The Meaning of the Grateful Dead’s “Deal”

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    The Meaning of the Grateful Dead’s “Deal”
    Published: May 16, 2023

    Garcia (1972)

    One of the Grateful Dead’s live staples, and many gambling songs is the Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia collaboration, “Deal”. First performed on February 19th, 1971, the song was in regular rotation until the end, both for the Dead and the Jerry Garcia Band.

    “Deal” saw studio release as the opening track to Jerry Garcia’s 1972 debut solo album, Garcia, which also contained several other classic Grateful Dead live songs including “Sugaree”, “Bird Song”, “Loser”, and “The Wheel”.

    “Deal” Origins

    While many staple Grateful Dead songs contained references to gambling, there is not much evidence to support Robert Hunter himself being a gambler. It can be assumed that he had at least an interest in the topic, of course.

    Plus, gambling and card games are deeply woven into the fabric of underground Americana where the Grateful Dead found their home, and thus many of the references to card playing serve as a handy metaphor for life itself.

    However, prior to Hunter’s involvement with the band, while they were living on Watts Avenue in Los Angeles in 1966, the Grateful Dead resided in a home that was next door to an outlaw gambling operation (Owsley referred to it as a brothel). This is mentioned in drummer Bill Kreutzmann’s 2014 memoir, which just so happens to be named after this song, Deal.

    It’s also worth noting that the classic folk song, “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down”, first recorded in 1925 by Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers contains many similarities to the Grateful Dead song. Hunter was known to pull references from a wide variety of sources in his songwriting, and it is highly likely he was familiar with the tune.

    Here’s a clip of folk artist Sierra Ferrell performing “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” in 2021:

    “Deal” Lyrics Meaning

    Lyrically, “Deal” tells the story of a seasoned gambler who shares his wisdom with the listener. In addition to being formidable advice for playing poker, the wisdom contained in the lyrics can also be applied to the uncertainties, risks, and rewards of life itself.

    Let’s dive into Robert Hunter’s lyrics, starting with the first verse, which is sung by Garcia following his signature bouncy intro:

    Since it cost a lot to win
    And even more to lose
    You and me bound to spend some time
    Wondering what to choose

    First verse to “Deal” by the Grateful Dead.

    The opening lyrics draw a juxtaposition between the costs of winning and the costs of losing. Coming out ahead in life, or in a game of poker, is often difficult and mentally and physically taxing. But to come out behind, or to lose, is even moreso.

    You make sacrifices to win, but losing represents a much greater risk. Thus is the nature of gambling, and perhaps what draws people in.

    As for its advice to life, we are met with constant crossroads, and it’s often beneficial to weigh the pros and cons of each, especially when it comes to important decisions.

    The pre-chorus is up next, further highlighting the importance of taking your time:

    It goes to show you don’t ever know
    Watch each card you play
    And play it slow

    Pre-chorus to “Deal” by the Grateful Dead.

    No matter how careful you are, you can never truly know the outcome of any hand that is dealt, nor the consequences of life’s decisions until after they have been completed. Still, you can gain the biggest advantage by taking it slow, and considering each card prior to laying it down on the table.

    The chorus follows:

    Wait until your deal come round
    Don’t you let that deal go down

    Chorus to “Deal” by the Grateful Dead.

    Here we are met with contradictory decisions, between waiting for your own opportunity to come around, and striking while the time is right, or stopping something from happening that may be detrimental to your game, or your life.

    This is the classic case of “take the red pill, take the blue pill”, which highlights two paths that can be taken, each with their own set of outcomes.

    The second verse gives some background on the narrator, and why his advice matters:

    I been gambling hereabouts
    For ten good solid years
    If I told you all that went down
    It would burn off both your ears

    Second verse to “Deal” by the Grateful Dead.

    He’s been in the game for ten years, and he’s seen some real wild stuff go down during this time. In fact, if he were to tell you about everything he’s seen, it would be so disturbing that both of your ears would fall off.

    Thus, to avoid the fate of some people who have made the wrong choices, it’s important to take his advice seriously, and play your cards slowly. As in, do not make impulsive decisions when you have the option of taking your time.

    Another pre-chorus and chorus follow, and then Garcia sings the third and final verse:

    Since you poured the wine for me
    And tightened up my shoes
    I hate to leave you sitting there
    Composing lonesome blues

    Third verse to “Deal” by the Grateful Dead.

    Here, he shows his appreciation for those who have helped him out in life, even with simple things such as pouring a glass of wine or tightening his shoes. This provides his reasoning for offering such advice.

    The general idea here is that when you help someone out, or when someone helps you out, the hope is that the effort will be reciprocated. When you have an opportunity to give someone advice that stops them from losing it all, it’s worthwhile to do it — else they might be left sad and alone.

    The song ends with another repetition of the pre-chorus and chorus.

    Listen to the studio recording of “Deal” below, and check out some solid live versions below that.

    Notable Live Versions

    “Deal” (2/19/71)

    The original version.

    “Deal” (5/8/77)

    As the song was played during the famous Barton Hall show on 5/8/77, we had to include that version in here.

    “Deal” (10/4/80)

    The “Deal” from Dead Set. Also check out the “Brokedown Palace” from this release, and honestly the entire CD.

    “Deal” (7/19/89)

    The version from Downhill From Here, Alpine Valley 1989. A scorching run of shows by all accounts.

    JGB – “Deal” (8/7/90)

    Jerry Garcia Band “Deal” from their 1991 self-titled release. While the Dead themselves may have gone downhill in the 90s, many cite this as their favorite era for the Garcia band.

    “Deal” Covers

    Dr. John – “Deal” (1991)

    The legendary Dr. John covers “Deal” for the 1991 Deadicated compilation.

    Foamfoot – “Deal” (1/8/94)

    Chris Robinson (Black Crowes) side project performing “Deal” live in West Hollywood, CA for the live album Crowes From The Closet.

    Melt – “Deal” (2021)

    Modern rockers Melt covering “Deal” at Relix studio in 2021.

    LP Giobbi & Le Chev – “Deal” (2022)

    This one will be polarizing. 2022 electronic remix of “Deal” by LP Giobbi, who did the entire Garcia album.

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