ClickTicket.com and today's guest contributor to the Narrative Music series. Who'd have guessed that the first performers to receive a second nod in this series would be The Mamas & the Papas? Remember Peter Dragovich's piece? Well, don't get too comfortable, Brynn's contribution only starts with John Phillips. I'll say no more. Take it away Ms. Alexander:
Me & My Uncle
A lot of great things can happen when your drinking sessions involve people like Neil Young and Stephen Stills. For John Phillips, of The Mamas & the Papas fame, one such session in 1963 yielded an epic narrative song that Phillips claims not to remember writing. "Me and My Uncle" initially became a hit for Judy Collins, who was also there on that fateful evening and managed to snag a cassette tape that had been running during the infamous "tequila night." She recorded the song without John's knowledge, and turned it into a minor hit. Joni Mitchell, John Denver, and Dino Valenti also tried their hand at interpreting the song, but it wasn't until The Grateful Dead started performing it at their live shows that the song really found its wings. Phillips initial lyrics were somewhat less racy than the ones the Dead favored. The light rewrite of the words, and especially the last line, turns the end-of-song zinger into a bomb rather than a mere delivery.
South Colorado, west Texas bound
We stopped over in Santa Fe
That being the point just about halfway
And you know it was the hottest part of the day
I took the horses up to the stall
Went to the barroom, ordered drinks for all
Three days in the saddle, you know my body hurt
It being summer, I took off my shirt
And I tried to wash off some of that dusty dirt
So far, so good. A typical day in the life of a couple of traveling cattle drivers.
West Texas cowboys, they's all around
With liquor and money, the loaded down
So soon after payday, know it seemed a shame
You know my uncle, he starts a friendly game
High-low jack and the winner take the hand
Uh-oh. Trouble's a-brewing, you can just feel it.
My uncle starts winning; cowboys got sore
One of the m called him, and then two more
Accused him of cheating - oh no, it couldn't be
I know my uncle, he's as honest as me
And I'm as honest as a Denver man can be.
It has been suggested to me that, given where this story is heading, the "honest as a Denver man can be" line may have been a deliberate dig at the integrity of the fine residents of the capital of Colorado. Seeing as I have no experience dealing with late 19th-centuray Denverites, I'll leave it to the reader to speculate.
One of the cowboys, he starts to draw
And I shot him down, lord, he never saw
Shot me another, oh damn he won't grow old
In the confusion, my uncle grabbed the god
And we high-tailed it down to Mexico.
Well, that escalated quickly. In the space of two stanzas we went from friendly card game to double homicide and grand larceyny. But hey, an impromptu vacation in Mexico has got to beat cattle-rustling any day of the week, right?
Well, unless you happen to be the uncle in this song:
I love those cowboys, I live their gold
I loved my uncle, God rest his soul
Taught me good, lord, taught me all I know
Taught me so well, I grabbed that gold...
Oh no, he didn't - did he?
And I left his dead ass there by the side of the road.
Sweet. This may be the best single-line twist ending ever written.
I was never what you call a Deadhead, but this song was the one that convinced me to give the band a chance. I love the Phillips narrative, but even more than that, I adore the Grateful Dead's interpretation. It has a fire to it that Joni Mitchell's version (for example) lacks, and I even prefer it to Judy Collins' original recording. Some may disagree, but you decide for yourself - there are several versions on YouTube to chose from including the version in question from The Grateful Dead.
Brynn enjoys all this music and entertainment. Find her writing for clickticket.com or singing along loudly to her favorite bands.