"And know the truth must still lie somewhere in between"

Ambiguity as a philosophical stance in the lyrics of the Grateful Dead

A thematic essay for the Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics.
By David Dodd
Research Associate, Music Dept.
University of California, Santa Cruz
(The opinions expressed are those of the author, not of the University of California.)

Copyright notice

"I don't know..."

A firm commitment to ambiguity underlies much of the overall message of the Grateful Dead. In lyrical terms, this finds expression both in the general vagueness of the lyrics, even when telling a story, and in the specific use of words such as "I don't know."

Not "knowing" becomes a philosophical stance, especially in the hands of lyricist Robert Hunter, who is often careful to place the phrase "I don't know" into songs, almost as a disclaimer, lest he be too readily cast in the role of prophet or seer.

David Gans, in an interview with Hunter in Conversations with the Dead, elicited this statement by the lyricist:

"I'd really prefer not to get into tearing apart the symbology of my songs. And I'll tell you why: symbols are evocative, and if there were a more definite way to say things, you'd say them that way. A symbol, by its very nature, can pull in many, many shades of meaning, depending on the emotional tone with which you engage the piece." --p. 23

Some examples (taken from songs by both Hunter and by John Perry Barlow):

Numerous other examples of uncertainty abound: "Nothing's for certain, it could always go wrong"--High Time; "Stephen would answer if he only knew how"--Saint Stephen; "Well well well, you can never tell"--Shakedown Street; and "His job is to share the light, and not to master"--Terrapin Station.

An interview in Golden Road with both Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia by Blair Jackson touches on this issue:

"Hunter: The evocative power of that mysterious line is what got to me--the notion of evocativeness rather than pat statements."
Garcia: The lack of specificness. It was the power of the almost- expressed, the resonant. It seemed to speak at some level other than the most obvious one, and it was more moving for that reason, since you don't know what it's about."(Spring, 1991, p. 28)

Even Hunter's reluctance to commit his songs to print reflects this commitment to ambiguity. In the preface to his collected lyrics, he says "My versions of these songs are no more 'the real ones' than those that may have spoken to some of you through the music darkly twenty years ago. I hope that seeing the intended words will provide you with an interesting, if not always convincing variant on the words some of you actually heard." (Box of Rain, Preface.)

(A nice comment from Hunter on this phenomenon occurs in his poem "Opening Statement", from his collection Sentinel:

"There is nothing more perfect
or pleasant than that we be here,
ear to ear, later to walk away
able to whistle the tune of it all,
the feeling if not the words which
duck into flame and are gone,..." )

This stance allows the band's careful listeners to be able to get as much out of a lyric as they are willing to put into it. The meanings of the songs change over time, they evolve within the minds of the listeners, just as any poetry, or, for that matter, any art, is open to constant interpretation and re- interpretation. It allows for countless repeated listenings without fear of boredom.

More importantly, though, the band is taking a position in relation to authority. They occupy the stage, but the words coming from the stage are not sermons, and they want to be unambiguous about their ambiguity. This is a very practical reflection of the 1960's values which gave rise to the band: to be "straight", i.e. sure of oneself and of what one believes, and willing to impose those beliefs on others, is not a desirable quality. This value permeated everything about the band, and is especially noticeable in the lyrics.

To say any more would be too definitive...

First posted: January 26, 1995
Last revised: April 11, 1995