Grateful Dead & Nursery Rhymes

Grateful Goose?

The Grateful Dead's Lyrics and Nursery Rhymes

A thematic essay for The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics

David Dodd
University of Colorado at Colorado Springs

Copyright notice
Who can say where all the flights of fancy come from that proceed from the pen of Robert Hunter? No telling. Careful listening, however, reveals a strong tendency toward the ancient form of the nursery rhyme, in Hunter's lyrics, and in Grateful Dead songs in general. From Hunter's first lyric for the band, "Alligator," in which he echoes 'Old King Cole," to Barlow's "Throwing Stones," nursery rhymes have provided both text and rhythm, and seem to fit particularly well into the playful sound of the Dead.

Consider the evidence:

Picture Bob Weir up there screaming those age-old lines: "Rain, rain, go away, "and "Ashes, ashes, all fall down."

Turn up Aoxomoxoa and catch the words: "Heigh, ho, the carrion crow, folderolderiddle" from "Mountains of the Moon;" "Is it all fall down, is it all go under?" from "Doin' That Rag." And if "St. Stephen" isn't a perfect example (along with "Ramble on Rose") of nursery rhyme format, I don't know what is.

Nursery rhymes have contributed to the lyrics of popular song since long before the Grateful Dead. "Mairzy Doats" is an example from the 1930's; "Good Golly Miss Molly" is another example. Doubtless there are tens, if not hundreds more such examples. And the trend continues to the present, having been used since by the Beatles quite often, noticeably in the "Abbey Road" chant "One two three four five six seven, all good children go to heaven."

For an excellent study of the use of nursery rhymes in popular music, see Popular Music Perspectives, by B. Lee Cooper.

There are quite a large number of collections of nursery rhymes, and the best are Iona and Peter Opie's The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, and The Annotated Mother Goose. So if these sketchy notes intrigue you at all, go find these books--they make surprisingly fun reading.

Two things become clear as you read books about these rhymes. First, they cannot be dated. They are ancient, and may have been collected as recently as a hundred years ago. Second, they are difficult to interpret. Scholars have, over the years, written lengthy conjectural articles on the possible meanings of just about every rhyme, and can never seem to agree on any single interpretation.

Aside from the songs already noted, here are some more examples of lyrics showing evidence of nursery rhyme influence:

As an interesting footnote to this last rhyme, its source is apparently a children's version of the May Ridings, a customary celebration of spring where two or three ride a horse simultaneously, and which has been identified by folklorists as an outgrowth of fertility rites connected with the Teutonic goddess Hertha, so that the lady in the rhyme is actually of divine descent, and her bells and attendant music are part of her worship.

Familiar from "Blues for Allah":

"Flour of England, Fruit of Spain,
Met together in a shower of rain..."
"Althea" contains a reference to that familiar rhyme for the days of the week:
"Monday's child is fair of face,
Tuesday's child is full of grace,
Wednesday's child is full of woe,
Thursday's child has far to go,
Friday's child is loving and giving,
Saturday's child works hard for his living,
And the child that is born on the Sabbath day
Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay."
"Throwing Stones" takes two rhymes for its sources:
"If all the world were paper,
And all the sea were ink,"
which correspond to:
"If the spirit's sleeping,
Then the flesh is ink"
And, of course, there is the chant/chorus:
A pocket full of posies,
Ashes, Ashes, all fall down."

Deadheads and Barlow may be interested to learn that the rhyme was previously used in the context of comment on nuclear capabilities for destruction in a rhyme published in 1949 in the Observer:

A Pocket full of urnaium,
Hiro, shima, all fall down!"

And one final example, pointing to the counting rhyme in "The Eleven"

"Twelve huntsmen with horn and hounds,
Hunting over other men's grounds,
Eleven ships sailing o'er the main,
Some bound for France and some for Spain,
Ten comets in the sky,
Some low and some high;
Nine peacocks in the air,
I wonder how they all came there,
I don't know nore I don't care; ["Ripple?!"]
Eight joiners in joiner's hall,
Working with their tools and all;
Seven lobsters in a dish,
As fresh as any heart could wish;
Six beetles against a wall,
Close by an old woman's apple stall;
Five puppies by our dog Ball,
Who daily for their breakfast call;
Four horses stuck in a bog,
Three monkeys tied to a clog,
Two pudding ends would choke a dog,
With a gaping wide-mouthed waddling frog."

First posted: February, 1995
Last revised May 10, 1995