by Daniel J. Dasaro & Christian Crumlish, 1999
The Grateful Dead covered the Martha and the Vandellas song "Dancing in the Street" during three distinct periods in their 30-year career. They first started taking this Motown hit, co-written by Marvin Gaye, to outer space in 1966 (or possibly 1965, although no tapes survive), reaching dark-interstellar spaces by 1970. As if exhausted as an improvisational vehicle, the song made only one reprise appearance in 1971, on December 31.
In 1976, when the band reconvened after a nearly year-and-a-half hiatus, they debuted a radically revamped arrangement of the song. It became a mainstay of their sets until the departure from the band of Keith and Donna Godchaux, with only a few disappointing versions after they left in late 1979 and one feeble try in ’81.
In 1984, they reintroduced the original version of the song, only slightly rearranged for the ’80s psychedelic-pop version of the band. Without ever reaching the pure freedom of some of the late ’60s versions, the Dead still managed to stretch this one out significantly, and frequently segued into or out of it, before playing their final version in 1987.
A Note about the Title:
While Motown published the song as "Dancing in the Street," most people – Deadhead or not – call it "Dancin’ in the Streets," and in fact the Dead published the song under that name on their 1977 album Terrapin Station (in the "disco" version), so it’s not worth arguing about. (Compare to how Deadheads almost universally refer to "Playing in the Band" as "Playin’.") In fact, the song appears on two Dick’s Picks releases as "Dancing in the Streets."
Why Play "Dancin’" at All?
When the Dead first started playing Dancin’, they had very few original songs in their repertoire, which was made up mostly of R&B covers and electrified old-timey songs. It’s important to remember that the Dead started out as a dance band (and in their own way, continued to be a dance band throughout their career), albeit one given to really stretching out each song they played.
Covering a recent hit song about kids dancing in the street (also the topic, more or less, of a song destined to be their first original single, "The Golden Road (to Unlimited Devotion)" from 1967’s The Grateful Dead), then, makes perfect sense. Aside from other R&B hits of this period, the only other time the Dead covered a current hit song is when they played "Werewolves of London" in 1978. [Not really true. - LIA]
Improvising a jam inside the song that transcends its basic structure provided a way to carry new minds along on the psychedelic journey, both leaving from and returning eventually to a familiar station. In their own way, the Dead achieved something akin to John Coltrane’s radical reworkings of "My Favorite Things."
As with the Dead’s 1970 FM hit, "Truckin’," "Dancin’" features the road-song virtue of naming a long list of major cities. It was also an appropriate song for a band that often played on flatbed trucks to a crowd that was literally dancing in the streets!
The Sixties Version
The Dead’s earliest versions of the song are about six minutes long, with an uptempo delivery. Like most of the band’s 1966 material, the arrangement starts with Pigpen playing the song’s main riff on organ (hum that hook for a kid under 20 today and she’ll probably identify it as Cypress Hill’s "Insane in the Membrane"). Bob sings the lyrics through, repeating all but the first verse. Jerry and others back up with the "whoah, whoa-oh," and then, "dancing in the streets." They then jam for about two minutes without getting too far out there, reentering for one minute of lyrics, repeating the first verse and parts of the rest of the song, and then wrapping it up. The arrangement is heavy on the drums. As for the sound, the version on Greetings From The Living Dead (a 1966 rendition) features very pronounced drums and organ, with the guitars chopping out the changes and the organ adding a constant layer of chords. [This is from 7/3/66. – LIA]
By late 1967 the song had become a launching point into jams that could go 12 minutes. The same intro and three minutes of lyrics dissolved into a freeform jam that visited spaces similar and parallel to those discovered in Dark Star. This exploratory version of the song reaches its peak in 1970, perhaps with the famous Harpur College version of the song, released on Dick’s Picks Volume 8 (1997).
In these spacey jams, there are times when Bobby is strumming chords that identify the song, but at other times the song is off on tangents that make it impossible to identify. In the deep jam on the version from San Francisco’s Family Dog on 2/27/70, for example, Bobby plays his chords up high, while Jerry stays in the lower register most of the time. There are times when the jam consists mainly of chords from the guitars, with Phil providing the only single notes. Jerry moves to long, bent notes late in this jam.
