"I'll get up and fly away...fly away..."

The Annotated "Wharf Rat"

An installment in The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics.
By David Dodd
Research Associate, Music Dept., University of California Santa Cruz
"Wharf Rat"
Words by Robert Hunter; Music by Jerry Garcia
Copyright Ice Nine Publishing; used by permission.

Wharf rat down [sung as Old man down]
way down
down, down by the docks of the city,
Blind and dirty
asked me for a dime--
dime for a cup of coffee

I got no dime but
I got time to hear his story:

My name is August West
and I love my Pearly Baker best
more than my wine
...more than My wine
more than my maker
though he's no friend of mine

Everyone said
I'd come to no good
I knew I would
Pearly believed them

Half of my life
I spent doin' time for
some other fucker's crime
Other half found me stumbling around
drunk on burgundy wine

But I'll get back
on my feet someday
The good Lord willing
if He says I may
'cause I know the life I'm
livin's no good
I'll get a new start
live the life I should

I'll get up and fly away
I'll get up and
fly away...
...fly away

Pearly's been true
true to me, true to my dying day he said
I said to him:
I'm sure she's been
I said to him:
I'm sure she's been true to you

I got up and wandered
Wandered downtown
nowhere to go
just to hang around
I got a girl
named Bonny Lee
I know that girl's been true to me
I know she's been
I'm sure she's been
true to me

"Wharf Rat"

Hunter has posted a page from the mansucript for "Wharf Rat."

Recorded on

Covered by

First performance: February 18, 1971, at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, NY. "Wharf Rat" appeared in the first set, sandiwched between two segments of "Dark Star." Other firsts in the show included "Bertha," "Greatest Story Ever Told," "Johnny B. Goode," "Loser," and "Playing in the Band." It remained in the repertoire thereafter.

From the Dictionary of Americanisms:

2. Wharf rat,...(b)one who is frequently found on or near wharves, esp. a vagrant or petty criminal who haunts wharves...1836Franklin Repository (Chambersburg, PA) 4 Oct 1/3 "I've an idea, my man, that you are one of the wharf rats; and, if so, the less lip you give me the better."

Additionally, the Wharf Rats are the name of a group of loosely-organized sober Deadheads, patterning themselves roughly on the Alcoholics Anonymous model of a twelve-step program to maintain sobriety in the often slippery atmosphere of a Grateful Dead concert. Their motto is "One show at a time." They put out a newsletter, and may be reached at:

P.O. Box 357
Haddon Heights, NJ 08035

These notes on a possible overall similarity/influence on the piece from two readers:

From: David Callaway [mailto:drcallaway@ucdavis.edu]
Sent: Friday, August 08, 2003 1:33 PM

Hi Mr. Dodd,

Really love your project. Have been through many times over the years. Was reading something today and remembered a link I've always thought of -- Wharf Rat and "The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner" -- mostly in the narrative device of storytelling.

Again, thanks for the great tool!

David Callaway

From: Bill Parry [mailto:BILLP@digrec.com]
Sent: Friday, October 10, 2003 6:37 AM

Hi, David.

Your site is absolutely awesome - keep up the good work, brother. It is a testimonial to the lasting effect of the Dead on the world that their music continues to inspire such animated discussion seven years after Garcia's unfortunate demise.

I am writing about Wharf Rat. Your annotations are excellent, but I am wondering if this thought ever occurred to anyone else. Hunter is a highly literate person (witness the Dame Edith Sitwell references in China Cat), and the story in this song always struck me as being remarkably similar in context to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the text of which can be found at:


There are certain eerie similarities: the passerby stopped by a down-and-out character, the wild yet true story of how the unfortunate came to be there, and especially the way in which the passerby is moved by the tale to examine his own life in light of what the down-and-out tells him.

I probably heard Garcia sing this song 25-30 times at various concerts over the years, and I never failed to be impressed by the similarities between the two stories. In some ways, you might say that Wharf Rat is an updated telling of a similar story in a different idiom in a different century....


from the pi Man

P.S.: Here are the final stanzas of Rime:

And ever and anon through out his future life an agony constraineth him to travel from land to land ;
Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns :
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.
I pass, like night, from land to land ;
I have strange power of speech ;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me :
To him my tale I teach.

