"Mister Charlie tellin' me I can't do nothin' wrong"

The Annotated "Mister Charlie"

An installment in The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics.
By David Dodd
1997-1998 Research Associate, Music Dept., Univ. of California Santa Cruz
Copyright notice
"Mister Charlie"
Words by Robert Hunter; music by Ron McKernan
Copyright Ice Nine Publishing; used by permission

I take a little powder
I take a little salt
I put it in my shotgun
and I go walking out

Looking high
Looking low
Gonna scare you up and shoot you
Cause Mr. Charlie told me so

I won't take you life
Won't even take a limb
Just unload my shotgun
and take a little skin

Looking high
Looking low
Gonna scare you up and shoot you
Cause Mr. Charlie told me so

Well you take a silver dollar
Take a silver dime
Mix em both together
in some alligator wine

I can hear the drums
Voo-doo all night long
Mr. Charlie tellin me
I can't do nothin wrong

Looking high
Looking low
Gonna scare you up and shoot you
Cause Mr. Charlie told me so

Now Mr. Charlie told me
Thought you'd like to know
Give you a little warning
before I let you go

Lookin high
Lookin low
Gonna scare you up and shoot you
Cause Mr. Charlie told me so

For "The Truth Behind Mr. Charlie" see this anonymously-submitted interpretation.

And here's another well-considered point of view, in partial rebuttal to the anonymous interpretation.

"Mister Charlie"

Musical details: Recorded on Europe '72. Sung by Pigpen.

First performance July 31, 1971 at the Yale Bowl, Yale University. Appeared in the third spot in the first set, following the very first "Sugaree" and preceding "Mama Tried."

Hunter performed the song on his March 1997 solo tour.

Mister Charlie

From The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang:
"Charlie: white men regarded as oppressors of blacks.--used contemptuously. Also Mr. Charlie, Boss Charlie.
[1923 in E. Wilson Twenties 164: Mista Charlie, I hear--I hear the niggers is free, is that right?] ... 1928 McKay Banjo 217: We have words like ofay, pink, fade, spade, Mr. Charlie, cracker, peckawood, hoojah, and so on--nice words and bitter."

An article by John Cowley, "Shack Bullies and Levee Contractors: Bluesmen as Ethnographers," in The Journal of Folklore Research, vol. 28, nos. 2/3, pp. 135-162, recounts the story of the Lowrence family, a set of seven brothers, the oldest named Charley, who were notorious contractors of cheap labor, mostly African American, to build the levees alongside the Mississippi in the 1920's. A number of songs quoted in the article refer to "Mr Charley" specifically in this context, giving rise to speculation on the part of Alan Lomax that he may have "discovered the identity of the elusive "Mr. Charley." Cowley's article goes on, however, to quote a comment by Alan Dundes on Lomax' article that 'Mr. Charley' "would appear to date from antebellum times." But the repeated reference to a "Mr. Charley" by southern bluesmen was undoubtedly in reference to Charley Lowrence.

A similar sense of the white man in authority as oppressor has been ascribed to Mr. Benson, familiar from "Candyman."

This note from a reader:

Date: Wed, 23 Apr 1997 18:33:05 -0700
From: "Avtar S. Khalsa"

[portion of message snipped]

Another suggestion: Since your commentary on Mr. Charlie includes the early African-American use of the term, I think a refernce to James Baldwin's play Blues for Mr. Charlie would be appropriate.


Avtar Singh Khalsa
San Francisco, CA

These notes from a reader on the theoretical Charlie Manson connection:

Date: Tue, 02 Jan 1996 16:18:15 +0500
From: John Bowers
Subject: Mr. Charlie

Hi! I've been skipping around your Annotated Lyrics site all morning--what a great piece of work! Thanks for it.

Here's a comment about "Mr. Charlie": I've always thought the subject of the song was Charles Manson. The lyrics might be sung from the point of view of one of the followers, for whom "Mr. Charlie told me so" could be a perfectly succinct statement of philosophy. "Gonna scare you up and shoot you?" The random murders at the Tate and LaBianca houses. Manson's obsessions with guns, knives and torture is well documented in The Family and Helter Skelter.

I believe the timing is right: the infamous murders took place in 1969, the trial in 1970, and "Mr. Charlie" was first performed in 1971.

