Me and My Uncle … and
Thomas Hobbes: On the
Ethics of Leaving His Dead
Ass There by the Side of
It’s an odd fact that the Grateful Dead played the song “Me and My Uncle” in concert more than any other, reportedly more than six hundred times. Were the song the band’s most popular, this would be easy to explain, but in fact, it is hardly known among the Un-Dead. And while it is instantly recognized by Deadheads, few would place the song among their all-time favorites.
The song’s being played so frequently is made even more odd by the fact that it seems out of character lyrically for the band and for its followers. It’s not a song dealing with some facet of drug use (like “Trucking,” “Casey Jones,” “Sugar Magnolia,” or many others). It’s not a reflection on life from an alternative perspective (such as “Playing in the Band,” “Box of Rain,” “Scarlet Begonias,” or my personal favorite, “Eyes of the World”). Unlike other Grateful Dead staples, it is not a traditional blues song, nor one suited to jazz riffs.
Instead, the song seems to be from the folk music tradition, and the Dead were certainly influenced by the folk tradition. Many folk songs tell the tale of a life gone bad, as does “Me and My Uncle.” When they do, however, it is usually with some lament (such as “Mama Tried” or “Wharf Rat”). The lesson is not only to learn from their wrongdoing, but usually also to feel compassion for the person doing the wrong. They are stories from which we can learn to lead a better life, and feel sympathy for our fellow human beings.
“Me and My Uncle,” on the other hand, is a story about cheating, theft, and murder. It’s told without any regret, or any