‘U.S. Blues’ – The Dead’s Ode to the Counterculture

by Peter Wendel
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GarciaUncleSam-SongMango.com_-254x3001It just doesn’t get any more American – or more accurately, any more American counterculture – than The Grateful Dead performing “U.S. Blues” on the Fourth of July. It is Americana at its best, yet lyrically “U.S. Blues” is bitingly anti-government – The Dead’s very own, very irreverent national anthem.

Picture this: Jerry Garcia (a.k.a Captain Trips) – the acid-eating, hippie rock star and dope-smoking co-leader of the ’60s counterculture revolution – cast mockingly in the role of Uncle Sam, the symbol of the U.S. Establishment and its military might (among other things).

I’m Uncle Sam, that’s who I am
Been hidin’ out, in a rock ‘n roll band
Gimme five, I’m still alive
Ain’t no luck, I learned to duck

UncleSamUSBlues SongMango.comThe Dead brilliantly co-opted and bastardized one of the Establishment’s most powerful public-relations images – poking the federal government in the eye while providing America’s youth with a new fearless leader in the re-invented, “Jerry-ized” Uncle Sam.

Historical context is key to The Dead’s message. “U.S. Blues” is the opening track on From The Mars Hotel released June 27, 1974.

Undeniably, ’74 was a turbulent and troubled year in U.S. history as the full weight of the failed war in Vietnam came to light; Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in the face of the Watergate scandal; a recession crushed economic growth and pushed inflation sky-high; and bitter race relations continued to tear at the delicate fabric of the nation. It was a total shit show, and The Grateful Dead – by way of “U.S. Blues” – took the Establishment to task for its failures and its ongoing intrusion in people’s lives (“run your life…steal your wife”).

The song is frequently referred to as “USeless Blues,” which should clue us in to the fact that there was no love lost between The Grateful Dead and the Establishment in the early-’70s – and that the band was tapping into an angst felt by many.

AmericanPeaceFlag SongMango.comIn 1974, patriotism or nationalism (or whatever you want to call it), in its traditional sense, was at a low ebb, particularly among the youth of America. The flower-power era of Woodstock and the Summer of Love was over – “summertime done, come and gone” – and young people, understandably, had become increasingly disillusioned and disenfranchised. “U.S. Blues” encourages youth to channel that disillusionment into reenergizing the peaceful resistance to conformity and all things drab and buttoned-up. It prods young believers (drinkers of the Kool-Aid) to wave the flag of defiance with all they’ve got. Though the Summer of Love had come and gone, the spirit was still very much alive and well.

Wave that flag
Wave it wide and high
Summertime done
Come and gone, my oh my

JeromeGarciaUncleSam SongMango.comAnother interpretation of the “wave that flag” lyric is that it’s a sarcastic swing at the Establishment. In fact, Jerry is lampooning (not cheering) the government for its nationalistic flag-waving when the entire country and its inner workings are in complete shambles. He’s singing “wave that flag,” but he’s thinking: You guys can’t govern your way out of a wet paper bag. But go ahead and wave your flag – you should be proud of your accomplishments. Not!

Now would be a good time to mention, as undoubtedly some of you already know, that “U.S. Blues” evolved from an earlier iteration called “Wave That Flag.” They are songs that have essentially the same melody but different, although similar, lyrics (see below). After just 15 live performances of the prototype, “Wave That Flag” – running from February 9-June 10, 1973 – the band would retool it, and eight months later out popped “U.S. Blues.” Although the lyrics to “Wave That Flag” were fluid, frequently changing from show to show, here’s one partial rundown (see full lyrics at bottom):

Wave the flag, pop the bag
Rock the boat, skin the goat
Trap the rat, bell the cat
Ball the jack, chew the fat

Shoot the breeze, lose the keys
Feed the poor, stop the war
Make the signs, connect the lines
Pay your fines, save your dimes

Chorus (same as “U.S. Blues”)

USBluesSingle SongMango.comMy guess is that we’ll get a dose of “U.S. Blues” – the national counterculture anthem – this July Fourth at the second “Fare Thee Well” show in Chicago.

The Dead’s fiercely loyal community of fans has carried some level of live-on-the-edge defiance deep into the 21st century. We’re still waving that freak flag – gratefully, with no sign of stopping.

What follows is a chronological snapshot (if that’s even possible), including some of the best all-time performances of this red-hot counterculture classic. Let’s start with the prototype, “Wave That Flag,” from March 28, 1973, at the Springfield Civic Center in Springfield, MA.

February 22, 1974 – Winterland, San Francisco, CA
This is the very first “U.S. Blues,” and they opened the show with it. Jerry needs to work on the lyrics, but it’s interesting to hear the retooled debut. Listen here (archived track 1).

June 23, 1974 – Jai-Alai Fronton, Miami, FL
Four months after the debut, the band is in complete command of the song. Here’s an absolute ripper emerging out of “Spanish Jam.” The entry is just plain magnificent. This version certainly falls high within the best-ever category. Keith Godchaux tickles the ivories to utter perfection. The band played some incredible shows in ’74, and this one is indicative of that bumper crop. Listen here (archived track 28).