John Bowers

Date: Wed, 03 Jan 1996 21:20:31 -0500 (CDT)
From: John Bowers
Subject: Re: Mr. Charlie


As long as you're planning to make me the "spokesperson" for the Mr. Charlie = Manson theory, I had a couple of related thoughts. :)

The line "Mr. Charlie told me I can't do nothing wrong" can be seen two ways. In one way of looking at it, Manson told his followers that nothing they did was wrong--nothing was evil, nothing wicked, nothing immoral. From another point of view, though, Manson was said to be strict in discipline, somebody who expected his followers to do things right the first time. An example of this can be seen in the fact that he told the murderers from the Tate house that they really screwed things up and that he would go along the next night to show them how (the LaBianca murders). In this reading, you'd think of the line as saying "you'd better do nothing wrong."

Your annotations already cite the Beatles' "I Am The Walrus" in reference to the "juba juba" line. Manson was, of course, obsessed with a number of Beatles songs. I think it's interesting that the "juba juba" line is followed by the words "wooly bully." This was a song title (Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, a hit around 1965); it consists of two rhyming two-syllable words. What's an example of another song with a similar title? Well..."Helter Skelter." It's a far-fetched connection, and yet I can imagine Robert Hunter writing the words "helter skelter" into the lyrics and then changing it.

John Bowers

Thanks, John, for a very well-stated case for this interpretation, which seems to have quite a few adherents among the readership of this page.

Another note from a reader:

Date: Fri, 12 Jan 1996 21:00:46 -0500
From: a020@lehigh.edu
Subject: Mr. Charlie comment


There is a movie called "Carbon Copy" from 1981 with George Segal who is white and Denzel Washington who is black. Denzel Washington's character is Roger Porter, who is the illegitimate son of George Segal's character Walter Whitney. When Roger first sees his father at age 17, he calls him "dad" and Walter doesn't like it. So he tells his son to call him "whitey", "honkey", "Mr. Charlie.", anything but "dad." Roger chooses to call him "Mr. Charlie" and does so throughout the movie until the end. It's a comedy with an anti-prejudice moral.

I thought you might be interested in this fact.

There is a Dead cover band called Mr. Charlie.


Possibly a variant spelling of "juba", which is a name of a type of dance in African American culture, which flourished along with the Buck Dance from the early 19th to the early 20th century.

The excellent Step It Down, by Bessie Jones and Bess Lomax Hawes, contains an entire section on "clapping plays," to which category the juba dance belongs:

"That's one of the oldest plays I think I can remember our grandfather telling us about, because he was brought up in Virginia. He used to tell us about how they used to eat ends of food; that's what "juba" means. They sai "jibba" when they meant "giblets"; we know that's ends of food. They had to eat leftovers.

"Mrs. Jones is right; this is one of her oldest rhymes. George Wahington Cable saw African slaves doing a dance called "the Juba" in New Orleans' Congo Square long before emancipation; today it may be seen in some of the Caribbean Islands. In the United States, occasional mention of "juba" may be found in songs, generally associated with hand-clapping, but the dance itself appears to have been lost....

"Juba, Juba
Juba this and Juba that
And Juba killed a yellow cat
And get over double trouble, Juba.
You sift-a the meal,
You give me the husk;
You cook-a the bread,
You give me the crust;
You fry the meat,
You give me the skin;
And that's where my mama's trouble begin.
And then you Juba,
You just Juba." (pp. 37-38)

And there's the parallel to The Beatles' "I Am the Walrus," which has a nonsense "juba juba" chorus.


Partridge refers to:
"wooly pully. The standard army-issue heavy jumper (pull-over), worn as part of barrack dress since ca. 1960..."

There is also the famous hit song, "Wooly Bully", w.m. by Domingo Samudio (1965). But that was always pretty indecipherable to me. Hints appreciated.

The Anonymous Interpretation

Here's a very well-thought-out all-around interpretation from a reader who wishes to remain anonymous:
Date: Wed, 21 Feb 1996 08:51:11 -0500
From: Anonymous
To: ddodd@serf.uccs.edu
Subject: The Truth Behind Mr. Charlie


[Disclaimer and plea for anonymity deleted]

With that out of the way, let's discuss Mr. Charlie. As a reformed heroin addict, I am certain that Hunter ...put some heroin related innuendos into this song.

I see it as a song about one person getting another person to turn on to heroin. The newcomer is reluctant, afraid of needles, etc., but the proponent of the drug says:

I won't take your life,
I won't even take a limb.
I'll just unload my shotgun
And take a little skin.

How true it is, the only evidence of a speedball is a tiny pinhole of skin disturbed.

At the outset of the song, it is declared:

I take a little powder,
I take a little salt,
I put them in my shotgun...

