Much to my wife's disappointment and annoyance, I've slowly fallen in love with The Grateful Dead over the past few months. I've always liked their music and listened to them casually, but this summer I really dug in and found myself loving certain runs of certain years, able to discern the different "Sugaree"s, etc. Out of all the things I love about the Dead, one of the things that keeps me coming back to them is that the sheer size of their discography lets me fall in love with certain songs and certain periods. Even though they aren't making anymore new music, I feel like I'm constantly discovering something new about them.
Once of those recent discoveries has been the brilliant song "Jack Straw". To be honest, I probably didn't realize the greatness of this song earlier because Bob Weir sings it... I usually skip over his songs...
This is one of those epic Western songs with outlaws, killings, and hangings. There's multiple characters, and the Dead are designed perfectly to carry out a song like this with Bob and Jerry switching back and forth on the versus in order for the story to really come together.
The climactic build up is as grand as the story itself.
One more thing... I love how the story itself can be interpreted a few different ways - "Jack Straw from Wichita cut his buddy down..." leaves a few things for us listeners to wonder. Did Jack Straw kill him because he was too slow, maybe didn't have anything else to share? Or did he cut him down after he was hung, out of brotherly respect? My answers change depending on the mood.
All in all, probably one of the Dead's best songs. It captures their truly unique way of storytelling both through song and lyrics.
I stumbled upon the name "Raftman's Path" walking the river trail that traverses through the little town I live in. It was named during the days when lumber was a huge commodity in this area. The Susquehanna River was an industrial thoroughfare - bearing down loads of lumber from the northern reaches of Pennsylvania towards the Chesapeake. Marietta was a stopping point, a place for the lumber either to go to the mills lining its banks or shoot further downstream through pig iron smoke. Raftmen would guide the lumber down to the mouth of the Susquehanna into the Chesapeake - an estuary of salt, water, lumber, ore, eel and shad. When their job was done, they would walk the raftman's path back through the Susquehanna Riverlands of Lancaster County towards their homes. The path is now wooded and meanders through some of the only "wild" places left in the county.