Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band’s “Christmas Time’s A-Comin’” (Reflections with Sandy Rothman)
by John Patrick Gatta on December 24, 2016
Just as Sandy Rothman saw a longtime creative desire come to fruition with the free download of the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band’s version of “Christmas Time’s A-Comin’,” the JGAB mandolin/dobro/banjo/vocalist had to deal with a personal misfortune when a house fire caused him to seek shelter elsewhere and reorganize his life.
When the issue is brought up and sympathies offered, Rothman is resigned and philosophical about the situation. “Nothing can really be done at this point. It’s just what it is.” He’s also still willing to discuss “Christmas Time’s A-Comin’,” a song that he’d been trying to get released since the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band performed it on Dec. 4, 1987 at Los Angeles’ Wiltern Theater. Despite playing with Garcia and David Nelson previously in March 1964 in the Black Mountain Boys, the three longtime friends, musicians and lovers of bluegrass never played that particular number until they reunited for those acoustic dates in the ‘80s.
Written by Tex Logan and originally recorded by Bill Monroe in 1951, the song was a last-minute addition and was the only time the members played the bluegrass classic, which has been covered by Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Sammy Kershaw, Rhonda Vincent and Patty Loveless among others.
In the notes that accompany the download Rothman mentioned: "[We] were starting to feel that old holiday feeling…inspired by Jerry’s well-known love of Christmas. We had Kenny Kosek with us, a fiddler who plays the melody beautifully. I suggested the song while we were warming up. We ran through the chorus and Jerry wrote the title on the set list. We were definitely in our usual seat-of-the-pants mode, so not every word in the verses may be in place—but it was great fun to sing.”
How did that song come to be played that night?
I think we talked about it when we were in New York because we knew December shows were coming up. I remember asking Kenny, the fiddler player, whether he knew that and he said, “Oh, yeah.” He followed the career of the writer of that song. It’s a Bill Monroe song but written by Tex Logan who was a fiddler who lived lived in Boston and New Jersey and worked for Bell Labs. An interesting guy, a fiddle player but he’s also an electrical engineer; an educated guy, a fascinating guy.
We’d known that song forever. We must have talked about in November, probably got together on Front Street and discussed it but I don’t think we ever sang it or practiced it until that day we performed it.
That’s the cool thing about the song. There’s a looseness to it, and even though it was barely rehearsed, like other material by the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band, the final result came out so well.
Which is what you pretty much can say about everything that particular group did. It was all seat of the pants pretty much…and drawing on the trio harmony we had going from the mid-‘60s. It was easy for us to sing anything in three-part harmony because we’d done it years before but I don’t think we ever sang that one before. That was just a onetime thing. You know how bluegrass is, everybody knows those songs. Everybody’s been hearing ‘em their whole lives. You can just do it. We didn’t do it that well. (laughs) Jerry missed most of the words. It was mostly there.
I’m surprised you never did it with the Black Mountain Boys.
I don’t remember any Christmas gigs with the Black Mountain Boys. I bet you we would have thought of it if we had a Christmas gig. It would have come to mind because in bluegrass everybody sings that song at Christmastime. There’s others but that’s a primary one.
Looking back on it, you played that song with Jerry in the Acoustic Band as well as with “Father Christmas” Bill Monroe.
That reminds me of what a lot of people told me, “Hey, you’ve played with Bill Monroe and Jerry Garcia.” [laughs] But that’s also true of Peter Rowan and a few other people.
Back then in the Black Mountain Boys, we all knew Jerry was special but I don’t think anybody knew that he was gonna be the icon that he became. Just good ol’ Jerry.
You’re downplaying it but that’s still a helluva feat. I can’t say that and neither can 99.9% of the musicians out there.
Yeah. I see what you’re saying. [laughs] In terms of the world at large and the way things work those names are very well known.
There was an interesting quote from a Jambands.com interview where in talking about Jerry you said: “This kind of music was what he always turned to – but he loved all roots music. Appalachian music was near and dear to him, as was old country blues and pre-bluegrass old-time stuff, gospel music, R&B. All of it. Jerry was always turning people on to music that they maybe never would have listened to on their own – and he still is.”
Yeah, absolutely. That will just keep on going.
This number, “Christmas Time’s A-Comin’” is just another example of that.
Yeah, I guess you can say that. You can extend that idea with Jerry was constantly turning people on to whatever he was into at the moment. That was a real big Jerry thing. He’d come into a room and say, “Hey man! I just heard this and here’s the tape of it. Check this out.” Always into that.
I read your memories of playing with Bill Monroe around Christmastime and loved the part of him wearing the candy cane looking bath robe around the Grand Ole Opry. In your intro to the “Christmas Time’s A-Comin’” download you mention about how Jerry was very much into Christmas. Could you elaborate on that?
He gave gifts. He bought gifts for people. He bought his brother a car one Christmastime. I haven’t felt it yet this year due to all the crap that’s been going on in the world but you know how it is on a certain day comes along right near the holiday and you suddenly start feeling it? All those songs you’ve been hearing in the department stores and you come out whistling ‘em. It’s suddenly hits you. The spirit of Christmas somehow hits at a certain point.
Jerry was just wide open for it. He dug it. He loved it. I remember the Grateful Dead Ticket Office used to have a Christmas party every year and I remember everybody sitting around, “When’s Jerry coming? When’s Santa coming?” He would show up at some point, he probably was coming from someplace else related to Christmas, and hang out for awhile. He wasn’t wearing a Santa outfit but he may as well have. The line you’re drawing between him and Bill Monroe is exactly the same. Bill was exactly like that with Christmas.