The Meaning of Jerry Garcia’s “Sugaree”

Jerry Garcia backstage in London in 1972. Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images

“Sugaree” is one of those Grateful Dead songs that anybody can enjoy, regardless of whether or not they’re a deadhead. The bouncy, palatable single was included on Jerry Garcia’s 1972 album, Garcia, and it first entered the Grateful Dead live rotation on July 31st, 1971 at the Yale Bowl at Yale University. From then on it was a staple in their live show right up until the very end, plus in Jerry Garcia’s solo projects. It still remains a favorite among fans today.

The song is a classic Garcia/Hunter collaboration, one of many with Robert Hunter penning the lyrics and Jerry Garcia providing the musical composition. The pair created a whole lot of great songs together that way, and “Sugaree” is certainly one of them. It has a playful energy, thanks to Garcia’s singing, yet the lyrics are somewhat ambiguous in their meaning, leading to speculation amongst deadheads over the years.

Perhaps the beauty of the Grateful Dead and Robert Hunter’s songwriting particularly is that many aspects of them are open to a variety of interpretations. This allows fans to relate with the music in their own way, and get creative with it thanks to the band’s encouragement toward improvisation and thinking outside the box.

Robert Hunter with Jerry Garcia in 1990.

Being a deadhead myself, I have my own personal interpretation of the meaning of “Sugaree”, one that I don’t think I am alone in holding.

Hearing the chorus, “Shake it, shake it, Sugaree”, I picture a young fellow having an encounter with an exotic dancer that he has become quite familiar with, and perhaps has a relationship with her. The word “Sugaree” reminds me a lot of sugar and sweets, and it could be the name of a “Loose Lucy” type of character.

Jerry sings “Just don’t tell them you know me”, because nobody can find out that he and the dancer are involved with one another, because that would blow up her spot. So they keep it as their little secret, and the encounter continues week after week.

At some point, the relationship turns sour, or things come to an end, and Sugaree shakes her way right out of your life. This story is told in the verses, while the happy memories live on in the whimsical chorus, invoking visions of late night encounters with “my darling, Sugaree”.

Robert Hunter himself also commented on “Sugaree” in the liner notes for the All Good Things box set released in 2004, as seen on Dead.net:

Sugaree was written soon after I moved from the Garcia household to China Camp. People assume the idea was cadged from Elizabeth Cotten’s ‘Sugaree,’ but, in fact, the song was originally titled ‘Stingaree,’ which is a poisonous South Sea manta. The phrase ‘just don’t tell them that you know me’ was prompted by something said by an associate in my pre-Dead days when my destitute circumstances found me fraternizing with a gang of minor criminals. What he said, when departing, was: ‘Hold your mud and don’t mention my name.’

Why change the title to ‘Sugaree’? Just thought it sounded better that way, made the addressee seem more hard-bitten to bear a sugar-coated name. The song, as I imagined it, is addressed to a pimp. And yes, I knew Libba’s song, and did indeed borrow the new name from her, suggested by the ‘Shake it’ refrain.

Robert Hunter’s liner notes for “Sugaree”

The renowned North Carolina folk singer Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten wrote and recorded “Shake Sugaree” in 1966, as part of an album that she made with her granddaughters. Hunter heard this and popped the name “Sugaree” right into his song, which went on to become one of the most beloved Grateful Dead songs.

Check out a live video of “Sugaree” live at Winterland in 1974, at the Dead’s last run of shows before their hiatus in 1975.

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