The Meaning of the Grateful Dead’s “Jack Straw”

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    The Meaning of the Grateful Dead’s “Jack Straw”
    Published: June 23, 2023

    While most of Robert Hunter’s contributions to the Grateful Dead songbook were born of collaboration with Jerry Garcia, “Jack Straw” is one of a select few that he wrote in collaboration with rhythm guitarist Bob Weir. As it turns out, while there’s no doubt that Jerry & Hunter wrote some spectacular songs together, “Jack Straw” remains one of the most well-rounded and universally loved songs in the Dead’s entire catalogue.

    First appearing in the repertoire on October 19, 1971, during a show that is noteworthy for including a number of firsts (“Tennessee Jed”, “Mexicali Blues”, “Comes a Time”, “One More Saturday Night”, and “Ramble On Rose”). It was also the first show to include the addition of Keith Godchaux on keys.

    Since then, “Jack Straw” was played hundreds of times, often as the first or second song in a show, though sometimes later in the set or even in the second set. After their 1974-1975 hiatus, it almost exclusively appeared in the first set.

    “Jack Straw” was never recorded by the Dead in the studio, though it did appear on Europe ’72, so that version (Paris 5/3/72) is the one most commonly thought of as the “studio version”.

    Lyrically, the song tells a story of midwestern betrayal between two outlaws on the run together. The song is sung from a dual narrator perspective, with both Bob and Jerry trading off vocals to represent each of the song’s characters, Jack Straw (Bob), and Shannon (Jerry). It is sung in a way that is exciting and energetic, masking the true nature of the story being told, which we will dive into today.

    “Jack Straw” Origins

    Before we get deeper into the story being told in lyrics, I wanted to dig into the backstory and the origins of Jack Straw himself.

    As I mentioned earlier, “Jack Straw” was born of collaboration between Bob Weir and Robert Hunter in the early 1970s, with Hunter providing the lyrics and Weir the instrumentation. This was one of only a few collaborations between the pair, as it has been said that Hunter grew frustrated with Weir’s changing of his lyrics (see this interview with Hunter for more on that).

    However in this case, the duo managed to craft one solid rock song, with compelling lyrics and an arrangement leaves plenty of room for the kind of improvisation that the Grateful Dead were known for, albeit in a compact package.

    Focusing on the lyrics and the inspiration behind them, it is well-known that Robert Hunter liked to pull from a very wide variety of references in his songwriting, here we can see that in action as well, starting with the name Jack Straw.

    Who is Jack Straw?

    While he was fictional character in the Grateful Dead ethos, Robert Hunter was not the inventor of the name Jack Straw, nor was it always used as a name. This history dug into in the mid-90s by David Dodd as part of his Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics, which we have heavily referenced during the writing of this post.

    First, Dodd noted that Jack Straw was the nickname of a historical figure dating back to the peasant’s revolt of 1381 in England, with a footnote that added the fact that Jack Straw may have in fact been a nickname. Regardless, Dodd was onto something when he noted that Jack Straw was a figure of some infamy during this peasants revolt.

    Additionally, Jack Straw was a character referenced in act 2 of Tennessee Williams’ 1955 play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which is noted not only for winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, but also for being the single work of his that Williams cited as his personal favorite.

    “Jackstraw” is also an alternative name for the game pick-up sticks (or straws), in which players must use a hook or other object to pick up one singular stick from a pile without disturbing any of the others. Alternatively, it is a name for the waste straw left in a field after it has been cleared for the season.

    Jerry Garcia himself said the phrase “jackstraws” in the Woodstock documentary, which of course was filmed at Woodstock 1969 — a couple years before this song was even written.

    In the below video clip below (Jerry appears at 0:24), Jerry discusses the helicopter’s view of cars in the field below at Woodstock, saying that they look like “jackstraws”.

    While this doesn’t give us a specific answer as to where Hunter got the inspiration for turning “Jack Straw” into a character in the world of Grateful Dead music, it seems to make sense that Hunter blended together all of the above ingredients to create the narrative that drives this song forward.

    “Jack Straw” Lyrics Meaning

    Now that we’ve got the origins down, let’s dive into the story that Robert Hunter wove with “Jack Straw”, making note of any additional references he brings in along the way.

    This begins with the recognizable opening guitar line, which invokes the sense of the commencement of a journey. We then see this played out in the lyrics, stating with the first verse:

    We can share the women, we can share the wine
    We can share what we got of yours cause we done shared all of mine
    Keep on rollin’, just a mile to go;
    Keep on rollin’ my old buddy, you’re movin’ much too slow

    First verse to “Jack Straw” by the Grateful Dead.

    In the first verse, we are presented Jack Straw’s perspective of two comrades on the road, deciding to share everything they’ve got.

    We get the sense that they are living quite meagerly, though, because he notes that they’ve already shared his portion. They’re getting closer to their destination now, and Straw points out that his friend is moving just a bit too slow.

    While the surface level tone in this first verse is friendly, we get the sense that there is trouble lurking beneath the surface.

    The second verse raises the stakes, and confirms that these two are on the run from the law, with vocals traded off between Jerry (first two lines) and Bob (second two lines):

    I just jumped the watchman, right outside the fence
    Took his rings, four bucks in change, ain’t that Heaven sent?
    Hurts my ears to listen, Shannon, burns my eyes to see;
    Cut down a man in cold blood, Shannon, might as well’ve been me

    Second verse to “Jack Straw” by the Grateful Dead, sung by Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir.

