deadsongs.vue.49 : Cumberland Blues
permalink #0 of 6: David Dodd (ddodd) Tue 2 Sep 03 15:05
Cumberland Blues
w: Hunter m: Garcia, Lesh
deadsongs.vue.49 : Cumberland Blues
permalink #1 of 6: Alex Allan (alexallan) Tue 2 Sep 03 18:47
Cumberland Blues 
Lyrics: Robert Hunter
Music: Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh

Copyright Ice Nine Publishing; used by permission.

I can't stay here much longer, Melinda
The sun is getting high
I can't help you with your troubles
If you won't help with mine
I gotta get down
I gotta get down
Gotta get down to the mine

You keep me up just one more night
I can't stop here no more
Little Ben clock says quarter to eight
You kept me up till four
I gotta get down
I gotta get down
Or I can't work there no more

Lotta poor man make a five dollar bill
Will keep him happy all the time
Some other fellow's making nothing at all
And you can hear him cry

Can I go, buddy, can I go down
Take your shift at the mine
Gotta get down to the Cumberland mine
That's where I mainly spend my time

Make good money, five dollars a day
If I made any more I might move away

Lotta poor man got the Cumberland Blues
He can't win for losing
Lotta poor man got to walk the line
Just to pay his union dues

I don't know now, I just don't know
If I'm coming back again
I don't know now, I just don't know
If I'm coming back again
deadsongs.vue.49 : Cumberland Blues
permalink #2 of 6: David Dodd (ddodd) Mon 22 Sep 14 16:32
From my post about the song on's "Greatest Stories" blog,
September 4, 2014:

When the plans for a print version of what had been an online-only
resource (the Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics) were first bandied
about, it was my wife, Diana, who came up with the idea of using
small drawings to provide illustrations throughout, rather than
photos. The idea comes from print dictionaries (remember those?),
which have traditionally used small drawings sprinkled throughout to
add interest to a very dry discourse.

I particularly liked the idea of small, hand-drawn maps to
illustrate the locations of geographical references in the lyrics.
And I love what Jim Carpenter came up with for “Cumberland.” My
annotation for the word “Cumberland” in the song mentions a variety
of possibilities for the geographical location of the song, also
pointing out that Cumberland, England, the source of the various
named sites in America, was a mining region as well. So, Carpenter
drew a globe spinning in space and drew a series of arrows, all
labeled “Cumberland,” pointing to various spots on the surface of
the planet. Very fun!

But all that aside, this is a wonderful story song, with several
twists and turns along the way. And since Labor Day was Monday, it
seems appropriate to talk about a song from Workingman’s Dead that
is, at least partially, about work. And one that contains a
reference to unions. (I know from reading Blair’s biography of
Garcia that he came from a strong pro-union background.)

The essential question posed by “Cumberland Blues” is one of work /
life balance. Our narrator is involved with his sweetheart, Melinda.
He is worried that if he keeps staying up nights with her, he’ll be
unable to hold his job at the mine. And if he is late, he could
easily lose his job, since there are always plenty of workers
desperate for the work: “Some other fellow making nothing at all /
And you can hear him cryin’… / ‘Can I go buddy / Can I go down /
Take your shift at the mine?’ ”

OK, maybe someone can help me here. When I took economics in
college, I know that the professor introduced us to a concept that
clearly applies to “Cumberland Blues.” Specifically, he spoke of a
principle whereby workers who earn more than a certain amount will
have the scales tipped and move on to a better location or a better
life. “Make any more, I might move away.” There was a phrase for
this principle, but I can’t seem to come up with it. Anyone?

The mine is life, in this song. Without the mine, no job: no food.
“That’s where I mainly spend my time.”

But there’s a consciousness that there must be something more to
life, that the mine traps its workers into a vicious cycle where
even finding the time and energy to keep a lover satisfied becomes
difficult. (Or, there’s the possibility that Melinda is just plain
too demanding—after all, the singer implies that the relationship is

The musical setting by Garcia and Lesh is, once again, perfect for
the material. It borders on some out-of-control bluegrass breakdown
combined with a 1930’s or 1940’s novelty tune.

