The Death Hook: The Grateful Dead, “Black Peter” (1970)

The Grateful Dead

Somehow last week the subject became death.  Well, let’s look into it.

Rhythm, I say, is the reassurance of life, the power and logic of moving forward. Stop a rhythm and you face death. Include a harsh stop in your rhythm pattern and you repeatedly remind everyone we’re liable to die.

A rather common pattern in playing a guitar rhythm part is to alternate a sustained chord with an abrupt chop, like on the 2- and 4-beats here:

The chopped guitar chord

The chop means death, as I came to realize when I listened more closely to my favorite song on dying, “Black Peter” by the Grateful Dead, trying to figure out what makes it so moving. That slow guitar part—anguishing or contemplative, as it may take you—is clearly a key to the experience. What’s it doing?

“Black Peter” 1

If I play the tune myself I chop the chord of each of the verse intro measures on the second downbeat—that’s how I feel it. But that’s not how Jerry Garcia plays it on Workingman’s Dead. Although the chop is often suggested (by force of the snare brush, not by the guitar), it mostly doesn’t happen:   instead, the guitar part flows along gently with the dying man’s stream of consciousness and his friends bustling at his bedside. That’s what’s remarkable. The choppable second beat hovers there spectrally like the thought of the death that everyone sees coming.

As we approach the song’s and the subject’s end—“Now, let’s go run and see”—there’s more forward energy and the guitar chords strike over and over in clear hopeful sustain.

“Black Peter” 2

The threat to life no longer being heard at all, we know there must be no life left to threaten. He’s gone.

And we’re moving on?


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Arrangements and Sounds, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Death Hook: The Grateful Dead, “Black Peter” (1970)

  1. jahozer says:

    Nice take…

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