AUK’s Chain Gang: Billy Strings “Oh, the Wind and Rain”

This link in the chain is a circuitous one, but an important one that highlights the continuing evolution of Roots music.  Last week Jason McDonald blessed us with the New Riders of the Purple Sage’s ‘Sweet Lovin’ One’, a great song, from an even greater band.  This week’s link makes the connection through the band.  The New Riders of the Purple Sage were formed in 1969 and at the time featured the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and one of his longtime musical compatriots David Nelson.  Nelson had been playing with Garcia since the early sixties, including time in the short-lived, Garcia led, bluegrass band the Black Mountain Boys that featured Garcia on banjo, Nelson on mandolin, future Bluegrass Boy Sandy Rothman on guitar, and future Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter on bass.  The deep connections between those four would last a lifetime.  The songwriting of Garcia and Hunter would power the Grateful Dead, while Nelson, Rothman, and Garcia would play together intermittently over the years before reuniting in the 1980s as part of the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band.

The Jerry Garcia Band’s first album, ‘Almost Acoustic’ released in 1988, featured ‘Oh, The Wind and Rain’, a traditional murder ballad that originated in Scotland in the 17th Century as the ‘Twa Sisters’.  The song relates the heartwarming tale of a girl drowned by her jealous sister. The murdered girl’s body is eventually found and her “long yellow hair,” “long finger bones,” and “breastbone,” are turned into a fiddle.  The only tune the fiddle would play was about the murder.  The song eventually crossed the Atlantic with different variations of the tune and story finding their way into early American folk, bluegrass, and blues songs.  For many the song became associated with Jerry Garcia due to its appearance on both ‘Almost Acoustic’ and the Garcia and David Grisman collaboration ‘Shady Grove’, as well its regular inclusion on Garcia setlists throughout the eighties and nineties.

All of that winds its way through time and space and ends with this live version of ‘Oh, the Wind and Rain’ by Billy Strings.  Strings is one of the most exciting faces and new leaders of the progressive-jamgrass movement.  Strings has clearly been schooled in the traditional rules of bluegrass, but looks to the freewheelin’ live improvisation of the Grateful Dead for inspiration and has separated himself from the bonds of the traditional through his ability to push songs in new psychedelic directions.

About Tim Newby 33 Articles
Author of books, writer of words, enjoyer of good times. Often found barefoot at a festival somewhere. Author of 'Bluegrass in Baltimore: The Hard Drivin' Sound & Its Legacy' (2015), 'Leftover Salmon: Thirty Years of Festival! (2019) Follow him on twitter @Tim_Newby9 .

3 Comments

  1. Great choice although my memory is that the sister’s bones and hair were used to make a harp although Strings makes it clear her it’s a fiddle. Anyhow, a fascinating song.

  2. The instrument has been both a harp and a fiddle over the years, though I believe some early versions of the song omit the making of the instrument all together. I would imagine when the song crossed the ocean to America and evolved from “Twa Sisters” into “Oh, the Wind and Rain,” as it found a home in the bluegrass world, the use of fiddle became more common as it made more sense in the context of the music (not many harps in bluegrass!) Garcia’s version always used fiddle and Strings uses Garcia’s version for influence. I also feel there is probably a really good, in-depth article about this song just waiting to be written.

    • I love Garcia’s acoustic work following his diabetic coma until his untimely death. His knowledge of traditional tunes was unsurpassed . Great that he is still influencing the current generation of acoustic musicians.

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