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Mountain Jam: An Epic of Life and Death

Kevin Carr


Haunting and beautiful. Though soon to be repetitive and perhaps obnoxious, haunting and beautiful are the perfect words to describe the epic that is Mountain Jam. Originally released on The Allman Brothers’ 1972 album, ‘Eat a Peach’, Mountain Jam encapsulates the essence of the journey of life. The truly epic and improvised composition lasts a staggering 34 minutes and contains everything a band can possibly offer. Coordinated peaks and valleys of both dynamics and arrangements, unrestrained instrumental cries of tasteful tone and placement on all ends, and elongated solos from each band member, expressing the epitome of their individual souls while also representing the interdependence exhibited by the band as a single unit, tasked with a synergetic goal of being something larger and more complex than they themselves could ever be unaccompanied, places Mountain Jam at the pinnacle of collective musical efforts to date.


Mountain Jam was actually recorded live during the holy grail shows that became the infamous ‘At Fillmore East’ album released in 1971, but was not included due to its length. Known as one of the best and most successful live albums of all time, and even preserved in the Library of Congress for its cultural and historical importance, ‘At Fillmore East’ boosted the Allman Brothers Band to fame. However, just seven months after the March 1971 recordings, tragedy struck. On October 29th, 1971, lead guitarist and founding member, Duane Allman, died in a motorcycle accident just a few miles from the band’s home in Macon, Georgia. An undoubtedly rare talent and soul, of which the likes that will never be seen again was lost to the cosmos, yet Duane’s aura remains in the recordings that we so luckily have today (see below). And to add to this, as unfortunate as it is, bassist and founding member Berry Oakley died in an eerily similar motorcycle accident, just three blocks from where Duane died on November, 11th 1972. Almost exactly a year later. It is within this context that Mountain Jam, already so obliviously passionate, becomes a hauntingly beautiful life celebration cemented in time.


The following is a thought that I’ve always struggled to describe to others, and even truly describe to myself, but it is one that I must make clear for my own sake and to properly describe Mountain Jam. And I think this elusive thought adds to the haunting and beautiful nature of Mountain Jam, along with so many of the other early Allman Brothers recordings, because I can never pin down exactly what it is. But I will try (and I hope not to go astray while doing so).


You often hear the words “play like it’s your last time” in the sports and music world. Well, I often consider that when I hear Mountain Jam. To me, especially under the given context, it absolutely feels like someone who’s playing as if it’s their last time. I know it’s a large accusation to say that someone could sense something like this, especially while playing a show, but I’d believe it. The feelings that are conjured while playing music are indescribable to the common man, and sometimes in extremely special moments, these feelings can be very insightful and spiritual, beyond what you yourself might believe in. But these sensations happen. And maybe that’s what is so addicting about playing music once you reach a point where you can access these feelings. It’s like chasing the high you felt on your first time, but maybe in this regard you can actually find it again, and possibly surpass it and harness it.


Now, I don’t want to outright say Duane could somehow sense his incoming death and that’s why he played so ferociously because firstly, I think people would assume I’m insane, but secondly, I don’t think Duane would want that. We see it all of the time how celebrities don’t want to be glorified and that they just want to be treated as normal people (consider “Clapton is God”). But I can’t help but feel there’s something more there and have felt that way for years, and maybe that’s just the power of Mountain Jam.


What I believe I’m trying to say, and potentially failing at, is because we only appreciate this music in hindsight, and the context that Duane and Berry died in such a terrible, untimely, and haunting fashion after these recordings is included in that hindsight, that it is impossible to listen to this music without at least thinking their imminent futures impacted the way they lived and communicated in their final years. Thinking within this context, whether true or not, adds to the sentimental and spiritual importance of these recordings and rises them to a level above tangibility.


If you’re familiar with bluesman Robert Johnson, it is kind of the same feeling and story associated with him and his recordings. The age-old story behind Robert Johnson is that he made a deal with the devil to master the guitar, became a successful blues recording artist, and died shortly after his success hit at the young age of 27 (27 Club). When you listen to his recordings, it’s hard not to conjure feelings about the nature of his death and how it influences the way you perceive his recordings. I feel the same phenomena applies here. Perhaps the basis for these overwhelming feelings is not solely found in their performance, but it also lies in the way we perceive their music through the context we’ve applied to their being.


Now, with this context somewhat defined, we can review Mountain Jam in its entirety. Mountain Jam is more than just a song; it is a metaphorical obituary of the journey of life.


It begins with a light, creeping closer and growing wider. You’re welcomed to the world that you’ll grow to know. It’s your early years and you may not be able to recognize it, but there are bigger things that await. But for now, grow. The band grooves an introduction similar to that of our birth into our early years.


Soon, we grow a little older and our life begins to make sense. Puberty hits and we start to see things a little differently. We inevitably begin to chase our rightful freedoms and the ability to express ourselves independently. We may start with baby steps, wading to test the waters, but soon we end up immersed and flying full speed ahead. Duane’s solo marks the beginning of our transition to adulthood, and Gregg and Dickey carry it the rest of the way. Invincibility takes control. Sure, there are little blemishes in our life that cause the occasional down and outs and make our heads spin, but that’s what happens when you experiment with life in your younger days. There’s not enough time in this stage to focus on these however. Keep grooving and you’re bound to make it to where you need to be.


