"I know it's been seen before through other eyes on other days..."

The Annotated "Box of Rain"

An installment in The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics.
By David Dodd
Library, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs
Copyright notice
"Box of Rain"
Words by Robert Hunter; music by Phil Lesh
Copyright Ice Nine Publishing; used by permission.

Look out of any window
any morning, any evening, any day
Maybe the sun is shining
birds are winging or
rain is falling from a heavy sky -
What do you want me to do,
to do for you to see you through?
this is all a dream we dreamed
one afternoon long ago

Walk out of any doorway
feel your way, feel your way
like the day before
Maybe you'll find direction
around some corner
where it's been waiting to meet you -
What do you want me to do,
to watch for you while you're sleeping?
Well please don't be surprised
when you find me dreaming too

Look into any eyes
you find by you, you can see
clear through to another day
I know it's been seen before
through other eyes on other days
while going home
What do you want me to do,
to do for you to see you through?
It's all a dream we dreamed
one afternoon long ago

Walk into splintered sunlight
Inch your way through dead dreams
to another land
Maybe you're tired and broken
Your tongue is twisted
with words half spoken
and thoughts unclear
What do you want me to do
to do for you to see you through
A a box of rain will ease the pain
and love will see you through

Just a box of rain -
wind and water -
Believe it if you need it,
if you don't just pass it on
Sun and shower -
Wind and rain -
in and out the window
like a moth before a flame

It's just a box of rain
I don't know who put it there
Believe it if you need it
or leave it if you dare
But it's just a box of rain
or a ribbon for your hair
Such a long long time to be gone
and a short time to be there

"Box of Rain"

Musical details:

Recorded on

Covered by

First performance: October 9, 1972, at the Winterland Arena, San Francisco. It appeared in the first set, following "El Paso" and preceding "China Cat Sunflower." Disappeared from the repertoire less than a year later, but was brought back on March 20, 1986, at the Coliseum in Hampton, Virginia. It has remained in the repertoire ever since, often being sung in response to a chant from Deadheads of "We Want Phil!"

Hunter notes in his anthology of lyrics, named for this song,

"Phil Lesh wanted a song to sing to his dying father and had composed a piece complete with every vocal nuance but the words. If ever a lyric 'wrote itself,' this did--as fast as the pen would pull."

From Classic Albums: American Beauty, a film by Jeremy Marre:

Lesh (On "Box of Rain"): The lyrics came about in an unusual way. This was the first time I had written a song in a long time, and I had worked out the melody and the chords, and in fact the whole song, from beginning to end—introduction, coda, and everything—and I put it on a tape and gave it to Hunter.

Hunter: He'd just written these lovely changes and put 'em on a tape on a tape for me, and he sang along (scat singing of melody)—so the phrasing was all there, I think I went through it two or three times, writing as fast as I could, and that song was written. I guess it was written for a young man whose father was dying.

Lesh: And at that time, my dad was dying of cancer, and I would drive out to visit with him, in the hospital, and also at the nursing home he spent his final days in, and after Bob gave me the lyrics, on the way out there I would practice singing the song. I sort of identified that song with my dad and his approaching death. The lyrics that he produced were so apt, so perfect. It was very moving, very moving for me to experience that during the period of my dad's passing. I felt like singing it in other situations similar to that since then.

There is a short essay about the song in Rock Voices: the Best Lyrics of an Era, edited by Matt Damsker. St. Martin's, 1980. p. 51.

Deadlit topic #221 on the WELL is about the song, and contains some wonderful insights.

Carl Hiaasen's book Stormy Weather (1995) has a wonderful passage in which the lead character, Skink, sings "Box of Rain" to a child in a shelter for people left homeless by a hurricane. Great book!

Look out of any window

This note from Ives Chor:
Date: Thu, 5 Oct 95 16:03:35 TZ
From: Ives Chor

Bruce Hornsby recorded a song called "Look Out Any Window" on his Scenes From the Southside album.

thanks for keeping up the good work!


this is all a dream we dreamed one afternoon long ago

Compare to the line in "Stella Blue"

seen before

Much of this song, for me, resonates with "Ripple." In particular, the two lines: "I know it's been seen before through other eyes," and "words half spoken and thoughts unclear," bring to mind the line from "Ripple": "It's a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken." The two songs serve to set each other off in a number of ways, not least of which is by their very placement on the album. "Box of Rain" starts side one, "Ripple" starts side two. It's a distinction that gets lost in the world of compact discs, but one of which Hunter was always aware. (See Steve Silberman's interview with Hunter.) Another resonance between the two songs is the watery imagery of rain and ripples.

on other days while going home

The title of a book by Michelle Carter (Morrow, 1987).

box of rain

A perfect phrase, and perfectly resistant to firm interpretation. I always think of the boxes of Joseph Cornell, which evoke the same fleeting sense of loss as this song.

This exchange appeared in Hunter's mailbag on 8/6/96:

Date: Jul 25 1996 12:36 AM EDT
From: cebass@pacbell.net (Charles E. Bass)

Dear Robert,

After reading through a number of Mailbags posted at your web site, I finally decided that it was time to contribute a thought and a question.