The Seventies Version
After two dozen performances in 1970, the band shelved the song in '71 except for the New Year's Eve show, only to bring it back in June of 1976 in a completely new form, not at all an evolution of its past, but with a revolutionary new structure. The song now featured an extended introduction that starts with Bobby strumming a jazzy chord on the first beat, followed by a quick up and down strum on the second beat, and punctuated by two high notes on the third beat. This is repeated while Jerry plucks an eight-note riff over four beats using an envelope effect that quickly mutes each note (the word "nyou" comes to mind when trying to describe the sound of each note). Jerry, Bob, and Donna then sing "Dancin’, dancin’ dancin’ in the streets" repeatedly before Bob and Donna launch into the verses. The basic lyrics themselves were also phrased differently, the first word of the first line (Calling out around the world) drawn out, whereas Bobby emphasized the second word in the original arrangement. When singing the lines listing the cities, Donna echoes Bobby in a similar manner to the version sung by the Mamas and the Papas. A few runs through the opening phrase, "dancin’, dancin’, dancin’ in the streets," serve as periodic breaks in the song, showing up between verses, before the jam, and at the end of the song. For those interested in timing, the jam begins about five minutes from the start.
This late-seventies arrangement still features a spacey, exploratory jam. The sound is much more electronic, with Jerry using various effects, at times approaching the pan-flute MIDI sound he used in the late ’80s and beyond, when more sophisticated electronics became available (see 5/8/77). The harmonics in the jam give it a jazzy feel, although the overall arrangement is often classified as disco. In fact, during the jam of 8/4/76 at Roosevelt Stadium, Jersey City, NJ, there is a hint of the Bee Gees’ disco hit "Stayin’ Alive." [No - that song wasn't released til Dec. '77 - LIA] The jam features distinct sections, with a unison chord sequence toward the end reminiscent of the jam that followed "Eyes of the World" in 1974. Typical ’76—’79 versions of the song run 12 minutes or more.
The work that went into the rewrite apparently was not wasted. The Dead played "Dancin’" more times – 26 – in 1976 than any other year (and those performances didn't start until June of that year). The tune even sandwiches other songs, such as "Not Fade Away" and "Wharf Rat" four times in 1976, the most interesting example being 10/1/76's combination of: "Dancin’ in the Streets" > "drums" > "The Wheel" > "Ship of Fools" > "Dancin’ in the Streets."
The Dead recorded this version of the song on Terrapin Station, and it remained in heavy rotation until Keith and Donna left the band in 1979.
The Eighties Version
After several sloppy versions of the "disco" arrangement in late 1979, with Brent Mydland on keyboard, and one in 1981, the band abandoned the song again for several years. In 1984, they broke out a reworked take on the original 1966 arrangement. Bill Kreutzmann issues the same little introductory drum roll followed by Pigpen’s riff as delivered by guitar. Bob sings, doubled throughout the song by Brent. Jerry and Brent sing the "whoah, whoa-oh, dancin’ in the street," backing vocals, a token pop gesture that adds to the fun of the song. Jerry throws a very youthful "everywheeeeeerrrrre, whoa ohhh" after one line on the 7/1/85 version.
Many of the ’80s versions of the song are more laid back. The rhythm guitar has a very "warm" tone; the solo often gets a typical Jerry "sweet" sound. As in the first versions in 1966, the song covered a little over six minutes at its reintroduction, with just a few minutes of jamming after the lyrics. By late 1984, and in some versions throughout ’85 and occasionally ’86 (most notably, 12/27/86) the jam has stretched out further (although not ever to the 1970 extent) and the song starts clocking in around 12 or 13 minutes again. After a final, unremarkable rendition in 1987, the Dead dropped the song for good.
As with other songs, the band sometimes varied the lyrics from show to show. Comparing two 1966 versions (9/16/66 and the [7/3/66] version on Greetings From The Living Dead), Bobby runs through the lyrics and then repeats some of them. However, three more lines are repeated on Greetings than on 9/16/66. It appears that these three were not part of the plan, as we hear Jerry begin his solo while Bobby sings the last line, his voice fading away as he sings the line, as if he was stepping back from the microphone once he realized the mistake. On 9/16/66, the "summer’s here" line is changed to "the winter of the year, but the time’s still here, for dancin’ in the street." [This version is actually from December ’66. – LIA.]
