Some month ago I embarked on a Baby Blue listening project, which got a little bit out of hand and spawned this essay! Garcia geekdom of the highest order.
Garcia Does Dylan’s It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue
Bob Dylan wrote Baby Blue in early 1965, and it was released on Bringing It All Back Home that March. The album version contains a sparse arrangement, with Dylan accompanying himself on harmonica and acoustic guitar, and Bill Lee (accomplished studio musician, composer, and father of Spike!) on bass. The lyrics are dripping with symbolism and incorporate many lively characters, bidding farewell to the mysterious Baby Blue. There’s been much speculation of Baby Blue’s identity; suggested possibilities range from Joan Baez, with whom Dylan was in the late stages of a relationship at the time, to folk music in general, which Dylan was in the process of moving away from, to Dylan singing the song to himself. But fittingly, in the vein of Robert Hunter, Dylan isn’t saying.
Here are the lyrics, as performed by Garcia:
You must leave now, take what you need, you think will last
But whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast
Yonder stands your orphan with his gun
He's crying like a fire in the sun
Look out, all the saints are coming through
And it's all over now, Baby Blue
The highway is for gamblers, you'd better use your sense
Take what you have gathered from coincidence
The empty-handed painter from your streets
Is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets
The sky, too, is folding over you
And it's all over now, Baby Blue
All your seasick sailors, they are rowing home
Your empty-handed army is all going home
The lover who just walked out your door
Has taken all his blankets from the floor
The carpet, too, is moving under you
And it's all over now, Baby Blue
Leave your stepping stones behind, there's something calls for you
Forget the dead you've left, they will not follow you
The vagabond who's rapping at your door
Is standing in the clothes that you once wore
Strike another match, go start anew
And it's all over now, Baby Blue
It's all over now, Baby Blue
It's all over now, Baby Blue
It's all over now, Baby Blue
These are quite close to Dylan’s original lyrics. One difference is in verse 3, where Dylan’s lyrics, as published on bobdylan.com, are “all your reindeer armies”. However, Garcia would certainly have learned the song from hearing it on the Bringing It All Back Home album, and Dylan indeed sings “all your empty-handed armies” there, so it’s not as if Jerry pulled that line out of thin air. The only other derivation is Garcia’s penchant for playing with the penultimate lines in verses 2 and 3. I think more often than not he sings “the carpet, too, is…” in verse 2, and “the sky, too, is…” in verse 3. But I can’t tell any rhyme nor reason why he switches them up, while otherwise nailing the entire song. (And on a linguistic note, how awesomely Dylanesque is it to set off an adverb between two commas in the middle of a line?) Sometimes he even takes it a step further and muddles the two lines, i.e. the sky is moving under or the carpet is folding over. I also think he regularly says “falling” instead of “folding”. Otherwise, Jerry’s reading of the song is in keeping with Dylan’s.
Garcia was obviously quite taken with Baby Blue, which appeared in Grateful Dead sets as early as 1/7/66 Matrix. He undoubtedly felt a fondness for the various colorful characters that appear throughout the song, from orphans to sailors to lovers and especially to vagabonds. After all, these are just the type of folks that began populating the Garcia/Hunter compositions a few years later. Why it came and went over the next 15 years is the same age-old question Deadheads wonder about a multitude of songs. For the purpose of discussing the various renditions, it’s convenient to divide Baby Blue into three sub categories; the Pigpen versions, the Keith versions (there are only 3), and the Brent/Vince versions. According to DeadBase X, Jerry played Baby Blue one time with JGB in Fall ‘81, but that didn’t happen. This tease was finally corrected in the separate updates section in DeadBase 50.
Despite my predilection for audience tapes, I played soundboards wherever possible for enhanced vocal presence. My interested was examining performance, not recording quality.
The Pigpen Versions: 1966-1970
In the earliest Baby Blues from ’66, the tempo is arrestingly fast. But 1966 was, for the most part, one big, fast tempo. On 7/16/66 Fillmore, it’s wild to hear Jerry’s vocals panned hard left. This is a perfect version lyrically, and the only Keith era Baby Blue I listened to where the lyrics were spot on. There’s no jam yet to speak of, just a straightforward performance of the song. By ’69 Jerry had fleshed things out majorly, with lackadaisical, carefree treatment of the verses and extra soulful inflections here and there. His singing is extremely heartfelt. The structure had Jerry repeating the entire final verse. At The Ark 4/23/69, Baby Blue ends the show after an interesting sequence. And We Bid You Goodnight segues into a full throttle Not Fade Away tease. And NFA didn’t show up regularly in Dead sets until December, over 6 months later. But rather than launch into NFA the short jam gives way to a show closing Baby Blue. A bigger curiosity, this is the only time Bid You Goodnight doesn’t end the show other than Alpine Valley 7/17/89, where the Dead play Johnny B. Goode as a second encore. The final Baby Blue of the Pigpen years, 11/8/70, is a sweet and uncommonly soulful reading. It’s also an impressive audience recording for the era, as apparently no vault tape exists. Garcia chose a fine way to retire the song for the time being.