Between your evocative, thoughtful lyrics and Jerry's powerful melodies, I have aphorisms and meditations a-plenty to help me through my days and in my life. For that, thank you, thank you, thank you.

I sat down the other day and figured out the chord changes to Mission in the Rain. My wife (who is not a deadhead) especially likes that song. Maybe it is because we live in San Francisco and there is a reference to the Mission. When I play it she always starts dancing.

Robert, if you would, please tell me what you were thinking when you penned the phrase "box of rain." What, for you, does a box of rain represent. I am not asking for the meaning of the song, or for you to explain the song to me -- I spent plenty of time on my own doing that. I am just terribly curious how you came to choose that image.

Well, I won't take any more bandwith. There is much I would like to say, but I've said it in my mind for so long now, it feels funny and self-conscious trying to put onto "paper."

Charlie Bass


well, I don't like to do this, since it encourages others to ask about what I had in mind when I wrote a song, and mostly you'd need to have my mind to understand even approximately what I had in it. By "box of rain," I meant the world we live on, but "ball" of rain didn't have the right ring to my ear, so box it became, and I don't know who put it there.


moth before a flame

This line resonates with several proverbial and poetic snippets:

Rosalie Sorrels' album Always a Lady (Green Linnet CSIF 2110) has a wonderful song about a moth: "The Moth."

The ultimate moth web site appears to be the Northern Prairie Science Center's Moths of the U.S.A., although the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University Entomology Department's site about the Gypsy Moth gives it a good run for its money.

The Smithsonian institution offers this beautiful image of a moth.

And this note from a reader:

Date: Tue, 13 Aug 96 08:48:14 0800
From: anielsen@san_marcos.csusm.edu

Hi, David,

Well, i teach first-year writing to students at California State University, San Marcos, and one of the authors i chose last semester to explicate was Pulitzer winner Annie Dillard. The text i chose was the short story, "The Moth," in which Dillard uses a moth burning in a candle as an allegory for an individual's decision to live a passionate life (that's one interpretation, of course). Whenever i listen to Box of Rain, i think of this image, because it has always seemed to me that the Box of Rain helped you out of those difficult parts of life and reinspired you. Dillard's moth acts the same way for me.

So there you go. I know that Dillard wrote her essay in the early seventies, so it would be contemporaneous at least with the writing of the song. FWIW. Thanks again for your tremendous efforts!

aaron nielsenshultz

And a message written by Julie Ostoich, an early Deadhead friend of mine from Davis, California:

From: Julie Ostoich <jostoich@medradpo3.ucdmc.ucdavis.edu>
DateFri, 11 Aug 95 18:09:00 PDT

For about a week before Jerry died there was a moth on my front door. It was beautiful unlike the common drab moths that normally flutter and dive at the porch light. It was a rich brown color with orange markings. It was odd in that it didn't move at all from the same spot. I tried to be careful not to let the screen door slam so as not to disturb it, but, often I forgot and even still, the moth remained fixed in the same spot at my eye level - so I couldn't help but see it. I nudged it once to see if it were alive...it was. At 8:40am on August 9th my friend Richard called from Indiana and told me to sit down. I knew what he was going to say. After the initial shock and series of emotional wailing episodes that went on for awhile, I stepped outside into the sunlight to see what the world looked like without Jerry in it. I felt the void. Emptiness. Sadly, I returned to my house and noticed immediately the moth was gone. I searched everywhere, but, there was no sign of it.

Later, I told my friend Sunny about it and she said the description of the moth sounded like a Death's Head Moth...a particular type of moth that has skull like markings on its head.

I'm not sure if that's what it was, but, I know I will never see that particular moth again. I'm glad it showed itself to me.

ribbon for your hair

Resonance with "It Must Have Been the Roses":
"The roses, or the ribbons, in her long, brown hair..."

long long time to be gone and a short time to be there

This note from a reader:
Date: Wed, 03 Jan 96 09:03:29 -0800
From: alex allan
Subject: Box of Rain

You may have spotted the posting below on r.m.g which gives an interesting echo of a phrase from "Box of Rain":

mazingg (mazingg@tiac.net) wrote:
While listening to Pete Seeger's Children's Concert At Town Hall with my 4 year old this morning, I nearly fell over when Pete sang a song called "Little Birdie". Here's the lyrics, as performed almost 33 years ago:

Little Birdie ("an old Southern mountain banjo tune")
As performed by Pete Seeger who learned it from a member of the Coon Creek Girls when they were visiting New York in 1940 from Kentucky.

Little birdie, little birdie,
What makes you fly so high?

It's because I am a true little bird
and I do not fare to die.

Little birdie, little birdie,
What makes your wings so blue?

It's because I been a-grievin,
a-grievin after you.

Little birdie, little birdie,
What makes your head so red?

After all that I been through,
its a wonder I aint dead.

Little birdie, little birdie,
come sing to me your song.

I've a short while to be here,
and a long time to be gone.

Little birdie, little birdie,
What makes you fly so high?

Its because I am a true little bird
and I do not fare to die.

Chris Zingg
Providence, RI

Happy New Year

Alex Allan

keywords: @belief
DeadBase code: [BOX]
First posted: August 15, 1995
Last revised: May 16, 1997