"Stranger ones have come by here before they flew away"

The Annotated "China Doll"

An installment in The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics.
By David Dodd and Rob Meador

Copyright notice
A Subjective Interpretive Note
"China Doll"
Words by Robert Hunter; music by Jerry Garcia
Copyright Ice Nine Publishing; used by permission

A pistol shot at 5 o'clock
The bells of heaven ring
"Tell me what you done it for"
"No I won't tell you a thing

"Yesterday I begged you
before I hit the ground -

all I leave behind me
is only what I found

"If you can abide it
let the hurdy-gurdy play -
Stranger ones have come by here
before they flew away

"I will not condemn you
nor yet would I deny"
"I would ask the same of you
but failing will not die

"Take up your china doll
it's only fractured -
and just a little nervous
from the fall"

"China Doll"

Recorded on

Covered by

First live performance February 9, 1973 at Roscoe Maples Pavilion, Stanford Univeristy, California. "China Doll" appeared in the second set between "Eyes of the World" and "Big River." Other firsts at this show were:

Originally titled "The Suicide Song."

Erstwhile band member Bruce Hornsby included a song of his own composition entitled "China Doll" on his Harbor Lights album.

bells of heaven ring

The African-American "judgment-day song" "Didn't You Hear" contains the line ""Didn't you hear the heaven bells ring?" (Courlander,, p. 334.)

Also compare the hymn title "Ring the Bells of Heaven."

There is no direct Biblical reference to this concept that I can find.

Cirlot says of the bell as a symbol:

"Its sound is a symbol of creative power. Since it is in a hanging position, it partakes of the mystic significance of all objects which are suspended between heaven and earth. It is related, by its shape, to the vault and, consequently, to the heavens."

Yesterday I begged you
before I hit the ground -

William Camden, an antiquary and scholar who lived between 1551 and 1623, wrote in his Remains Concerning Britain:

Betwixt the stirrup and the ground, Mercy I ask'd; mercy I found.

These lines express the Christian (Catholic?) concept that even in the split second as you fall dying from your horse, there is still time to repent, ask for mercy, and be given absolution.

If you can abide it

Hunter's choice of the word abide brings to mind the 1847 poem Abide With Me by Henry F. Lyte:

Abide with me,
Fast falls the eventide.
The darkness deepens;
Lord, with me abide.
When other helpers fail
And comforts flee,
Help of the helpless,
Oh, abide with me.


Lark In The Morning's catalog entries on the hurdy-gurdy, and an article on the history of the instrument, also from Lark in the Morning.

A hurdy-gurdy page from Alden Hackmann.

The line may bring up a resonance with the Donovan song, "Hurdy Gurdy Man," (1968: words and music by Harold Levey).

And this note from a reader:

Subject: China Doll
Date: Thu, 25 Jan 2001 14:24:06 -0000
From: Hennessy Mike

David - I returned to your GD lyric pages today after something of an hiatus (3 years?) and had great fun browsing though them as I had done before in another time's forgotten space.

On "China Doll": the hurdy-gurdy is of course often depicted in late Mediaeval/early Renaissance art being played by a skeleton (ha!) at the side of a dying man. Most famously it can be seen in Pieter Breughel's majestic "Triumph of Death" played by a skeleton watching the enormous rampant destruction of Life by Death passing before his eyes.

Click on the thumbnail at http://www.arthistory.cc/auth/bruegel/index.htm and look at the hurdy-gurdy-playing bag-of-bones leering over the lovers in the bottom right-hand corner.

Excellent site!


Stranger ones have come by here

cf. Exodus 2:

21 And Moses was content to dwell with the man: and he gave Moses Zipporah his daughter.
22 And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.

Also, the famous Robert Heinlein novel Stranger in a Strange Land

before they flew away

cf. Bird Song:
All I know she sang a little while
and then flew on

I will not condemn you

In keeping with the kind of Christian metaphor here, Jesus was officially condemned by Pontius Pilate. But even more important, Pilate offered the people a choice-- he would release either the thief Barabbas or Jesus. The people wanted Barabbas. Pilate then argued with them that Jesus would be the better choice, but the people insisted on condemning Jesus.

nor yet would I deny

Peter, one of the disciples of Jesus, denied knowing him three times in order to save his own skin. Jesus had predicted this would happen.


This song was originally titled The Suicide Song, and I at first looked at it as a dialog between a suicide and God or Jesus, where the suicide argues in favor of being allowed into heaven even though he/she committed what for Catholics is an unforgivable sin. But then an even more bizarre interpretation dawned on me, and well, you should always go with the bizarre.

I think one way to look at this song is to see it as a commentary on the threat of nuclear war. It imagines the aftermath of The Bomb in much the same way Morning Dew did. In this light, I see the song as a dialog between a Human (representing humankind) and a Creator in the wake of a nuclear holocaust where humans destroy themselves completely. The bombs are dispatched-- "a pistol shot at five o'clock"-- and the resulting holocaust shakes even "the bells of heaven", causing them to ring. The Creator, perhaps in despair of His destroyed work, asks the Human "Tell me what you done it for". The Human refuses to "tell you a thing".

But then the Human points out that he/she had begged the Creator yesterday "before I hit the ground", a plea for mercy that the Creator was unable to give. The Human also consoles the Creator with "all I leave behind me is only what I found", meaning that while mankind and its works are destroyed, the earth will eventually recover and life will go on. The Human then asks "if you can abide it let the hurdy-gurdy play", meaning even though mankind is so flawed as to create the means of its own destruction, let it be born again out of the ashes of its self-destruction. After all, "stranger ones" than we have come and gone in the pageant of the cosmos.

Finally, the Human promises that unlike in the time of Jesus, "I will not condemn you nor yet would I deny", perhaps signaling a promise of a new birth in spirituality among humankind. The Human then asks the Creator to also refrain from condemning or denying its creation just because it is flawed, but assures the Creator that in any case, it "will not die".

In the last part, the Human reassures the Creator that his creation will survive even this self-destruction, that the Creator can "Take up your china doll" (the earth/life), which isn't destroyed but "only fractured, just a little nervous from the fall".

How's that for way over-thinking this song!!!

--Rob Meador

keywords: @music, @bells, @suicide, @gun
DeadBase code: [DOLL]
First posted: May 26, 1995
Last revised: January 26, 2001