Viola Lee Blues

The only 10m jam on the Dead's first album
Aug 19, 2021

Debut Album

The Grateful Dead were rushed on their debut album. Warner Brother gave them four days, and were concerned with making singles. Jerry Garcia, in hindsight, says he hates all of his records. It was hard to capture their live sound. I still kind of like this one though. It's a bunch of American covers, but through an "electric bluegrass" sound. Viola Lee Blues, the last track on the album, according to Phil Lesh, best captured their sound at the time. At the end of each days recording session, they did a 10 minute Jam on this song, and ended up picking the one that came out best.

Original Version

The song is a cover (+jam) off an old roots song from 1929. Viola Lee Blues was made famous by Cannon's Jug Stompers. Apparently, even this original version was the fusion of two older songs from the 19th century.


The judge decreed it, the clerk he wrote it. Clerk he wrote it down indeed-e Judge decreed it, clerk he wrote it down Give you this jail sentence you'll be Nashville bound Some got six month some got one solid. Some got one solid year indeed-e Some got six month some got one solid. But me and my buddies all got lifetime here I wrote a letter I mailed in the air Mailed it on the air indeed-e I wrote a letter I mailed in the air. You may know by that I've got a friend somewhere

The Jam

The song is one simple loop that repeats (but weirdly 10.5 bars). The jam is something else.

  • The drummer does a great job of warping this thing through different phases and tempos
  • Lots of great guitar loops that help guide the song. It's not completely random. Sounds like, after noodling within a scale, riffs gets discovered, looped, and then the rest of the band joins in on it. I wonder if there's a pattern between loops. I notice decreasing the length of a loop adds intensity.
  • What a bluegrass shed
  • Eight minutes in sounds like it could be the Doors - chilling feedback
  • Radical return to tempo

YouTube Comments

The first time I heard this song I was so blown away that I mindlessly started clapping at the end. Just me sitting in my room alone clapping at the studio version of the song like a fucking idiot. That's how good this is. Especially the high tempo jam they have going towards the end. It's pure, raw energy transferred into music. The Dead really had it figured out.

Viola Lee Blues. - Phil Lesh said this sounds most like they really played back then... a wonderful and revolutionary records... the start of the Acid era.. it reminds me of White Owlsley, my first trip...

this is one the best album covers in music history

"The verses consist of 5 bars of 4/4, a bar of 2/4, another 5 bars of 4/4, and another bar of 2/4. This makes it in essence an 11 bar blues." Grateful Dead songs with unusual time signatures(on time signature wikipedia external links)

(Love the off-topic reply here)

An urban legend had been circulating for years that Jerry Garcia was on the FBI payroll from J. Edgar Hoover to keep the band together so kids wouldn’t organize an anarchist revolution.


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