Dead Poll: Vote for the Best “Cumberland” of the Early-’70s

by Peter Wendel
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StealYourFaceBlackCumberlandBluesDebut: November 8, 1969
Last Time: July 9, 1995
Total Times Played: 207
Songwriter(s): Hunter/Garcia/Lesh

Lyricist Robert Hunter and frontman Jerry Garcia filled The Grateful Dead’s catalog with songs that tell the great American story.

In both style and substance, “Cumberland Blues” is a perfect example of The Dead’s brand of Americana with Hunter’s lyrics hailing the tireless spirit of the working poor (i.e., coal miners) in southern Appalachia and Garcia’s red-hot fingerpickin’ guitar play celebrating that region’s rich musical heritage.

Can I go, buddy, can I go down
Take your shift at the mine
Gotta get down to the Cumberland mine
Gotta get down to the Cumberland mine
That’s where I mainly spend my time

Make good money, five dollars a day
If I made any more I might move away

CUMBERLAND BLUES
The Grateful Dead
Workingman’s Dead (1970)

WorkingmansDeadCover SongMango.comFrom Cumberland to Fennario from Wichita to West L.A. from the sun-baked desert to a cave up in the hills, The Grateful Dead’s expansive songbook covers a lot of ground, reaching into some of the rougher-edged places that pepper the American landscape. The end result is a rag-tag body of work that captures the heart and soul of America, in many instances, through the eyes of imperfect men and women (not unlike ourselves).

In “Cumberland Blues,” The Dead hail the hard-nosed, working-class folks of Appalachia’s mining country while at the same time lamenting their plight. The “Cumberland” in the song is most likely a reference to the Cumberland Mountains, which run through Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee (as the southeastern section of the larger Appalachian Mountain chain).

Lotta poor man got the Cumberland Blues
He can’t win for losing
Lotta poor man got to walk the line
Just to pay his union dues

AppalachiaCoalMiners

Coal miners in Appalachia (1971)

“Cumberland Blues” taps into America’s unbreakable, blue-collar spirit – a theme that runs throughout the band’s 1970 album, Workingman’s Dead. In 2003, Rolling Stone ranked it #262 on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

As far as sound and style go, Workingman’s Dead marked the band’s first serious attempt at songcraft as opposed to their trademark improvisational and experimental approach to songs. “Cumberland Blues,” as well as “High Time” and “Uncle John’s Band,” showcase The Dead’s initial run at the harmonies and layered vocals that other bands – like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young – were embracing at the time.

A reader’s poll by Rolling Stone, voted Workingman’s Dead the best album of 1970, beating out Déjà Vu from CSN&Y and Moondance from the legendary Van Morrison. That’s pretty good company to keep.

CoalMinersPublicDomainFB

So without further ado, here are four of the hottest, best-played versions of “Cumberland Blues” from the early-’70s. Please vote for your favorite at the bottom.

CUMBERLAND BLUES
August 6, 1971
Hollywood Palladium, Hollywood, CA

Pure fingerpickin’ power from an epic show!

CUMBERLAND BLUES
April 8, 1972
Wembley Empire Pool, London

The definitive version from Europe ’72. This one needs no introduction.

CUMBERLAND BLUES
November 14, 1973
International Sports Arena, San Diego, CA

One of the finest post-’72 performances on record.

CUMBERLAND BLUES
February 24, 1974
Winterland, San Francisco, CA

A rippin’ country-rock display from the band’s home field.

 


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Peter Wendel is a journalist and PR consultant. He's attended hundreds of concerts and festivals, including the Peach, Mountain Jam, the All Good and Lockn'. He's ridden legendary Grateful Dead runs from Ventura County Fairgrounds to Irvine Meadows (CA) from the Nassau Coliseum (NY) to the Boston Garden (MA). Peter is a former U.S. Marine who – after running into trouble with every last one of his commanding officers – received an honorable discharge and a direct order never to return. Born in California and raised in New Jersey, Peter lived in Boston and Joshua Tree (CA) before settling in the nation's capital. Find him on tour at PWendel@SongMango.com.

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