"We used to play for silver, now we play for life"

The Annotated "Jack Straw"

An installment in The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics.
By David Dodd
Research Associate, Music Dept., University of California, Santa Cruz
Copyright notice
"Jack Straw"
Words by Robert Hunter; music by Bob Weir
Copyright Ice Nine Publishing; used by permission

We can share the women
We can share the wine
We can share what we got of yours
'Cause we done shared all of mine

Keep a rolling
Just a mile to go
Keep on rolling, my old buddy
You're moving much too slow

I just jumped the watchman
Right outside the fence
Took his ring, four bucks in change
Now ain't that heaven sent?

Hurts my ears to listen, Shannon
Burns my eyes to see
Cut down a man in cold blood, Shannon
Might as well be me

We used to play for silver
Now we play for life
One's for sport and one's for blood
At the point of a knife

Now the die is shaken
Now the die must fall
There ain't a winner in this game
Who don't go home with all
Not with all...

Leaving Texas
Fourth day of July
Sun so hot, clouds so low
The eagles filled the sky

Catch the Detroit Lightning
Out of Santa Fe
Great Northern out of Cheyenne
From sea to shining sea

Gotta get to Tulsa
First train we can ride
Got to settle one old score
And one small point of pride...

Ain't no place a man can hide, Shannon
Keep him from the sun
Ain't no bed will give us rest, man,
You keep us on the run

Jack Straw from Wichita
Cut his buddy down
Dug for him a shallow grave
And layed his body down

Half a mile from Tucson
By the morning light
One man gone and another to go
My old buddy you're moving much too slow

We can share the women
we can share the wine...

"Jack Straw"

Hunter has posted the manuscript for the song.

Musical details:

First performance: October 19, 1971, at Northrop Auditorium, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. "Jack Straw" appeared in the first set, between "Black Peter" and "Big Railroad Blues." The show was notable for several other firsts: it was Keith Godchaux's first show; and saw the premieres of "Tennessee Jed," "Mexicali Blues," "Comes a Time," "One More Saturday Night," and "Ramble On Rose."

Recorded on:

Robert Hunter included it on his album Box of Rain. (1991)

Covered by

Since its introduction into the live repertoire, "Jack Straw" has remained a staple, appearing quite often as a show opener. It was Brent Mydland's first song with the band, at Spartan Stadium in San Jose, on April 22, 1979.

Here's a note on performance practice from a reader:

Date: Fri, 18 Aug 1995 16:15:48 -0400
From: PKCHUM@aol.com
To: ddodd@serf.uccs.edu
Subject: Annotated Lyrics: Jack Straw

I feel that it is worth it to mention that the lead vocal of "Jack Straw" was originally sung only by Bob Weir. Sometime before the Europe '72 tour, Jerry started singing the first few lines of each verse. You can post this with or without more specific information as to when the switch occurred. Sorry, but I don't have that info.

Paul Chumsky (pkchum@aol.com)

And this follow-up note:

Date: Thu, 21 Dec 95 03:24:22 0800
From: Ben Hollin
Subject: Jack Straw

Saw the following note on Jack Straw. I just noticed, listening to 100 Year Hall, that Bobby sings the entire verse at that show (4/27/72?) but by the time the version on Europe '72 was recorded on the same tour about a month later, I think, he and Jerry were trading lines. So it would seem that they actually started trading lines in the middle of the Europe tour...if you have all the shows from that tour, you can probably identify which one it happened at (perform a bubble search between the two shows I mentioned).

Ben Hollin

Anyone out there have access to all the shows in question? Maybe we can figure out exactly when the change occurred!

More from our readers:

Date: Tue, 30 Jan 1996 17:09:49 -0500
From: PKCHUM@aol.com
Subject: Jack Straw (again)

Hi David,

Just a few more notes on "Jack Straw":

1. I was recently listening to a bootleg from the Lyceum in London (5/23/72). Jerry sang the opening lines of the verses at this point.

2. On my tapes from the Harding Theatre, S.F. show (1971 sometime), the song is introduced something like this:

Bobby: "And as always this song is dedicated to Debra Lee, the gentleman lady killer."
The name is almost certainly incorrect, but the rest of the quote is probably pretty accurate. Any ideas about what they are referring to? I think that I remember hearing this dedication on other boots of Jack Straw, but they aren't ones that I own. Let me know if anything pans out.



