Jerry Garcia was not exactly known for his talkative stage persona. Though the legendary singer/guitarist of the Grateful Dead was adept at providing quality sound bites during interviews, whenever he stood before a large stadium crowd he was more likely to tune his guitar than engage in the typical “Hello, Cleveland!” stage banter. That’s what makes his recently released cover of “Long Black Veil” so intriguing. On May 4, 1963 while performing the song at Top of the Tangent in Palo Alto with his then-wife Sara (Ruppenthal) Garcia, Jerry was practically Mr. Chatterbox on stage.
“We had a request, or at least I did, after this last set, to do a song called ‘Long Black Veil,’ which is a modern country song,” he told the crowd, during a lengthy introduction to the tune. “But it’s pretty anyway, even at that. It’s not even a folk song, or anything. It’s just a song. Somebody wrote it and it’s on records with electric guitars and everything. But anyway, it’s a good song.” The track was included on the new box set Before the Dead, which chronicles Garcia’s live recordings with various groups in Northern California from 1961 through 1964. Long before the days of YouTube, somebody was seemingly always following him around with a tape recorder.
In early 1963, “Long Black Veil” was hardly the standard it is today. Originally recorded by country singer Lefty Frizzell in 1959, it had only been released commercially by a handful of artists at this point. The most notable version was by folk revivalists the Kingston Trio in 1962. Many of the more famous renditions had not yet hit vinyl. Joan Baez’s live recording would not be released until November 1963 and Johnny Cash did not put out his cut until 1965.
Garcia’s take on the song is simple and straightforward. He plays it, strumming his acoustic guitar without a psychedelic solo anywhere in sight. His voice strains a bit as he attempts to hit the high notes. Listening to Garcia sing, it feels as if he does not quite know who he’s supposed to sound like. While the song is by no means an essential addition to the Garcia canon, listening this track, and in fact the whole collection, is a bit like reading the original scroll of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Though hardly a finished product, the music provides a fascinating window into an artist developing and honing his craft.
Click here to listen to more covers of “Long Black Veil.”