The Keith Versions: 1972-1974
After an almost two year break, The Dead played Baby Blue twice in September 1972; 9/23 Waterbury, CT, and two shows later 9/26 Jersey City. The Boys must have been in a feisty mood on 9/23, because the mid-2nd set Baby Blue is followed by the only ’72 Cryptical Envelopment (also the final Cryptical until the ‘85 versions). While both Baby Blues are energetic and fun listens, Jerry simply isn’t deep enough under the hood of the lyrics. Which isn’t altogether surprising since it came and went so suddenly. Nevertheless, the placement in the middle of the second sets is cool, and more importantly there are plenty of rich, piercing notes in the jams that are unique to the era and won’t be found in the more mature versions in the 80s forward. So this two pack shouldn’t be given short shaft. Less impressive is the other Keith era Baby Blue, 19 months later at Winterland 2/24/74. Here it’s found its way to the encore slot, where it will stay permanently. But beyond how cool it is that Jerry pulled it out on this evening and found its ultimate placement in the show, I think this is flatter than the ‘72s and the weakest of the three.
The Brent/Vince Versions: 1981-1995
When Garcia brought Baby Blue back in Seattle on 8/14/81, it was in the rotation to stay. The only times it didn’t end the show or begin the encore was with Dylan. On the ’86 tour where Dylan played separately from the Dead, he sat in twice during the middle of first sets, 7/2 Akron and 7/9 RFK Stadium. Both shows featured a Baby Blue. Akron is a train wreck, with Dylan and Garcia doing a duet through the first 3 verses. Dylan is painfully howling away while Garcia melodically sings his part. They heeded the Akron disaster at RFK, where Jerry announces, “We got a friend to help out on this tune.” Jerry gives it a heartfelt go, and Dylan waits until the final verse to wade into a duet, which comes off much better. Neither of these versions have any jam. And the following summer, when the Dead served as Dylan’s backup band in the “Alone and Together” tour, Dylan played Baby Blue in 5 of the 6 Dylan/Dead sets.
Right out the gate, the ’81 versions demonstrate that Garcia means business. 8/16/81 McArthur Court, the second time back from the 7+ year hiatus, has only a minor 3rd verse vocal flub, and while a little raw it’s excellent overall. By 9/27/81 Landover things are getting more polished and nuanced. The jam this night is between verses 3 and 4 instead of its typical mid song placement, so Jerry is still working out the structure. And there are some awesome notes in this night’s jam. 12/3/81 Madison is on Postcards Of The Hanging (the compilation album of The Grateful Dead doing Dylan covers), and as one might imagine it’s a good one, although I found it a bit uneven and ultimately not a top contender.
In 1982 Baby Blue fully hit stride, and I don’t think this level is surpassed in any year going forward. Spring tour features a pair of excellent versions, 4/6 Spectrum and 4/17 Hartford Civic, the former more widely known as it was part of a Road Trips release. 4/6 has a great laid-back feel, and its biggest sin, other than a completely butchered opening line to the 4th verse, may be that it’s in the shadow of the sensational 4/17. 4/17 is more powerful, with some uncommonly sweet notes/tone in the jam, and an almost letter-perfect vocal delivery. Only one word is dropped, “vagabond”, but alas that’s a big word to lose. Before Bobby can say “see you all later” Jerry slips in a quick “thank you very much.” Nice double send off! The crowning jewel of the year, and in my opinion of all time, is 8/10/82 Iowa City. While it may not be the flashiest, the raw power is palpable and the vocal delivery throughout is just exactly perfect. Jerry seems to be wielding an extra degree of control. If I had to play one for a non-Deadhead, this would be the go to. Perhaps a quarter notch beneath it is 9/11/82 West Palm Beach. While it’s certainly in the same league as 8/10, it just doesn’t speak to me as deeply. Another excellent ’82 is 10/10 Frost, which closes the two legendary shows the first year the Dead appeared at this hallowed venue. It’s one of four Satisfaction->Baby Blue combos, all in the first half of the 80s, although there’s no arrow but rather a two-beat pause. The jam is heartfelt, and while there’s really nothing to criticize here it doesn’t jump out at me like some of the other ‘82s. This exceptional year closes in the New Year’s run with a final superb version on 12/28 Oakland Auditorium. Also out of Satisfaction, the first 3 verses are perfect but the 4th not quite. Jerry sounds wonderful throughout, and there’s some particularly stellar Brent content.
