Dirty Linen

Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions
The Folk Roots of the Grateful Dead
by Michael Parrish

One of the most intriguing, and oft quoted, legends of the San Francisco rock scene in the 1960s was the origin of the Grateful Dead, three members of which, Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, and Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, had gotten their start playing together in a jug band called Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions. That group got its start playing coffee houses in the south Bay Area in 1964.

Earlier this year, Mother McCree's became less of a legend, and more of a concrete piece of musical history, when Grateful Dead Records released a CD compiled from several of the band's performances at the Top of the Tangent, a long-defunct folk club that was the upper floor of the Tangent, a pizza parlor and Stanford student hangout at the west end of Palo Alto's downtown area. In addition to Garcia, Weir, and Pigpen, the group, at least at the time of the recording, also featured Tom Stone, Michael Garbett, and David Parker.

The tapes were recorded by Pete Wanger and Wayne Ott, students at Stanford University at the time, as part of a 10-week radio program, "Live From the Top of the Tangent." Pete's brother Michael, who was a folk musician during that era and produced the Mother McCree's CD, explained how the recordings came about. "They recorded a bunch of artists and just happened to capture the Mother McCree band. It was a summer school project. They recorded all these groups and put the tapes together as 10 one-half-hour programs. They really took great pains to get the best recording quality that they could. Wayne Ott borrowed a very expensive Sony Condenser microphone from one of the stereo stores. That, combined with the Ampex reel-to-reel tape deck that they borrowed from the KZSU radio studio, had everything to do with the sound of the recording."

Aside from a couple of songs used for a radio documentary on the Grateful Dead, the only known recording of this group was thought to be lost until last year, when the Wanger brothers found it, along with the other Tangent radio broadcast tapes, in a box in their mother's attic.


This is an excerpt from Dirty Linen #83 (August/September '99)
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