In a 2008 interview for Acoustic Guitar magazine, Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead shared with me the story of writing “The Music Never Stopped” with his childhood pal John Perry Barlow. The Dead recorded the song on Blues for Allah (1975), and it remained a staple of the band’s live repertoire.
Inspired in part by my conversation with Weir, I worked out an acoustic arrangement of this intricate song and teach how to play it on the second volume of my Homespun video series on Grateful Dead songs for acoustic guitar.
Here’s the original studio version plus a video of my arrangement—recorded in February 2018 after hearing the news of Barlow’s passing.
As a lyricist I’m glacially slow. I can generally get the job done, but it takes too damned long. So I like to work with people who have a little more facility with that—you know, John Barlow, Garrett Grant, Robert Hunter.
Or I may have a general notion of the color of the rhythm and the harmonic or melodic development, and I’ll sit with a guy and we just fire blank verse at each other until we start to corner that color—and then often the song will fall right out of the sky. Other times, I may have no notion of where the song wants to go, in which case I’ll let whoever I’m working with surprise me. . . .
“The Music Never Stopped” is a song that we wrote over the telephone. I had this business going [plays opening guitar riff, Example 13 below]. So I played this over the phone to John, and he just started spitting stuff at me. The first line came out, “There’s mosquitoes on the river / Fish are rising up like birds.” He was living in Wyoming at the time on a ranch, and he started describing a situation that I’d seen with him, where it was late summer on a dry year and things were hot and kind of dull and dead.
So where are we going to take this? Well, first I figured the verse is going to have to be twice as long as I originally figured, because if you’re starting with an image that thick, you have to get into some detail about it. “It’s been hot for seven weeks now / Too hot to even speak now / Did you hear what I just heard?” That last line came after some deliberation. It’s a pregnant line, sort of like a leading tone in a harmonic development.
Rather than move to a B section, I figured, OK, let’s develop this a bit more. In order to do that, I’m going to have to break out of the [original guitar pattern]. Let me see if I can do that some other way [plays Example 14]. Then after a little thought I decided, OK, I want to start with that and then skinny up my statement as the lyrical image gets a little stronger, a little tighter.
Then it’s time for a B section. You can go anywhere, but the IV chord is a great place [Example 17]. I think I did that with fuller chords at the time, but they wouldn’t make it in the traffic mess that a band can get to be.
The success of the endeavor, if you’re working with a lyricist, depends on how closely the lyric marries the music. With Barlow or Gerrit Graham or whoever, there’s a lot of back and forth. I guess I get to be the decider, because the words are going to have to come from my lips. And so I have to be able to tell the story.
I have to be that character, because my job is to get the hell out of the way and let the character tell the story, musically and lyrically. When I’m standing in front of the microphone, I may look like me, but I’m not.
If the character arrives with a really defined face and features, then it’s easy for me to do my job.
There’s mosquitoes on the river.
Fish are rising up like birds.
It’s been hot for seven weeks now,
Too hot to even speak now.
Did you hear what I just heard?
Say, it might have been a fiddle,
Or it could have been the wind.
But there seems to be a beat, now.
I can feel it in my feet, now.
Listen, here it comes again!
There’s a band out on the highway.
They’re high-steppin’ into town.
They’re a rainbow full of sound.
It’s fireworks, calliopes and clowns —
Come on, children. Come on, children,
Come on clap your hands.
Sun went down in honey.
Moon came up in wine.
Stars were spinnin’ dizzy,
Lord, the band kept us so busy
We forgot about the time.
They’re a band beyond description
Like Jehovah’s favorite choir.
People joinin’ hand in hand
While the music plays the band.
Lord, they’re setting us on fire.
Crazy rooster crowin’ midnight.
Balls of lightning roll along.
Old men sing about their dreams.
Women laugh and children scream,
And the band keeps playin’ on.
Keep on dancin’ through to daylight.
Greet the morning air with song.
No one’s noticed, but the band’s all packed and gone.
Was it ever here at all?
But they keep on dancing.
C’mon, children. C’mon, children,
Come on clap your hands.
Well, the cool breeze came on Tuesday,
And the corn’s a bumper crop.
The fields are full of dancing,
Full of singing and romancing,
‘Cause the music never stopped.