November 1, 2010

The First Tennessee Jed?

Thanks to supporters James R. Skolnik and George Michalski, this rare postcard featuring 1940s radio star Johnny Thomas has been donated to the Grateful Dead Archive.

It advertises the character "Tennessee Jed Sloan," a fictional cowboy gunslinger who traveled the West with his trusted horse Smoky and his squirrel gun, fighting bad guys and outwitting their schemes. A popular serial, the show was sponsored by the Tip-Top Bread Company, and ran from 1945 through 1947. Fifteen programs are available today from The Old-Time Radio Catalog, and David Goldin has done a fine job cataloging the shows and their content here.

If Hunter was specifically drawing on this show as an antecedent for his song, it would be difficult to pin down exactly how: Hunter’s protagonist is much more of a sad-sack than Thomas’s (and later Don MacLaughlin’s) depiction of an eagle-eye marksman whose exploits over the show’s two years ended up with him as a White House special agent. (Indeed, one wonders whether this show served as a precedent for the 1960s television hit, The Wild West West.) David Dodd first pointed out the existence of this show in his Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics site, but did not suggest that it served as an actual antecedent or inspiration for Hunter.

Nor is that likely, given the difference in Hunter’s protagonist and the radio show hero. The lack of a direct influence does not make it irrelevant, however: indeed, for Dead scholars, this item illustrates how rich Hunter’s allusions are, documenting in particular how his reservoir of Western Americana runs both wide and deep, drawing from popular culture as well as literature and history.

The Archive is grateful to James Skolnik for helping to facilitate this donation, and to noted San Francisco musician and collector George Michalski for his generosity and sharp eyes in acquiring and donating this wonderful artifact.