A chemist student and friend of mine in college informed me that cocaine is a salt, from a chemical point of view. Therefore, it might be more correct to say that this song is about SPEEDBALLING (i.e., mixing cocaine and heroin) than simply about heroin.

Another point along the speedball theory:

You take a silver dollar,
You take a silver dime,
You mix 'em up together
In some alligator wine.
Well, everybody knows what a "dime" is.

These days, a junkie might shoot 20-30 dollars worth of heroin and 5-10 dollars worth of cocaine in one shot. I would imagine that in the sixties the price might have been 10-1 or thereabouts.

So, you might ask, what about

I can hear the drums beat voodoo all night long,
Mr. Charlie tellin' me I can't do nuthin' wrong.

A strong speedball creates an audible effect in one's ears, which could be likened to drums or (more commonly) bells ringing. It also supplies a feeling of immense well-being (the heroin side of the experience) as in "I can't do nuthin' wrong."

It's also worth mentioning that a junkie calling his/her needle a "shotgun" is not at all uncommon. Other expressions for the syringe include rifle, rig and works.

Finally, let's discuss Jubba (Chuba). I'm not 100% sure of this, so you'll have to verify me, but there is a kind of tar heroin available in California which the mexicans sell called (or at least pronounced) "CHEEBA." Tar heroin is not really heroin, it's the byproduct of a heroin extraction. It looks like hash, but you can melt it down in a spoon to produce "alligator wine." During my darker days, I recall purchasing some in a "the lot" from a fellow who was actually hawking it as "cheeba." It must be a common term in some circles.

Perhaps the reason why the song had a brief career and was never brought back by the Dead (after Pigpen's death) was because it is indeed a PRO-DRUG song. Not only advocating drugs, but the two granddaddies of all hard drugs: Heroin and Cocaine.

Now, if I only could tell you who "Mr. Charlie" is....

Editor's note: I must say, this is a pretty convincing argument!

Luke Meade's Point of View

Subject: just a touch of mojo hand
Date: Tue, 23 May 2000 14:26:40 -0700
From: Luke Meade

I don't know if you have this link or not (see below), but the luckymojo.com site is fascinating. I was thinking about the word "congaroo," which is a New Orleans corruption of "conqueror root," as in "High John the Conqueror root," and AltaVista directed be to these pages. cat yronwrode has a number of cool essays on this site, including one about the High John the Conqueror figure in African American mythology. This root is often used in making various magical hoodoo bags, or "mojo hands."

Hunter/McKernan material has a lot of hoodoo elements--"take a silver dollar, take a silver dime, mix it up together with some alligator wine" has a definite hoodoo flavor. "I can hear the drums, voodoo all night long" should probably be "hoodoo," now that I think about it, as Voodoo is Haitian and Hoodoo is American, I think. The "heroin" interpretation of "Mr. Charlie" is interesting but there are a lot of traditional elements there. "Mr. Charlie" is prison slang for a guard...The Man. Loading a shotgun with rock salt is a traditional nonlethal tactic for scaring off trespassers and so forth--painful but not serious, although it may scar ("take a little skin"). In my mind, this song has always been about a trusty (trusted prisoner with supervisory duty) at one of those southern (Florida?) prisons adjoining a swamp, who has been sent out to look for--and scare away--some hoodoo drummers who have been lurking near the prison and attempting to put the hoodoo on it on behalf of the prisoners. So here we have an assimilated black man doing the white man's work by going after other blacks with his rock-salt-filled shotgun, protecting the Man's prison (society) from "primitive" magic (nature). Shooting at civilians is legally questionable, but Mr. Charlie assures the guard/trusty that he "can't do nothin' wrong." You can also read this more simply as any white property-owner sending a (black) servant out with a nonlethal weapon to warn, and scare away, other blacks, who have been practising hoodoo near the property, presumably to hex (and vex) the white bossman. The only real prison connection is the name "Mr. Charlie," which as I say is old prison slang (and was also used in that sense by Pogo creator Walt Kelly in his famous Christmas Carol parody, "Deck Us All With Boston Charlie." All the places named in that song are locations of prisons, and the lyrics are full of prison slang. There's a solid essay on those lyrics by a Pogo historian that was printed in the Okeefenokee Star fanzine, so you don't have to take my word for it). But then I'm convinced "wooley booley" is actually "holy moley," so what do I know?

Hope all is well with you! Here's the link:


First posted: March 24, 1995
Last revised: May 23, 2000