A notable variation is that the line, "This is an invitation, across the nation, a chance for folks to meet," is dropped on some dates throughout the years. For example, it is not sung on 2/27/70, but is there throughout May. The song was given room to take its own direction each time it was played. It is ironic, however, that Weir would drop this line, considering the many fans who traveled the country to see them, meeting each other at shows. If nothing else, the Dead scene was "an invitation across the nation, a chance for folks to meet."
Another variation concerns the place where the band picked up after the jam. In at least one 1966 rendition, they went back to the very top of the song, but more often returned to the line "All we need is music…" (1966-1970, 1980s). The jazzy version came out of the jam with "Doesn't matter what you wear…." There are many other small changes that won't be discussed, but suffice to say each rendition is interesting listening.
Year-by-Year Highlights and Notes
For obsessive fans of the song, here are some comments on collectible or otherwise noteworthy renditions of "Dancin’ in the Streets" down through the years:
There are a half-dozen or so known versions from this year, perhaps more.
Fillmore Auditorium (great version) – on Greetings From the Living Dead (Living Legend, 1988 Italian bootleg).
Vintage Dead (MGM/Sunflower), 8 minutes, classic.
There are three known versions from this year. [Only two complete versions are available. - LIA]
There’s a SBD available of the amazing 11-minute version that belies the idea that this song didn’t jam till ’70. Weir sings "spring of the year, the time is here." Lots of backing vocals, then a hot Jerry-led bluesy jam, then an insanity jam, and then the reprise.
There is one known version this year.
There are seven versions this year. [Eight now known. - LIA]
A good version from Central Park, contains first proto-"Tighten Up" (an Archie Bell and the Drells song) jam. [Not really. – LIA]
Another great jam, with a hint of "Tighten Up."
There were 25 versions this year.
No "Tighten Up," but a unique jam that the band revisits in the 9/18/70 version, according to illustrious DarkStarologist Dwight Holmes.
Fillmore East, available on Dick's Picks 4 (1996).
Good mix of the whole band. With a second drummer, we get a cowbell holding the beat too. Two and a half minutes in, a deep jam starts that takes several tangents. You might not know what song they are in if you dropped into the middle. Bob plays chords in a high register; Jerry solos low and high but stays low most of the time. At times the jam is more chord-based, without any individual notes, except from Phil. After 10 minutes, Jerry starts soloing on long, bent notes, sort of in the Dark Star neighborhood.
This 11:40-long outrageous version opens the Fallout from the Phil Zone CD. Weir sings "Coming out around the world." The song delivers a guitar-driven epiphany with a reentry into "and all you need is music."
Harpur College, Dick’s Picks 8 (1997). This is many folks’ favorite version of the song, and this CD release has the song intact, whereas the beginning was cut on some tapes in circulation. It’s probably the most Dark Star-like rendition. According to Holmes, this Dancin’ has a "Tighten Up" jam from 4:26 to 10:17. "The transition out of this ‘Tighten Up’ is exactly as in 9/17/70 Dark Star," he writes. "Note also that this "Dancin’" concludes with a ‘birth of a star’ (a/k/a ‘telstar’ jam) which [once] led me to murmur that, at this time, the Dead couldn’t tell their ‘Dark Stars’ from their ‘Dancin’s’...."
Free outdoor show on Kresge Plaza at M.I.T., during nationwide student strike in the wake of the Kent State shooting. The tape is cut near the beginning of the song. This version is slower, ’lude-y, laid back. It’s a confident excursion with Jerry still getting into the backing vocals. The jam has a pronounced "Dark Star" feel four minutes into it. There’s heavy bass counterpoint about nine minutes in. Near the end, there’s an out-of-tune reentry. The whole thing is 17 minutes!
The organ is prominent in the introduction. Weir sings, "C’mon everybody, form a big long line, dance around" before the jam (but do they?). The bass jam is more developed. There’s a tape glitch five minutes in. The song is 12 minutes long.
According to Holmes, this "Dancin’" features the second "Tighten Up" jam of the evening.
Played just once this year, on New Year’s Eve. The 12/31/71 version is a dud, but hints at the ’76 arrangement to come.
There were 30 performances in 26 shows this year (it sandwiched other songs in 4 shows).
Beacon Theatre, NYC (broadcast on the 6/6/88 Deadhead Hour, #43). Before they start Phil says, "There’s a ringing at 1000 cycles… Let’s hear it for 1000 cycles," and Bob chimes in. The song starts with a long drum intro and develops into a screamer. The tune is 13 minutes long and then segues into a languid "Cosmic Charlie."
