Death Letter Blues

Lyrics: Traditional
Music: Traditional

This was seemingly only sung by Jerry Garcia once, on 30 October 1968, in a show billed as Mickey and the Hartbeats. The lyrics Jerry sang were:

I got a letter this morning, how do you reckon it read?
I got a letter this morning, how do you reckon it read?
You better come home, the one you love is dead

Well I went to the graveyard, looked in my woman's face
Well I went to the graveyard, looked in my woman's face
I love you mama, I just can't take your place

Well the woman I love, she's done dead and gone
Well the woman I love, she's done dead and gone
She left me here trying to sing my ragtime song
Recordings
     Date Album
     30 Oct 1968 Heartbits (Mickey & The Hartbeats)

Roots

The song "Death Letter Blues" seems to have originated with the Delta blues singer Son House, although its roots may go back before that. Son House recorded "My Black Mama Parts 1 & 2" in 1930, and Part 2 has the lyrics:
Hey, I solemnly swear, Lord, I raise my right hand
That I'm goin' get me a woman, you get you another man
I solemnly swear, Lord, I raise my right hand
That I'm goin' get me a woman, you get you another man

I got a letter this morning, how do you reckon it read?
"Oh, hurry, hurry, gal, you love is dead"
I got a letter this morning, how do you reckon it read?
"Oh, hurry, hurry, gal, you love is dead"

I grabbed my suitcase, I took off, up the road
I got there, she was laying on the cooling board
I grabbed my suitcase, I took on up the road
I got there, she was laying on the cooling board

Well, I walked up close, I looked down in her face
Good old gal, you got to lay here till Judgment Day
I walked up close, and I looked down in her face
Yes, been a good old gal, got to lay here till Judgment Day

Oh, my woman so black, she stays apart of this town
Can't nothin' "go" when the poor girl is around
My black mama stays apart of this town
Oh, can't nothing "go" when the poor girl is around

Oh, some people tell me the worried blues ain't bad (note 1)
It's the worst old feelin' that I ever had
Some people tell me the worried blues ain't bad
Buddy, the worst old feelin', Lord, I ever had

Hmmm, I fold my arms, and I walked away
"That's all right, mama, your trouble will come someday"
I fold my arms, Lord, I walked away
Say, "That's all right, mama, your trouble will come someday"
Son House seems to have learnt a version of "My Black Mama" from another Delta musician, James McCoy, but it's not clear how much of what Son House recorded was his own rewriting and how much was learnt from James McCoy.

Son House later re-recorded much of the above lyrics, this time the title "Death Letter Blues":
I got a letter this mornin, how do you reckon it read?
It said, "Hurry, hurry, yeah, your love is dead"
I got a letter this mornin, I say how do you reckon it read?
You know, it said, "Hurry, hurry, how come the gal you love is dead?"

So, I grabbed up my suitcase, and took off down the road
When I got there she was layin on a coolin' board
I grabbed up my suitcase, and I said and I took off down the road
I said, but when I got there she was already layin on a coolin' board

Well, I walked up right close, looked down in her face
Said, the good ol' gal got to lay here 'til the Judgment Day
I walked up right close, and I said I looked down in her face
I said the good ol' gal, she got to lay here 'til the Judgment Day

Looked like there was 10,000 people standin' round the buryin' ground
I didn't know I loved her 'til they laid her down
Looked like 10,000 were standin' round the buryin' ground
You know I didn't know I loved her 'til they damn laid her down

Lord, have mercy on my wicked soul
I wouldn't mistreat you baby, for my weight in gold
I said, Lord, have mercy on my wicked soul
You know I wouldn't mistreat nobody, baby, not for my weight in gold

Well, I folded up my arms and I slowly walked away
I said, "Farewell honey, I'll see you on Judgment Day"
Ah, yeah, oh, yes, I slowly walked away
I said, "Farewell, farewell, I'll see you on the Judgment Day"