What loud uproar bursts from that door !
The wedding-guests are there :
But in the garden-bower the bride
And bride-maids singing are :
And hark the little vesper bell,
Which biddeth me to prayer !

O Wedding-Guest ! this soul hath been
Alone on a wide wide sea :
So lonely 'twas, that God himself
Scarce seeméd there to be.

O sweeter than the marriage-feast,
'Tis sweeter far to me,
To walk together to the kirk
With a goodly company !--

To walk together to the kirk,
And all together pray,
While each to his great Father bends,
Old men, and babes, and loving friends
And youths and maidens gay !

And to teach, by his own example, love and reverence to all things that God made and loveth.
Farewell, farewell ! but this I tell
To thee, thou Wedding-Guest !
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small ;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

The Mariner, whose eye is bright,
Whose beard with age is hoar,
Is gone : and now the Wedding-Guest
Turned from the bridegroom's door.

He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn :
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.

Asked me for a dime, a dime for a cup of coffee

This note from a reader:
From: scott matter [mailto:scoma@hotmail.com]
Sent: Saturday, January 11, 2003 8:27 PM
Subject: Wharf Rat note

Hi David,

I just watched On the Waterfront (Marlon Brando, dir. by Elia Kazan) and had a thought. The line from the first verse of Wharf Rat (asked me for a dime, a dime for a cup of coffee) is very similar to lines from a particular scene in the movie.

It's the scene where Terry Malloy is walking from the church with Edie (after the union has come to break up a meeting of potential 'rats.' An old bum in the park stops the couple and asks them "can you spare a dime? Just a dime for a cup of coffee?"

It seems like Hunter might have had this movie in mind (or part of it anyways) when writing Wharf Rat. At least the similarity in this one line is interesting.

take care,


August West

Garcia's only known artwork titled after a Grateful Dead song lyric was "August West (Wharf Rat)" measuring 8.5 x 5.75", offered on eBay at $55,000 in November, 2001.

Pearly Baker

This note from a reader:
Date: Tue, 30 Sep 1997 19:56:50 -0700
From: Joyce Kohnke
Subject: wharf rat

What's up David. I wanted to point out the line:

I love my Pearly Baker best
More than my wine
Back in the era of prohibition, the Rev. Purley Baker was the head of the Anti-Saloon League of America. This group lead the fight for prohibition in America. Who knows? Keep up the good work!

Walt K

Well! This is an amazing note. Purley Baker did indeed head up the Anti-Saloon league from 1903 to the early 1920's. In the song, of course, Pearly Baker, with the different spelling, becomes a woman. But the reference has interesting implications for the song's meaning-which, of course, I leave up to you.

August West

There is an interesting discussion on the Deadlit conference at the WELL (Topic #251) which points up a possible link to the line in the song "Days Between":
"Summer flies and August dies
The world grows dark and mean."
The speculation in this discussion includes the possibility that August West of "Wharf Rat" is a Garcia personality--since Garcia's birthdate was in August.

And this note from a reader:

Subject: Wharf Rat
Date: Mon, 25 Nov 1996 17:35:35 -0800
From: Joe Berentes


I was browsing some of the entries on your page and came across the discussion regarding the name August West.

It seems to me this name is symbolic of the derilict's life. August marks the end of summer, a time of happiness and life. Also, of course, the sun sets in the west, marking the end of a day. August West is a man who is well past the summer of his life and whose days are drawing to a close.

Just a thought. Thanks for the great reading.


I'll get up and fly away

Compare the folk song "I'll Fly Away."
One bright morning, when this life is o'er
I'll fly away,
To that home on God's celestial shore
I'll fly away.

I'll fly away (O glory)
I'll fly away (in the morning)
When I die, Hallelujah bye and bye,
I'll fly away, fly away.

When the shadows of this life have gone
Like a bird from prison bars has flown

Just a few more weary days and then
To a land where joys shall never end

keywords: @alcohol, @august, @god, @law
DeadBase code: [WRAT]
First posted: September 29, 1995
Last revised: October 10, 2003