An 11-minute version.
After five minutes, the jam starts. Bob holds down the chords. Jerry starts throwing in a few single notes then moves into a solo. Lots of whole or half notes at first, then it becomes spacier. Bob moves away slightly from the theme but still hints at it. Phil bounces around. Hints of current hit disco songs appear before the transition to the jam similar to the "Eyes of the World" outro jam from ’74. After eight minutes of jam, repeat and fade into drum transition into Wheel one minute later.
Features the following segment: "Dancin’ in the Streets" > "drums" > "The Wheel" > "Ship of Fools" > "Dancin’ in the Streets."
There were 14 versions this year.
Sixteen-minute first-set closer with crisp vocals and the famous fretless sound of that show. Jerry uses an envelope to quickly decay each note. After four minutes, the lyrics end and the jam starts. Jazzy ’74 Eyes-style outro jam hits at eight-and-a-half minutes into the solo. Ten minutes later, it’s back to the lyrics for a minute and a half, and the finale.
There were 14 this year.
There were seven this year (two with Keith).
There was one (botched) version this year.
There were six versions this year.
A rainy day at SPAC, the first show for one of the authors of this article, sees the triumphant return of "Dancin’," opening with a short guitar-based intro. The backing vocals wake up quickly. Jerry sings "sweet, sweet music," Bobby sings "form a big long line," and "Frisco Bay." The jam has a Bird-Songy guitar lead, still questing. There’s a slight outro jam at the end, but no real space in the song. It’s more like ’66 than like a ’69-’70 version.
This rendition at the Greek Theatre was the California debut of the Mark III version of the song (two days after the famous Dark Star). The still-brief intro is played on guitar, with chime-y keyboard embellishments. The song has a chugging feel and the sound improves quickly. Jerry’s backing vocals are desultory. Inspirational lyric for Deadheads: "doesn’t matter what you wear." The jam sounds committed to going out there, but stays close to the form of the song for the most part. Jerry eventually takes a diving leap, buoyed by Bob’s counterintuitive bolstering chords, but he never gets too far afield, more like a Music Never Stopped jam, each line singly running out its tether. Slight taste of "On Broadway" signals the reentry. After seven minutes the outro jam segues into Bird Song
Full-throated guitar opening, with some organ, choogling bass. Weir sings, "the time’s still right" and gets a big New Jersey reaction for "New York City." No Jerry backing vocals on the first chorus but some guitar touches, some grace notes. Jerry sounds raring to jam (this is a rare second-set appearance for this song), playing off the "nanny nanny na-na" feel of the song’s main riff. Then he starts with the long fillips. By six minutes in, the jam is out there, but it’s somewhat solipsistic, the band tagging along as Jerry hunts for the elevator. It gets spacey, but crystalline, not formless, not chaos, but long fribbly guitar lines stacked one on another. After the reentry, Bob sings "form a big long line, anytime/hey now they’re dancing!" On the outro jam, Jerry seems ready to go again, and it segues into an upbeat Touch of Grey after 8 minutes.
There were six versions this year.
A run speckled with breakouts (such as "Big Boss Man"). Weir says, "Did you ever just know you were not going to remember the chords?" before they leap into the guitar-guitar-keyboard intro, Jerry embellishing and filling throughout, delivering full backing vocals (Phil singing too?). The placement in the set is unusual, unless you think of "Dancin’" and "Deal" as a double set-closer. In the jam, Jerry takes off into a "Bird Song"-like free space right away, rushing the precipice, revisiting the promontory, but the jam is not overlong before it returns to the reprise. Even with a longish outro, this version clocks in at about seven minutes.
A squat, flat opening (forgetting the chords?), then a "Truckin’" sort of feel, uptempo. Weir sings "Way down in L.A., every day," and "Down in Frisco Bay." The jam is by rote, but by the end they loosen up. It’s a party song, kickin’ off a summer show. Bob and Brent’s scat-howling duel at the end fires up the crowd near the audience mics, briefly. The song is a little over six minutes long (followed by an excellent "Dupree’s").
There were three versions this year.
Fantastic version of the song in the second set after a "Quinn the Eskimo" opener, eventually (after a hellaciously spacey middle jam) seguing into the second-ever "Black Muddy River").
There was one unremarkable version this year (4/6/87).