You know I went in my room, I bowed down to pray
The blues came along and drove my spirit away
I went in my room, I said I bowed down to pray
I said the blues came along and drove my spirit away

You know I didn't feel so bad, 'til the good ol' sun went down
I didn't have a soul to throw my arms around
I didn't feel so bad, 'til the good ol' sun went down
You know, I didn't have nobody to throw my arms around

I loved you baby, like I love myself
You don't have me, you won't have nobody else
I loved you baby, better than I did myself
I said now if you don't have me, I didn't want you to have nobody else

You know, it's hard to love someone that don't love you
Ain't no satisfaction, don't care what in the world you do
Yeah, it's hard to love someone that don't love you
You know it don't look like satisfaction, don't care what in the world you do

Got up this mornin', just about the break of day
A-huggin' the pillow where she used to lay
Got up this mornin', just about the break of day
A-huggin' the pillow where my good gal used to lay

Got up this mornin', feelin' round for my shoes (note 1)
You know, I must-a had them old walkin' blues
Got up this mornin', feelin' round for my shoes
Yeah, you know bout that, I must-a had them old walkin' blues

You know, I cried last night and all the night before
Gotta change my way a livin', so I don't have to cry no more
You know, I cried last night and all the night before
Gotta change my way a livin', you see, so I don't have to cry no more

Ah, hush, thought I heard her call my name
If it wasn't so loud and so nice and plain

Well, listen, whatever you do
This is one thing, honey, I tried to get along with you
Yes, no tellin' what you do
I done everything I could, just to try and get along with you

Well, the minutes seemed like hours, hours they seemed like days
It seemed like my good, old gal outta done stopped her low-down ways
Minutes seemed like hours, hours they seemed like days
Seems like my good, old gal outta done stopped her low-down ways

You know, love's a hard ol' fall, make you do things you don't wanna do
Love sometimes leaves you feeling sad and blue
You know, love's a hard ol' fall, make you do things you don't wanna do
Love sometimes make you feel sad and blue
Notes
(1) these lyrics appear also in Walkin' Blues

Another early version of Death Letter Blues was recorded by Ida Cox:
I received a letter that my man was dying
I received a letter that my man was dying
I caught the first plane and went home flying

When I got there, the folks had gathered round
When I got there, the folks had gathered round
His eyes were set and his face was full of frown

I followed my daddy to the burying ground
I followed my daddy to the burying ground
I watched the pall-bearers slowly let him down

That was the last time I saw my daddy's face
That was the last time I saw my daddy's face
Mama love you sweet papa but I wish I could take your place
The version by Leadbelly is often quoted as the original, but draws heavily on Son House's version:
Yes she wrote me a letter, what do you reckon it read
Yes she wrote me a letter, what do you reckon it read
Come home sweet papa, now that baby dead

[narrative]
He goes to the graveyard, he goes back home
He goes to his friend when he got that letter
He goes to the depot and he catch the longest train he's seen
And he didn't stop at no short stops
He read something got it in the hand
And when he got home he went and told his mama

Yes I went to the depot caught the train that blowing
I went to the depot caught a train that blowing
When he walked in Lord, she was long laid down

[narrative]
His mama met him at the doorstep
Papa ran to the bedside and told his daughter
And his daughter in law goodbye

My mama's dead, papa's dead goodbye
My mama's dead early, papa's dead goodbye
Poor boy couldn't do nothing, but hang your head and cry

[narrative]
He went to the bedside and looked down at his baby's face
She didn't know him from nobody else because it's too late
When he looked down in her face, here's what he said to his mama

Yes he went to the bedroom, looked down in her face
Yes he went to the bedroom, looked down in her face
Lord I love you pretty mama, just can't take your place
It's not altogether clear to me where Garcia's last verse comes from - it may be a fragment remembered from another song.



Futher Information
For more information on recordings see Matt Schofield's Grateful Dead Family Discography

 


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