After ’82 through Jerry’s ’86 diabetic coma, Baby Blue became spottier. This era saw increased difficulty getting vocally intact versions as Jerry’s voice became more uneven while his health deteriorated. That said, his voice could also at times lend poignance to Dylan’s words, whether by a general sense of vulnerability or specific inflections. On 6/24/84 Saratoga, poor Jerry sounds like an adolescent whose voice is changing when he tries to emote “go” on “go start anew.” But there’s a fascinating transition this night from Satisfaction. Satisfaction ends with a few bars of This Could Be The Last Time, a tune the Dead wouldn’t play for another 7 years. 12/31/84 San Francisco Civic is a great listen. This may be the most active I’ve heard Phil on any Baby Blue. There are a few subsonic moments to complement Phil’s atypical spunkiness throughout. And the icing on the cake is one “Baby Blue” uttered during the final lines that’s spoken as a soft whisper yet is as piercing and compelling as Jerry’s voice gets. A total goosebumps moment, this is worthy listen for those two seconds alone and should be cranked for full appreciation. This is quintessential evidence that in Jerry’s vocal palette, “powerful whisper” is no oxymoron. There is a pair of fine Baby Blues Summer tour ’85. The first is 6/27 Saratoga, and it features extra syllables on “gamblers”, “army”, and “match”. It’s always fun when Jerry emotes extra syllables. Even better is a haunting 7/1 Merriweather, a truly big-time version. The playing is fantastic, there are plenty of nice vocal inflections, and lyrically only a couple words are dropped. Plus it earns bonus points for cascading with authority out of Satisfaction. This is the final of four such pairings, but by far the best transition. And extra credit comes at the conclusion, with not only a “well, it’s all over now” but a “yes, it’s all over now”. Jerry rarely improvised while repeating the final line, instead preferring to play it straight, so this really caught my ear.
Jerry continued his affection for Baby Blue post-coma, and his voice was largely in good shape, but the readings lack the dramatic impact of the early 80s. And it seems like almost invariably there’d be critical words or lines dropped that marred otherwise lovely versions. But these years feature but nuanced and energetic singing, delicate guitar runs in the jam, and by now Phil was in full bloom with his spirited accompaniment to the signature line, “forget about the dead you left, they will not follow you”. As is so often the case with the Dead, lyrics took on new meanings in the context of their performances. Since Baby Blue always appeared as an encore, I took this line literally as wherever one disappears into the night the band will be going their own way and you had to deal with that. 9/15/87 Madison Square Garden is a great example of how Garcia’s late-80s voice could invoke subtle, nuanced power (just think about what he did with Morning Dew three nights later 9/18). While this is marred by a few dropped lyrics early on, I don’t know if his voice can really sound any better; it’s so mournfully sung. While there are many less than noteworthy versions I’ve explored in the later Brent period, a couple other very good ones are 10/19/89 Spectrum and 3/22/90 Hamilton, although the latter is unfairly aided by the stupendous sound quality of the Spring ’90 Box Set release.
I didn’t audition too many Vince era versions, but I liked 8/17/91 Shoreline. Bruce Hornsby is on the accordion, and while I’m generally not a fan of that it lends itself nicely here. The 3rd verse has a minor vocal flub, and 4th verse is mega powerful, with Phil nice and big in the mix. After a fat bomb at the end, the song is over, but Phil continues playing a little mini solo of a series of notes. Unique and quite cool. As Jerry could regularly muster in the months and years where he was otherwise precipitously declining, he delivers a deep Baby Blue 10/13/94 Madison Square Garden. This one is in the conversation due to a haunting final verse.
Baby Blue’s only break from the rotation after the ’81 resurrection came in the early 90s. From Spring ’92 through Fall ’94, a span of 178 shows, there’s just one – 3/10/93 Rosemont Horizon. Interestingly, this coincides with the end of Jerry’s brief rekindling of his relationship with Brigid Meier. They had fallen back together in late ’92 and taken what was by all accounts a magical vacation in Hawaii that January. But by late on the ’93 Spring tour, she’d fallen victim to the particulars of Grateful Dead touring and was told to leave the scene and that the relationship was over. One can’t help but ponder whether the 3/10 Baby Blue was played for her. And it’s a beautiful, virtually letter-perfect version. How does Jerry pull that off, amidst declining health, the only time playing the song in an 18-month period?
Several times apparently left as forgotten, Baby Blue kept finding its way back into Jerry Garcia’s consciousness, until finally in 1981 it stayed there for good. By my accounting, the University of Iowa Field House bore witness to the most beautiful Baby Blue that Garcia ever summoned. 8/10/82 has all the raw energy of the 1982 renditions along with an extra dose of power and authority. And Jerry nails every syllable. There’s just certain majesty to this glorious period for this song, and 8/10 epitomizes it. I’d define this brilliant era as spanning the 8/14/81 bust out through 12/28/82. But over the next decade plus Jerry continued to routinely lay down wonderful takes on this Dylan masterpiece. The maturity of his voice by the 80s onward allowed him to get further under the hood of the song’s pathos, and by this time he was largely handy with all the lyrics.
Of course given this type of essay’s inherent nature, many/most of my observations and conclusions are subjective. But I set out to give the subject a greater scope than subjective criticism, which I hope is reflected. The real beauty is that despite the numerous and diverse versions I played, there are that many more to discover. Those with a deep, pathological love for the Dead wouldn’t want it any other way.
What a seemingly arbitrary notion, Jerry finding Baby Blue years after he’d left it be and embracing it so gloriously. Perhaps with a slightly different inclination She Belongs To Me would have been the Dylan number Jerry permanently added. Or something else entirely. But this is a more general theme surrounding the material the Dead tackled, whereby one can muse equally on what they played as what they didn’t. A broader encapsulation of the space between the notes.