Friday, May 28, 2010

Public Domain: Jack-a-Roe

Grateful Dead: Jack-a-Roe (acoustic)


Grateful Dead: Jack-a-Roe (electric)


Jack-a-Roe tells the story of a woman who dresses as a man, and goes to sea to find her man. It is the best known of many such songs. There are so many because this really did happen. What would drive women to do this, and why did they become separated in the first place? It was the fault of the press gangs. Let me explain.

From 1664 to 1812, whenever the British found themselves at war and short of sailors, they would send the press gangs into seaside taverns and other places where seamen were known to gather, and take all the eligible men essentially prisoner. These unfortunates were then forced to serve in the King or Queen’s navy. Many of these men, once they found themselves in this situation, would “volunteer” to qualify for extra pay. In official statistics, this allowed the government to report that the press gang problem was not as bad as it actually was. But the girlfriends of these disappeared men knew better.

In 1981, the Grateful Dead released two albums, both the products of their recent tour. The tour was unusual, because there was one electric set and one acoustic set at each show. Songs from the acoustic set were collected into the album Reckoning, while the electric sets yielded the album Dead Set. Reckoning was the first time the Dead put Jack-a-Roe on an official release. However, I combed through an online archive of Grateful Dead shows to prepare for this post, and I found that the Dead had been playing the song live for some time. Every performance that I found from both before and after the Reckoning tour was electric. So, I have included an electric version as well. To my ear, Jack-a-Roe never sounded better than in late April and May of 1977. The version I have chosen is from May.

blog comments powered by Disqus