain, "What I want to know is: How Does the Song Go?," in other words, what will you say? What will you do, about the war.
    reisfeldgroupon August 11, 2006   Link
  • +1
    General CommentWell...
    Regarding the "meaning" of "Uncle John's Band"...

    Its an old story.
    It was down by the river. It could have been any river but it wasn't. It was the Mississippi.
    It was down there by the river you see---there was a whorehouse.
    Now these whores were a pretty tight-knit group, in this house anyway.
    It wasn't like "The House of the Rising Sun" or anything like that. Of course it was a bad scene in some ways but then there were ways of mitigating that because these ladies looked out for each other.
    Well, as it turned out,
    there were two other "institutions" (if you will) that were right next door to the whorehouse,
    a jazz club, and an orphange.
    In those days contraception wasn't always partcularly reliable, and when you make you living as a woman by lying down with men, every now and again something happens.
    And whores could get pregnant.
    When they did their "sisters" watched out for them and the children were often carried to term. Louisiana is and was very Catholic, after all. Of course there were those who opted out and tried for termination, but you see, in those days that wasn't very reliable either. Very often the ending was tragic.
    So that's why these "sisters of the night" looked out for their own.
    There was love there in an unconventional world. And the orphanage next door was a Catholic orphanage.
    So, well, of course children couldn't be brought up in a whorehouse: they had to be protected from all that, and that's what their mothers thought too. And it was pretty smart to set up that orphanage so close by where it was needed.
    But the thing was,
    just because a whore had a child and that child went over to the orphanage, it didn't mean the mother always lost track of that child. Some did. Some didn't want to know. Or maybe they weren't a part of that tight-knit group, that community. They went away. Or the disappeared. Or they died. But others stayed. Just because they made their livings by lying down with men didn't always mean they were irresponsible in other ways. Maybe they were just stuck. Maybe they went to church. So sometimes these whores would know which of the orphans were theirs. And sometimes they would help the orphanage with gifts of food, and toys, and parties, and holidays. And sometimes they would visit.
    But the priests and nuns at the orphanage didn't tell the children
    who these nice ladies were that visited them.
    But you have to wonder...and you certainly have to wonder what the children suspected, especially as they grew to maturity in this world.
    Well...there was a jazz musician, a piano player, real ivory tickler.
    He played in the jazz club nearby, he had lived there by that bend in the river all his life.
    He came over to the whorehouse to play special too.
    This man was a real favorite with the whores. They really loved him.
    As it turned out, he had bedded down with quite a number of them, and over time,
    had sired children with some of them.
    Those children were residing in the orphanage.
    Sometimes, when the whores would visit the orphange to put on a party or a barbecue, the jazzman would accompany them, and would sing for them and play on the guitar.
    It was then that when the little kids said "Who is that man?",
    the whores would say, "...well, that is your 'Uncle John'..."
    But his name wasn't "John", in any event.
    That is a colloquialism.
    His name was Cornelius.
    It was an awkward and a painful situation.
    But "Uncle John" came to love his children
    and the other orphans who were not his children very much.
    He promised himself he would help them if he could, and that one day
    if he could, he would reveal to them the nature of their patrimony.
    It was New Orleans.
    Cornelius won big at gambling one night, and the next week, he conspired with the whores to put on a big cook-out for the orphans, with plenty of music. They set up a place near the river, with tables, and firepits, and a little stage for a jazz band.
    Prior to his big winnings, Cornelius had been poor, but now he was a man of means, with a house in town he had set up nicely.
    On a sunny, beautiful day "Uncle John" and his whores showed up at the orphanage, and took the children and their protective nuns down to the river to hear Uncle John's band.
    "Come hear Uncle John'd band, by the riverside!"

    He had come to take his children home.
    "I am not your 'Uncle John'. I am your real father! Let's go home together now."
    tipidanon March 27, 2010   Link
  • 0
    General CommentMy personal opinion about this song is as a kind of protest about the Vietnam war (which was, unless I am very much mistaken, well underway at the time of this song's writing). The Dead's manager at this time was named John, and his nickname was 'Uncle John', so Uncle John's Band probably means the Dead themselves.

    The giveaway verse is the one that begins, "Goddamn, well I declare, have you seen the like? Their walls are built of cannonballs, their motto is don't tread on me." This is a reasonably obvious reference to the USA. The Dead are playing by the riverside, preaching peace ("got some things to talk about") as the tides of war threaten to envelop them.

    They talk of the transience of life, and how trivial and pointless hate is given a man's short time on this earth ... "Ain't no time to hate, barely time to wait."

    Uncle John's children are probably the soldiers sent to Vietnam, and the Dead want them to be taken home. As for the rest of the lyrics, they're completely beyond me.
    MadTomon April 10, 2003   Link
  • 0
    General Commenti almost cried
    sugarmagnoliaon September 29, 2004   Link
  • 0
    General Commenti agree with madtom with the idea of the song as an analog for the vietnam war and the grateful dead themselves, but there are allusions here to baptism and the story of john the baptist. considering the dead's history with old time country music, i can imagine this song might touch on the bible story.
    the-albatrosson January 11, 2006   Link
  • 0
    General Commenti agree with madtom with the idea of the song as an analog for the vietnam war and the grateful dead themselves, but there are allusions here to baptism and the story of john the baptist. considering the dead's history with old time country music, i can imagine this song might touch on the bible story.
    the-albatrosson January 11, 2006   Link
  • 0
    General CommentJerry Garcia actually recruited a poet friend of his, Robert Hunter, to help him write this song. Generally, I think it makes an allusion to a lot of things, so like a lot of poems, this isn't just about one thing.
    UnpopularPoeton January 27, 2006   Link
  • 0
    General Commentthere is a poem called 'buck dancer's choice' that i tried to read once but i gathered no sense from it. it may have influenced jerry and this robert hunter to write the song.
    misanthrope61on July 03, 2006   Link

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