Jack Straw

A mysterious figure dating from the Great Revolt of 1381, aka the Peasants' Revolt, or Wat Tyler's Rebellion. The revolt was in response to heavy and frequent taxes, and started in Essex at the end of May, 1381, though most events were concentrated in June of that year. Jack Straw is a figure of some controversy:
"Even Jack Straw, the most notable of them, is a vague figure who flits across Essex no less than Kent, and though he is mentioned, we seldom or never detect him actually at work till the entry of the rebels into London. He is probably identical with the John Rackstraw mentioned in some of the chronicles and in the judicial proceedings which followed the insurrection." --Oman, The Great Revolt of 1381,, p. 44.
A footnote to the above passage states:
"An article, more ingenious than convincing, in the Hist. Rev. for January, 1906, by Doctor F.W. Brie, will have it that Jack Straw is no real person at all, but a mere nickname of Wat Tyler. It is quite true that the Continuator of Knighton held this view,...and that two or three ballads and several fifteenth-cnetury chroniclers...speak of Jakke Straw being killed by Walworth at Smithfield."--ibid., p. 44, 45.

There is also a Jack Straw in Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Act One:

Maggie: "...when he was just overseer here on the old Jack Straw and Peter Ochello place."

And this note from a reader on yet another meaning of the phrase:

Date: Fri, 12 Jul 1996 00:18:42 -0700
From: Richard Clay Dunham

...I have a question about Jack Straw. You mention a Jack Straw in the Peasant's revolt and in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I seem to remember somewhere hearing the game 'pick up sticks' being referred to as 'jack straw', as in 'playing jack straw(s)'. No, I don't remember where I heard it, but I do remember thinking at the time that it made sense: pick up sticks could be played with straws, and it fit the feeling of the song, the feeling of having something falls apart, anf then having to pick up the pieces with rapidly diwndling options.

Have you heard this? Or am I totally out of my tree?

No, you're not totally out of your tree. Here are some other interesting notes on the same topic.

Date: Tue, 25 Jun 1996 22:53:15 -0400
From: Vincent Liota

In the movie "Woodstock", I seem to remember one of the Dead describing the view from a helicoper. He (Garcia?) compared the gridlock of cars abandoned on the road to a "bunch of jackstraws" on the water.

And this, which predates the two messages above:

Date: Mon, 3 Jun 1996 21:59:39 -0400 (EDT)
From: Dale G Hoyt

I recently read the analysis of Jack Straw on the Web Site. I didn't see either of the two following references that came my way.

Many years ago I believe that I found "Jack Straw" in a dictionary and recall that it was defined as the straw discarded after harvest, of no further use or something like that. The midwestern setting is appropriate here. Secure in my interpretation I looked it up in my American Heritage Dictionary today and found the following instead:

jackstraw n. 1. Plural. A game played with a pile of straws or thin sticks, with the players attempting in turn to remove a single stick without disturbing the others. Used with a singular verb. Also called "spilikins." 2. One of the straws or sticks used in this game. Also called spilikin.

In fact, when I was a kid we used to play a game called "pick up sticks". A can of sticks was first dumped onto the ground. The sticks were plastic and all colors, except one that was black. You had to remove sticks in turn with the goal of taking the black one. Naturally you were restricted by the rule that only one stick could be put into motion in each turn. I vaguely remember that we used a spare stick to reach into the pile and lift or flip the interfering sticks away from the pile. I think you won if you were the one to pick up the black stick without disturbing others.

You decide which is true. I've become use to thinking of Jack Straw as the waste of the harvest for all these years. Actually, both sources evoke The Discarded, the winning, the losing.

And another message from Dale:

From: Dale G Hoyt


Hey David:

Wait, there's more on the Jack Straw. I found a much larger dictionary today (Webster's 2nd ed.).

jack'straw, n. 1. An effigy stuffed with straw; a man of straw; a man without property, worth or influence. Milton.

2. One of a set of straws or of strips of ivory, bone, wood, etc., for playing a game, the jackstraws being thrown in a heap on a table, to be gathered up singly by a hooked instrument, without disturbing the rest of the pile; also pl., the game so played.

3. Any of several small European birds; esp., the whitethroat, the garden warbler, or the blackcap, which use bedstraw (Galium) in their nests. Local, Eng.