June 28, 1974 – Boston Garden, Boston, MA
Here’s another spectacular version that gradually spreads its wings coming out of one of the hottest jams of the year. This rendition includes a unique intro solo from Jerry (1:26). Sadly, the band would begin positioning “U.S. Blues” as an encore just one month later, ending the funky-smooth entries (out of extended jams). These summer of ’74 versions have a pared down feel due to the fact that they feature a single drummer, Bill Kreutzmann, while Mickey Hart was out on hiatus.

September 10, 1974 – Alexandra Palace, London, England
Here’s The Dead spreading the gospel across the pond. By this point, the band has found the go-to slot for the song as an encore. The jammy, jazzy transition/intro is gone as it charges right out of the gate and steams all the way to a raucous close. Jerry throws some attitude into his vocals, and lays down a nice clean solo (3:08). This version was released commercially on Dick’s Picks, Vol. 7.

October 19, 1974 – Winterland, San Francisco, CA
This one is from The Grateful Dead Movie – and, of course, it kicks ass. My oh, fucking my! Enough said.

June 18, 1976 – Capitol Theatre, Passaic, NJ
This one doesn’t have top-10 status, but this classic footage is definitely worth a look.

December 30, 1977 – Winterland, San Francisco, CA
More great stuff from Winterland. Jerry’s vocals have a little softer edge than usual.

April 12, 1978 – Cameroon Indoor Stadium, Duke University, Durham, NC
Must-see footage! This is one of the very best performances of all time. Jerry plays out of his ever-lovin’ mind. So rare to see the big man this animated – like he’s got ants in his damn pants. The energy here is second to none.

September 30, 1980 – Providence Civic Center, Providence, RI
It’s interesting to hear the different style that Brent Mydland brings to the keys. Jerry kills it, and the bands plays tightly around him.

December 27, 1983 – San Francisco Civic Auditorium, San Francisco, CA
Uncle Jer looks a little haggard – as his health was starting to decline – but he still manages to lay down a solid performance. Check his solo at 3:20 (sounds like the opening to “Truckin”). Bobby is clearly enjoying himself, and Brent rips away at the keys.

July 4, 1989 – Rich Stadium, Orchard Park, NY
Happy freakin’ birthday, America! This was a stellar show, and “U.S. Blues” puts an emphatic cap on it. Jerry is in full command, loving every minute. Great exchanges between Garcia and Mydland. Definitely one of the best latter-day performances of the song. “Back to back…chicken shack…”

September 30, 1989 – Shoreline Ampthitheatre, Mountain View, CA
Despite a couple of vocal muffs, this is a decent rendition. Mydland shines and Jerry makes the Wolf howl.

August 16, 1991 – Shoreline Amphitheatre, Mountain View, CA
One of the best renditions of the ’90s from another tremendous show at the Shoreline. Features Hornsby on the grand piano. Listen here (archived track 17).

March 20, 1992 – Copps Coliseum, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Another killer performance from the ’90s with both Hornsby and Vince Welnick on keys. The Dead loved the Copps, and this show is proof of it. Listen here (archived track 16).

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“U.S. Blues”
Music by Jerry Garcia/Lyrics by Robert Hunter

Red and white, blue suede shoes
I’m Uncle Sam, how do you do?
Gimme five, I’m still alive
Ain’t no luck, I learned to duck

Check my pulse, it don’t change
Stay seventy-two come shine or rain
Wave the flag, pop the bag
Rock the boat, skin the goat

Wave that flag
Wave it wide and high
Summertime done
Come and gone, my, oh, my

I’m Uncle Sam, that’s who I am
Been hidin’ out in a rock and roll band

Shake the hand that shook the hand
Of P.T. Barnum, and Charlie Chan
Shine your shoes, light your fuse
Can you use them ol’ U.S. Blues?

I’ll drink your health
Share your wealth
Run your life
Steal your wife

Wave that flag
Wave it wide and high
Summertime done
Come and gone, my, oh, my

Back to back, chicken shack
Son of a gun, better change your act
We’re all confused
What’s to lose?
You can call this song, the United States Blues
Wave that flag, wave it wide and high
Summertime done
Come and gone, my, oh, my

“Wave That Flag”

Wave the flag, pop the bag
Rock the boat, skin the goat
Trap the rat, bell the cat
Ball the jack, chew the fat

Shoot the breeze, lose the keys
Feed the poor, stop the war
Make the signs, connect the lines
Pay your fines, save your dimes

Wave that flag
Wave it wide and high
Summertime done
Come and gone, my oh my

Meet the best, read the rest
Hide in caves, walk on waves
Pull the tooth, stretch the truth

Catch the flicks, get your kicks
Play your rags, pick up sticks
[?], trim your wig
Try your tricks, impress the chicks

Watch the bands, dig and dance
Live in shame, die in vain
Catch the flu, burn the stew
Shine your shoes, sing the blues

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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