Old-Time Music, Smithsonian Folkways and the Grateful Dead

This summer, as always for the last twenty-four summers, I had the honor of teaching at the Swannanoa Gathering here in North Carolina, and as part of the Guitar Week program there one of the classes I taught was “Acoustic Grateful Dead.” This was my third year teaching that class, and the class has gotten more popular every year; this time around it was actually my best-attended. It seems a perfectly logical subject to explore in the context of a traditional music camp, since the Dead started out as an acoustic jug band before they went electric and morphed into a rock band, and consequently much of their repertoire (and for that matter much of their performance style) reflects those folk music roots and lends itself perfectly to acoustic interpretations.
So I wasn’t at all surprised when I picked up a compilation CD at the Gathering’s CD shop, Tune Town, called Classic Old-Time Music From Smithsonian Folkways (great collection, by the way) and saw the Dead referenced in the liner notes:
“This collection of old-time social and instrumental string-band music spotlights instrumental prowess. Old-time music features playing styles that pre-date bluegrass, emerging from the string band tradition stretching back to the early years of United States history. Both African-American and Anglo-American ingredients are at its core, the banjo having African origins, the fiddle European. Some of the most revered sources of old-time roots music—Dock Boggs, Roscoe Holcomb, Wade Ward, Tommy Jarrell, and more—are heard playing in their original styles. The Grateful Dead’s cover of ‘Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down’ and Bob Dylan’s rendition of Clarence Ashley’s ‘Little Sadie’ clearly attest to the continuing influence of these songs.”
And indeed, there’s a fine version of “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” by Sam and Kirk McGhee included on the CD:
The only problem is – speaking as a semi-serious Deadhead (with, ahem, the apparent academic chops to back it up now) – to the best of my knowledge, the Grateful Dead never in their career covered “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down.” Surely at least Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir and lyricist Robert Hunter knew the song from their folkie days, since it’s been a bluegrass standard for a long time, but I haven’t found a version of it anywhere in their history as a group. What they did do was write their own song, “Deal” (lyrics by Hunter, music by Garcia), which referenced the earlier song, using “Don’t you let that deal go down” as a line in the chorus. “Deal” first saw the light of day on Garcia’s first solo album in 1972 and quickly became a band concert staple for the rest of their career – here they are ending a set with it in 1989:
But it’s not at all the same song as “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down.” Even though they obviously knew that one to draw on it in writing “Deal,” they never actually covered it as far as I know.
And it’s kind of odd that somebody at Smithsonian Folkways goofed like that, especially since there’s another song on the same Classic Old-Time Music CD  (in a nice version by David, Bill and Billy Ray Johnson) that the Dead DID famously cover – the old folk/blues standard “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad”:
The Dead played that one from at least 1971, when it showed up on the untitled live album commonly known as Skull and Roses, and it remained a regular in their setlists from then on – again, here they are in ’89 (I’m partial to the Brent era, myself, though I like the Keith and Donna era too):
So if anybody from Smithsonian Folkways is reading this… Classic Old-Time Music is an excellent collection, very knowledgably chosen and a pleasure to listen to, but you need to correct that error about the Grateful Dead in the liner notes. Had to get that off my chest. After all, this sort of thing is why they pay me the big bucks to teach about the Dead at Swannanoa.
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