I found the following description of one particular “Cumberland
Blues,” performed at Universal Amphitheater, June 30, 1973, on the
Grateful Dead Listening Guide site:

When Phil kicks it in to Cumberland Blues, we are off to the races.
One thing that I have no trouble mentioning is my opinion that I
find this to be my absolute favorite, and possibly the best
Cumberland Blues I’ve ever heard the band play. It is this very
recording that sparked and cemented my theory of thematic
undercurrents running through the decades of this band. In this
Cumberland, Viola Lee Blues is alive and well. Jerry is clearly
allowing all the exploration of that earliest of Grateful Dead
“jams” to infuse and distil into his Cumberland solo work.
Psychedelic Bluegrass to the highest degree. When his solo begins to
cycle into a whirlpooled syncopation leading down a twisting rabbit
hole, the already clear Viola Lee tendencies come bursting forth
causing us to laugh out loud and shake or heads in stark amazement.
It’s molten primal Grateful Dead, splashing in every direction. If
you play the game with me about which five Grateful Dead songs would
you take to a desert island, this Cumberland Blues would be coming
with me. The fire within this version provides an anchor to this
show, and it spreads out in every direction.

(By the way—I did try to figure out who the writer was on this post,
but had no luck beyond a possible credit to “david.” Anyone know who
the writer is?)

Hunter, in his A Box of Rain anthology, adds a footnote to the song:
“The best compliment I ever had on a lyric was from an old guy who'd
worked at the Cumberland mine. He said, 'I wonder what the guy who
wrote this song would've thought if he'd ever known something like
the Grateful Dead was gonna do it.' “

So it resonates as an authentic folk song, a true workingman’s
ballad about the complexity of life when you have to struggle for
each dime.

“Lotta poor man got the Cumberland Blues / He can’t win for losin’…”
Lots of little lyrical touches in the song bring up points of
resonance that help with the sense of folk song tradition. It sounds
like real people talking, for one thing. “Can I go, buddy…” “Lotta
poor man got to walk the line just to pay his union dues.”

And there’s one of my favorite lines: “Little Ben clock says quarter
to eight…” I had one of those Baby Ben alarm clocks beside my bed
growing up, so it was an early moment of recognition for me, the
kind of moment that recurs so often in the lyrics, adding up to a
personal relationship with the words, in such a way that, well,
means each of us takes a very personal meaning from the songs.

I, for one, am having a lot of fun sharing those meanings (potential
meanings or personal meanings…) and hearing from others.

And I have to apologize for the fairly large number of slips I have
made over the course of these blog posts—last week’s assertion that
the number “one” is never mentioned in the lyrics was just plain
ridiculous—the result of relying on a computer search instead of a
quick search of my own mind. But you have all been very kind and
assiduous in correcting me, so I think it’s ok.

Here’s to the working man (and woman)! Happy Labor Day week,
deadsongs.vue.49 : Cumberland Blues
permalink #3 of 6: Robin Russell (rrussell8) Tue 23 Sep 14 05:45
Was your economics professor possibly referring to a "darg"? As I
understand it, a darg was the amount of coal a coal miner should cut
in a day. If a miner cut more than the darg persistently they might
well have to move away, or risk serious injury. When I was working
at a printing factory one summer in the innocence of my youth, I was
invited out the back at lunch time by some of my fellow workers and
beaten up for "exceeding the darg".
deadsongs.vue.49 : Cumberland Blues
permalink #4 of 6: David Dodd (ddodd) Tue 23 Sep 14 11:57
I think, from comments on the post, that the concept was the Iron
Law of Wages. 
deadsongs.vue.49 : Cumberland Blues
permalink #5 of 6: coal will turn to gray (comet) Tue 23 Sep 14 21:04
Workingman's Dead. Dig it. The blues are for that feeling of knowing
that life is and will always be unfair to the workingman. 
deadsongs.vue.49 : Cumberland Blues
permalink #6 of 6: Robin Russell (rrussell8) Fri 1 Dec 23 17:20

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