Red and white, blue suede shoes.
I’m Uncle Sam, how do you do?
Gimme five, still alive.
Ain’t no luck, I learned to duck.
I spent the three days leading up to Independence Day as any real red-blooded American should, at the run of Grateful Dead shows in Boulder, Colorado. Well, not technically the Grateful Dead, because Jerry Garcia has been gone now for some 29 years. But the music and the community and the ethos live on in its current form as Dead & Company.
I have talked about the timeless American values I see in Jerry Garcia’s legacy and the Deadhead community in a video I made at the Gorge shows in 2019. In many ways I see Dead culture as a metaphor for the idea of America, with all the beautiful chaos, entrepreneurial creativity, radical independence, and a strong sense of community and belonging, wrapped up in one shared journey forward.
Wave that flag.
Wave it high and wide.
Summertime done come and gone, my oh my.
On Sunday the Dead played their classic anthem U.S. Blues. The song, which I’ve heard live countless times since the 1980s, felt particularly of-the-moment, even though it was written by Dead lyricist Robert Hunter in 1973. Hunter/Garcia tunes have always felt personal and relevant though, and that’s part of what makes the Grateful Dead song catalogue pass the test of time. The words speak to you, personally. They don’t ever really tell you everything, and they certainly never tell you what to think. That would be very un-Dead. So it’s easy for me to find fresh poignancy in U.S. Blues. Is it a patriotic song? Is it a scathing critique of the contradictions of America? An anti-war anthem? Yes, yes, and yes.
But what I hear in the song, naturally, is a very libertarian critique of Uncle Sam himself, who makes it clear what he’s all about in the fourth verse:
I’ll drink your health, share your wealth.
Run your life, steal your wife.
Is it just me, or do these lines, originally penned in the pessimistic days at the end of the Vietnam War debacle—when it felt like everything was falling apart—apply equally to the past three years? Health mandates? Unchecked wealth redistribution? Faceless bureaucrats deciding if you could work or travel? Needless loss of life? Yes, yes, yes, and yes.
If anything, Uncle Sam has gotten worse, not better. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
We’re all confused, what’s to lose?
You can call this song the United States Blues.
Some friends have suggested the irony of celebrating Independence Day after all the government has done to strip our independence from us since March of 2020. What sort of independence, they ask, are we celebrating? It’s a good question, and I too see the contradictions of many fellow Americans on full display. Freedom and independence, yes! Unless I’m scared, that is. Too few Americans even bothered to push back against all the pandemic authoritarianism, particularly among the comfortable elites of the Laptop Class. I’m still struggling to come to terms with this sad reality.
But for me, Independence Day has never been about celebrating the government, or even my fellow citizens who don’t seem to cherish liberty nearly enough. I celebrate the idea of America—red, white, and blue—despite our failings to live up to her ideal.
You see, I love my country, but I don’t trust the government. Because I love my country.
On this July 4th, I hope you’ll choose to celebrate Independence Day with me. It’s a great reminder of what we all fight for, every day, together.
P.S. Since I didn’t see you at the show, here’s a short clip.