Music/Lyrics: Norman Blake
Original Artist: Norman Blake
Original Album: Back Home in Sulphur Springs (1971)
Historian: Dan Mielcarz (ColForbin)
Last Update: 2014-06-19
"Ginseng Sullivan" is a tale of woe concerning a man searching for his big break in the ginseng industry so he can return to his “muddy water Mississippi Delta home.” Possibly the most popular of the bluegrass covers due to its references to the touring ethos, it enjoyed a steady spot in the rotation since its 1993 debut until the hiatus.
Phish’s cover contains a number of lyrical changes to the chorus. Norman Blake’s version is: “It’s a long way to the Delta from the North Georgia Hills/And a tote sack full of ginseng won’t pay no travelin’ bills/And I’m too old to ride the rails or thumb the road alone”; Phish changes it to “It’s a long way from the Delta to the North Georgia hills/And a coal sack full of ginseng won’t pay no travelin’ bills/And I’m too old to ride the rails off on the road alone.” Given that the protagonist of the song is wistfully longing to get back to the Delta from Georgia, the “from/to” switch is a fairly big mistake. The following video features Norman Blake explaining the origin of the song, and playing the outstanding original version:
Norman Blake, “Ginseng Sullivan”
The debut of "Ginseng" on 8/11/93 and a later appearance on 8/20/93 (and possibly others) featured Trey on amplified acoustic guitar and Fish on the Madonna washboard with Page and Mike on their normal instruments. Later that month, on 8/25/93 in Seattle, the band played an all-acoustic version, followed by an all-acoustic version of "Nellie Kane." This acoustic trend continued in spring/summer 1994 (4/13/94, 4/23/94, and 6/16/94, for example). The 10/10/94 version includes Steve Cooley as a guest on banjo.
Phish, “Ginseng Sullivan” - 2/16/97 Cologne, Germany
Following 1994, "Ginseng" has been played electric, and most versions are similar. As such, a “Ginseng” fan should seek out versions from shows that have other reasons to recommend them, like The Great Went, or 11/29/97. If you are interested in hearing Mike flub the vocals, check out 7/21/99. "Ginseng" has been played much less frequently since the hiatus, appearing only on 4/17/04, and then remaining in limited rotation after its first appearance following the breakup on 11/21/09.