4. A flower spike of the common ribwort. Dial, Eng.

See you around the net,


Thanks, Dale! I think perhaps we now have the subject covered.

blood at the point of a knife

A line from the Child ballad, (#13) "Edward":
How came that blood on the point of your knife?
My son, come tell to me.
It is the blood of my old coon dog
That chased the fox for me, me, me,
That chased the fox for me." (Sharp, #8, version E.)
The song goes on to tell the story of a fratricide.

The ballad is noteworthy in another respect as well, namely, that it is structured for two voices, as is "Jack Straw."

Great Northern, out of Cheyenne

This note from Daniel Dawdy, maintainer of the Cyberspace World Railroad:
Date: Tue, 25 Apr 95 12:36 CDT
From: "Daniel S. Dawdy"

The Great Northern was not a train, but a large railroad which ran from St. Paul to Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. There was no train called the Great Northern that I know of. Now, the Burlington did come into Cheyenne and the Great Northern and Burlington worked together. The Burlington ran GN trains from Chicago to St Paul as well as the Northern Pacific trains. In 1970, the GN, NP and Burlington merged into the Burlington Northern.

Thanks for the info, Daniel!

This response to Daniel arrived from Ken Rattene in early July, 1996:

Another of my all-time fav DedTunes. And of course the references to railroads are strong. In reference to Daniel S. Dawdy's comments on the Great Northern (BTW, he does have a great web site and I recently got him to put a link in to my Railroad Pages)

"The Great Northern was not a train, but a large railroad which ran from St. Paul to Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. There was no train called the Great Northern that I know of."

Correct. But let's keep in mind that both Blues, Country and rock song writers are generally NOT railfans and thus write from what they SEE. It is possible that our "writer" (of any given song that references a railroad) remembers seeing a locomotive, or more probably, a freight car with a name on it. Great Northern. The writer was maybe in Cheyenne... You see the scenario possibilities.

Bottom Line, I have had to live with the fact that writers deal heavily in symbology and analogy, and the steel wheel on steel rail remains a powerful vision.

Gee, isn't funny how a two lines of a song taking maybe a couple of seconds to sing during a performance, can illicit so many words taking hours to write? Aren't we Deadheads weird?


Ken Rattenne

Thanks, Ken! Incidentally, Ken has agreed to write a thematic essay for this site on the topic of trains in Grateful Dead lyrics. Something to look forward to.

Flexner, in I Hear America Talking states that

"the Great Northern Railroad Company originated as the St. Paul and Pacific in 1862, becoming the 'Great Northern' in 1889, 11 years after the Canadian James J. Hill, 'the empire builder' took it over." --p. 208

sea to shining sea

A quote from "America the Beautiful", words by Katherine Lee Bates, (1859-1929) first printed in the Congregationalist, July 4, 1895. Bates was a professor of English Literature at Wellesley College, and is said to have written the poem after visiting the summit of Pike's Peak.

The music to which the poem was set is the tune "Materna" by Samuel A. Ward, composed in 1882. He apparently never heard his music linked with Bates' words.

cut his buddy down

This note from Josh Wilson on possible interpretations of this line:
Date: Sat, 07 Oct 95 00:18:34 0000
From: Josh Wilson

One note on an interpretation of Jack Straw:

I've heard two takes on "Jack Straw from Wichita cut his buddy down, built for him a shallow grave and laid his body down."

1: Jack Straw cuts Shannon down, as in backstabs him, since Shannon is nothing but trouble ("Ain't no place a man can hide, Shannon, keep him from the sun; ain't no bed can give us rest now, you keep us on the run.")

2: Shannon is caught and hung, and Jack Straw cuts the rope holding up the corpse, and buries his friend's body.

3. Maybe a third interpretation? Shannon is wounded and dragging behind ("My old buddy you're moving much too slow"), maybe dies, and Jack ties the body to the horse, before cutting the ropes and burying the body.....who knows!

In any case, it sounds like the heat is on poor Jack - "One man gone and another to go." If he's hot he might just get some sleep tonight.

And these allegorical lyrics can mean anything the listener needs them to mean, so there's no final interpretation.

keywords: @trains, @murder, @crime, @alcohol
DeadBase code: [JACK]
First posted: March, 1995
Last revised: May 7, 2007