The Meaning of the Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed”

Dead & Company art for their 7/1/17 show at Wrigley Field, featuring Tennessee Jed.

First introduced to the Grateful Dead’s live repertoire in the fall of 1971, at the first show that keyboardist Keith Godchaux played with the band, “Tennessee Jed” became a staple first set party song for the rest of their career. The song was given official release on Europe ’72 and remains a fan-favorite to this day.

With lyrics written by Robert Hunter and vocals by Jerry Garcia, “Tennessee Jed”, the song is about missing home and hoping to get back to sweet ole Tennessee, because everything is going wrong in other places.

The song also contains some interesting Americana references that have been uncovered by fans over the years, turning what was already a fun song into yet another showcase of Hunter’s excellent depth in songwriting.

In the 1991 book of Robert Hunter’s lyrics, Box of Rain, Hunter shares a memory of writing Tennessee Jed while drunk on red wine in Barcelona, Spain:

“Tennessee Jed” originated in Barcelona, Spain. Topped up on vino tinto, I composed it aloud to the sound of a jaw harp twanged between echoing building faces by someone strolling half a block ahead of me in the late summer twilight.

Robert Hunter on the origin of “Tennessee Jed”.

The song does give off quite a “topped up on vino tinto” energy, which is exactly why it’s such a beloved tune.

Europe ’72 album cover.

Let’s take a look at these lyrics and the meaning of “Tennessee Jed”, starting with the first verse:

Cold iron shackles, ball and chain
Listen to the whistle of the evening train
You know you bound to wind up dead
If you don’t head back to Tennessee, Jed

First verse to “Tennessee Jed” by the Grateful Dead.

Right away we are given the image of this “Tennessee Jed” fellow in a chain gang, with the whistle of trains passing by in the evening. This is a particularly American image, and it’s clear that our protagonist is in a hard way. He knows that he isn’t going to make it much longer if he doesn’t head back to Tennessee.

Hunter’s lyrics here may referencing the 1940s bluegrass song “Way Down the Old Plank Road” by Tennessee native Uncle Dave Macon. The song contains the lyrics: “Rather be in Richmond with all the hail and rain / Than to be in Georgia boys wearin’ that ball and chain / Won’t get drunk no more, won’t get drunk no more / Won’t get drunk no more way down the Old Plank Road.”

The similarities are uncanny, and knowing Hunter’s propensity towards referencing many different things in his songwriting, it seems that he may have been inspired by this song.

The second verse contains another rather obscure reference:

Rich man step on my poor head
When you get up, you better butter my bread
Well, you know it’s like I said
You better head back to Tennessee, Jed

Second verse to “Tennessee Jed”

Jed is tired of being taken advantage of by the rich, dictating his life. He knows that things will get better as soon as he’s able to return to Tennessee.

Tennessee Jed Radio Show advertisement.

The lyric about buttering bread is a reference to a vintage radio show, also from the 1940s that happened to be called “Tennessee Jed”. Starring Johnny Thomas, the show was sponsored by Tip-Top Bread and ran from 1945-1947 on WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia.

Up next we have the chorus, which offers a wonderful singalong in the crowd at Dead shows, and contains yet another reference:

Tennessee, Tennessee
There ain’t no place I’d rather be
Baby, won’t you carry me?
Back to Tennessee

Chorus to “Tennessee Jed” by the Grateful Dead.

Here, Robert Hunter recalls the chorus to the old-time country song “My Clinch Mountain Home” by The Carter Family, which goes: “Carry me back to old Virginia / Back to my Clinch Mountain home / Carry me back to old Virginia / Back to my old mountain home.”

Tennessee Jed Radio Show advertisement.

That’s it for the references in “Tennessee Jed”, and the rest of the song details Jed’s struggles during his quest to return to Tennessee. Things are pretty “Dead” from here on out:

Drink all day and rock all night
Law come to get you if you don’t walk right
Got a letter this morning and it, all it read:
“You better head back to Tennessee, Jed”

Third verse to “Tennessee Jed” by the Grateful Dead.

Drinking all day, rocking all night. Sounds just like how one might have experienced a Grateful Dead concert. Jed felt it the next morning, too, waking up with a letter to remind him of his journey, back to Tennessee.

In the next verse, we see that Jed’s drinking may be causing him some problems:

I dropped four flights and cracked my spine
Honey, come quick with the iodine
Catch a few winks down under the bed
Then head back to Tennessee, Jed

Fourth verse to “Tennessee Jed” by the Grateful Dead.

Must have been a helluva party if Jed had drank enough to fall down four flights of stairs, but no problem, honey. Iodine will fix him up right quick, and he’ll take a quick nap before finally heading off to Tennesee.

Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir live with the Grateful Dead in 1972.

Next up is another hit of the chorus, then more time for Jerry to solo before singing the fifth verse:

I run into Charlie Phogg
He blacked my eye and he kicked my dog
My dog, he turned to me and he said:
“Let’s head back to Tennessee, Jed”

Fifth verse to “Tennesee Jed” by the Grateful Dead.

Here we see Charlie Phogg, one of the many fictional characters invented in the Grateful Dead universe, who gives old Jed some trouble during one of these drunken escapades. Phogg beats him up real good, giving him a black eye and kicking his dog.

Tennessee Jed after meeting Charlie Phogg.

Even Jed’s dog is telling him it’s time to go home, at this point. But alas, in the sixth and final verse Jed turns to gambling:

I woke up a-feeling mean
Went down to play the slot machine
The wheels turned ’round and the letters read:
“Better head back to Tennessee, Jed”

Sixth verse to “Tennesee Jed” by the Grateful Dead.

With a nasty hangover upon waking up, Jed was on a tear this particular day, and he went immediately down to the slot machine. Rather than continuing to enable him, however, even the slot machine tells Jed that it’s time to go home!

Finally, “Tennesee Jed” winds down with two more choruses and more space for the band to do their thing in the jam sense. This one is notorious for getting the people moving, contributing to the dance party energy so common in the first set of a Grateful Dead show.

Listen to “Tennesee Jed” off Europe ’72 below, and enjoy an HD quality video of a popular performance during the summer of ’89 below that.

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