    Here they rob and kill a watchmen, taking his rings and his money. Shannon mentions being quite thankful to have found the items on the man they killed, again suggesting the two have come upon hard times.

    Jack Straw, in the second half of the verse, expresses guilt for what they’ve done. He suggests that it pained him to see it happen, hurting him so much that he felt like he was the one being killed.

    The third verse, sung by Bob Weir, confirms that these two are in a dire situation:

    We used to play for silver, now we play for life;
    And one’s for sport and one’s for blood at the point of a knife
    And now the die is shaken, now the die must fall
    There ain’t a winner in the game, he don’t go home with all
    Not with all

    Third verse to “Jack Straw” by the Grateful Dead, sung by Bob Weir.

    He sings that they once gambled with money, and now they gamble with their lives. Things have apparently gone too far already, too, and he fears that their fate is sealed (“now the die is shaken, now the die must fall”).

    When you gamble with money, the winner often takes home all that has been wagered on the game. In the game that Jack & Shannon are playing, there is no winner at all. This implies that win or lose, live or die, there is no positive outcome to be had.

    The fourth verse continues the journey. With a break from the drama that has been unfolding thus far, we are presented with all-American scenes of travel, bringing to mind another Jack — a Jack by the name of Kerouac:

    Leavin’ Texas, fourth day of July
    Sun so hot, the clouds so low, the eagles filled the sky
    Catch the Detroit Lightning out of Santa Fe
    The Great Northern out of Cheyenne, from sea to shining sea

    Fourth verse to “Jack Straw” by the Grateful Dead.

    The image presented here is of the two outlaws crossing the country in the mid-summer heat. They leave Texas on July 4th, as the eagles fly overhead (a symbol of America itself). While the story does not represent linear travel, they appear to be traveling by rail across the country.

    The Detroit Lightning appears to have been a fictional railway (based on my findings), but the Great Northern was a real line that existed from 1889 to 1970, before merging with several other companies into what is became known as Burlington Northern until 1996, and today is BNSF Railway.

    In the fifth verse the drama picks back up, and we once again have Jerry and Bob trading off lines:

    Gotta go to Tulsa, first train we can ride
    Gotta settle one old score, one small point of pride
    There ain’t a place a man can hide, Shannon, will keep him from the sun
    Ain’t a bed can give us rest now, you keep us on the run

    Fifth verse to “Jack Straw” by the Grateful Dead”, sung by Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir.

    Shannon starts by saying they need to get to Tulsa as soon as possible, because he’s got one small thing to take care of there. Jack responds with fear, stating that there isn’t anywhere left for them to hide. He seems to blame Shannon for their situation, closing the verse with “you keep us on the run”.

    I also want to take a moment to point out that by this point in the song, the Grateful Dead were generally firing on all cylinders, as the intensity begins to boil over.

    Jerry’s guitar is blazing and the whole band is in sync as they reach the emotional peak that comes with these final two verses, often sung with full force:

    Jack Straw from Wichita
    Cut his buddy down
    Dug for him a shallow grave
    And laid his body down

    Sixth verse to “Jack Straw” by the Grateful Dead.

    It’s unexpected, but Jack ends up killing Shannon. He digs a grave for him, and buries him along their travels. This moment has been quietly alluded to as the tension slowly rises throughout the song, and it is unclear whether Jack kills Shannon because he felt he needed to in order to survive, as they were running short on supplies, or if it was done out of frustration, spite, or anger.

    Regardless, the deed is done, and he continues along in his travels, with an awareness that he probably doesn’t have much time left himself. The final verse rings out over the blaze of instruments:

    Half a mile from Tucson
    By the morning light
    One man gone and another to go
    My old buddy, you’re moving much
    Too slow

    Seventh verse to “Jack Straw” by the Grateful Dead.

    While Jack is now alone, in the early light of morning, he still refers lovingly to Shannon, claiming again that he’s moving too slow. Not only does the moment of repetition help bring things full circle, suggesting that with or without Shannon his fate is the same, but it also expresses some form of endearment towards his fallen comrade, further contributing to the ambiguity.

    One final line, the same as the first cools things down, as the storm of instruments settles around it:

    We can share the women, we can share the wine

    Final lyric to “Jack Straw” by the Grateful Dead.

    “Jack Straw” is indeed a gem of a song, illustrating Robert Hunter and Bob Weir’s narrative prowess and their ability to turn a song into a gripping tale of survival, desperation, betrayal, and loneliness.

    Whether it’s their historical nods, the alternation of the vocal duties between Weir and Garcia to represent different characters, or the overall progression of the story set to a vibrant and catchy folk rock tune, “Jack Straw” remains one of the Grateful Dead’s most intriguing, memorable, and universally adored songs.

    Stream the Europe ’72 version of “Jack Straw” below, and some of my favorite live versions below that. Let me know in the comments if there are any more I need to check out!

    “Jack Straw” (Europe ’72)

    “Jack Straw” (5/8/77)

    “Jack Straw” (5/15/80)

    “Jack Straw” (10/20/84)

    “Jack Straw” (3/29/90)

    Note this whole show is one of my favorites, especially the “Eyes of the World” featuring Branford Marsalis on saxophone.

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