Monday, June 1, 2009

Cumberland Blues - Grateful Dead Song Review

One of the best memories I have of the Grateful Dead is the first time I heard Europe '72.

As soon as Cumberland Blues started (the first track on Europe '72) I fell in love with that bouncy bassline and the "down home" way the band would jam that "I-V" Cumberland progression that sounds like a jug band meets a rolling train. I'm kind of not as big of a fan of bluegrass and American "roots" music as most Deadheads, but I really love Cumberland Blues.

This song is deceptively simple at first and is characterized by it's main simple motif. Cumberland Blues actually has some pretty interesting vocal harmonies and a few different sections. This song is definitely not a blues progression like the name might suggest. The band also would jam pretty hard throughout this song and step out a fair bit within the relatively simple chordal framework.

The song was played fairly regularly early in the band's career and then was put on a shelf from 1974 through 1981 (a 394 show hiatus - thanks Deadbase). The song was played sparingly through the rest of the band's career. In later years, Cumberland Blues was usually mixed into the first set and often combined with similar songs like Maggie's Farm, Big River, and sometimes followed Mexicali Blues.
The lyrics by Robert Hunter are a really interesting and abstract tale of a mine worker who labors in unjust circumstances at the Cumberland Mine. It is a snapshot of the time when large American firms capitalized off of the sweat of their laborers and didn't compensate them fairly and this is the situation that gave rise to the labor unions (which are referenced in Cumberland Blues as well). The lyric's hopeless tone is somewhat contradictory to the fun bouncy rhythm of the song, but the lyrics do fit in perfectly with other songs like Easy Wind and Dire Wolf on Workingman's Dead.

Some versions of Cumberland would get really hot thanks to the musicianship and group dynamics when the band would start really stepping out on the solo sections behind Jerry's leads. At the very least Cumberland is always a great song to hear because of the excellent lyrics and beautiful harmonies.

Cumberland Blues Song Rating on a Scale of 1-10: 9.3

Disclaimer: This is part of my review of every Grateful Dead song from A-Z. Music is a beautiful thing because it is so personal and subjective, so keep in mind that this is one man's opinion (and be sure to read my blog manifesto to understand a little more about where I'm coming from).

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