When you’re flying high and climbing, it’s hard to notice the changes occurring on the ground below you. Today they’re ants, but tomorrow they’ll be giants. Regardless, things begin to slow as life settles in. You’ve gotten to where you believe you’ve needed to be by now. You’ve found love and proved it, and that’s enough. Things become more mundane and routine. You notice your head beginning to spin a little more and more each day. Life drones on, but you are still pushing uphill. Suddenly, you realize what’s coming.


Crisis. We are about halfway there after all. It is in these final steps to the mountain peak where we face the greatest of challenges, but reap the best of rewards if we succeed. The co-drum solo from Butch and Jaimoe squeezes out all of the demons you’ve acquired throughout life and demands you confront them. Thunder and lightning. Waves crashing. Earth shaking beneath your feet. You think for a second you may be able to find a grip in all this, but again you’re shaken to the ground. But not all hope has faded. Soon you recognize joy, and the spontaneity of life, and find yourself on the climb out from the crevasse you’ve fallen into some time ago. All the gears of your life are starting to reorganize. Berry reenters. You may not be out of it yet, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel, the peak is in vision. Gather a hold of yourself and tread on. Trust more life is coming. There’s got to be more.


And it has then arrived. Duane, Dickey, and Gregg pull you the rest of the way to the top of the mountain. Everything that stood in your way has been overcome, with the help of your loved ones. Harmony reenters your life and notions of darkness fade. Each day you grow anew. In a peaceful solitude, Duane caresses you, sliding between memories. Slowly, you become more proud and excited of what you’ve done and where you’ve come. At the mountain top, you can scream as loud as you want, for as long as you want. There’s room to fall if you lose footing, the rest of the mountain is there to hold you up. Quickly you’re reminded you’re not alone. What about all the others that have been in your life? They’re all here with you, let them know how you feel. And Duane does. It’s getting late, you know there’s a tomorrow, the sun must be setting soon.


Life moves a little slower. You start to come down off the mountain top, on the other side, but you take your time knowing everything you’ve conquered. You don’t just see the beauty in everyone and everything, but you comprehend its value. Peace finds you after all the time where you weren’t sure if you’d find it. All the pain melts from your pores, synthesizing into new life for the others you’ll leave behind.


You’re ready to say goodbye. But, there has to be one more celebration before the ones who love you can let you go. The light which you saw as you came into this world reappears as you prepare to leave it. All the memories, friendships, love, peace, and happiness carry you to the end. To where all things truly end. At least, you’ve overcome the mountain that you’ve been challenged to face from your first day. And in your final moments, your words count more than they ever have. “Berry Oakley, Dickey Betts, Butch Trucks, Jai Johanny Johnson, Gregg Allman, and I’m Duane Allman. Thank you.”

These words are forever engrained in my mind. Every time I listen to Mountain Jam or think about Mountain Jam, I can hear Duane’s words. They are the only audible words throughout the entire Mountain Jam recording and occur right at the very end before it returns to silence. It is the perfect ending not just to an outstanding song, but to a symbolic performance and presentation of life, and simultaneously represents the life of Duane Allman. “Thank you”. Straight from the mouth of the one who created it all. It’s not just a thank you to the crowd though, it’s a thank you to everyone he’s friends with and loved and to the people who find the remnants of his path long after he’s been gone. It is with these words that you realize the power of what you’ve just witnessed. The final goodbye, set in stone, on the record, and it’s the most expressive goodbye Duane could offer. All of his musical skills showcased with every ounce of his person, both in a hot, fiery, blaze and in a beautifully mournful manner, and surrounded by his brothers. What better way to go out than with a Mountain Jam?

If you would like to hear more of Duane’s recordings, or want to start with a shorter song, here are some of my personal favorites from his time as a studio musician and with the Allman Brothers Band:


(Song (year) – Artist – Album)

Melissa (1968) – Duane Allman and Gregg Allman – Duane & Gregg

Please Be With Me (1971) – Cowboy – An Anthology

Statesboro Blues (1971) – The Allman Brothers Band – At Filmore East

Dreams (1969) – The Allman Brothers Band – The Allman Brothers Band

Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’ (1971) – The Allman Brothers Band – At Filmore East (Deluxe)

I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town (1970) – The Allman Brothers Band – Live at Ludlow

Drunken Hearted Boy (1971) – The Allman Brothers Band – At Filmore East (Deluxe)

Trouble No More (1971) – The Allman Brothers Band – Eat A Peach

Blue Sky (1971) – The Allman Brothers Band – Eat A Peach

Little Martha (1971) – The Allman Brothers Band – Eat A Peach

Down Along The Cove – Johnny Jenkins – An Anthology

Hey Jude (1969) – Wilson Pickett – Hey Jude

Waiting For A Train (1969) – Boz Scaggs – Boz Scaggs

It Ain’t Fair (1970) – Aretha Franklin – This Girl’s in Love with You

Layla (1970) – Derek & The Dominos – Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs

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