"The one thing we need is a left-hand monkey wrench"

The Annotated "Greatest Story Ever Told"

An installment in The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics.
By David Dodd
1997-98 Research Associate, Music Dept., Univ. of Calif. at Santa Cruz

Copyright 1995-2001.
"Greatest Story Ever Told"
Words by Robert Hunter; music by Bob Weir
Copyright Ice Nine Publishing; used by permission

Moses came riding up on a guitar
His spurs were a-jingling, the door was ajar
His buckle was silver, his manner was bold
I asked him to come on in out of the cold
His brain was boiling, his reason was spent
He said if nothing was borrowed then nothing was lent
I asked him for mercy, he gave me a gun
Said Now n'again these things just got to be done

Abraham and Isaac
sitting on a fence
You'd get right to work
if you had any sense
Y'know the one thing we need
is a left-hand monkey wrench

Gideon come in with his eyes on the floor
Says: Y'ain't got a hinge, you can't close the door
Moses stood up a full six foot ten
Says: You can't close the door when the wall's caved in
I asked him for water, he poured me some wine
We finished the bottle then broke into mine
You get what you come for, you're ready to go
It's one in ten thousand just come for the show

Abraham and Isaac
Digging on a well
Mama come quick
with the water witch spell
Cool clear water
where you can't never tell

"Greatest Story Ever Told"

Recorded on

According to Hunter's note in Box of Rain,

"Also known as "Pumpman" and "Moses"--I wrote this to the rhythm of the pump in Mickey Hart's well."

First performed February 18, 1971 at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, N.Y. Other firsts in the show included "Bertha," "Johnny B. Goode," "Loser," "Playin' in the Band," and "Wharf Rat."

Also the title of a 1965 film, produced and directed by George Stevens, about the life of Jesus. Based on a book of the same title by Fulton Oursler.


A reference to the biblical figure, also alluded to in "Estimated Prophet", by John Perry Barlow.


Hunter notes, in Box of Rain:
"Bob Weir...sings quasar rather than guitar."

This note from a reader:

Sent: Tuesday, June 25, 2002 8:16 PM
Subject: Greatest Story ever told


I love your site, and i visit it all the time.

Just one very minor point: in the listing for "Greatest Story Ever Told," you point out that "Hunter notes in BOX OF RAIN: 'Bob Weir sings QUASAR rather than GUITAR.'" (referring to the line "moses came riding up on a guitar")

However, when the song was first sung with the Dead, Weir actually does say "GUITAR" rather than "QUASAR." The very first performance of the song was in Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY on February 18, 1971. I do not know when he actually started saying "quasar."

Again, great site... keep it up!

[name withheld by request]

Left-hand monkey wrench

Richard McKenna's book, The Left-Handed Monkey Wrench (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984), explains that the left-handed monkey wrench is an item every novice sailor is sent to fetch, as an initiation.

This is what's known in the folklore trade as a "fool's errand." Here's a list of similar tools which a new apprentice or recruit may be sent to find: (from Eric Partridge's A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, p. 1381.)


Jewish tribal leader, ca. 12th century B.C.E. His story is to be found in Judges, Chapters 6-8. He is
"remembered for mobilizing a force which at last put an end to annual raids at harvest time..." and "also remembered for having an exceptional penchant for oracle-seeking and divinatory inquiry..." (Anchor Bible Dictionary)

asked him for water...

Compare the line in the "Cool Drink of Water Blues":
"Well, I asked for water and
She gave me gasoline." (Oakley: The Devil's Music, p. 156)

And this note from a reader:

Steven wrote:

Hello David -

I can't begin to tell you how pleased I am to find your site!

I've been reading over some of the lyrics, and I think I have an annotation to add in "Greatest Story Ever Told"

I suspect that, in staying with the tonal quality of the rest of the song, the reference "asked him for water he poured me some wine" is not, related to the soug you suggest (Compare the line in the "Cool Drink of Water Blues": "Well, I asked for water and She gave me gasoline." (Oakley: The Devil's Music, p. 156) ).

Rather, I'd postulate that it's much simpler than that - another biblical reference. - Jesus' first miracle of turning water into wine. Then again, maybe I'm full of it!



Another note:

From: Patrick Donnelly [mailto:smilnoncloudyday@hotmail.com]
Sent: Tuesday, February 26, 2002 9:27 AM
Subject: AGDL: Greatest Story Ever Told

Hi David,

I know everyone begins their submissions with this, but I wholeheartedly agree: Your site is an invaluable and fantastic resource! Thanks for all the hard work!

I was reading through the Greatest Story Ever Told entry, and another reader had mentioned that Jesus' first miracle was turning water into wine, a possible interpretation of the line "I asked him for water, he poured me some wine". However I would think that it is related to a different passage in the bible. When Jesus was hanging from the cross, he asked the Roman guards for a drink of water. Instead, they filled a sponge with old wine (vinegar) and put it to his lips. This might be something your readers would be interested in.

Keep up the good work! Peace

-Patrick Donnelly

Cool clear water

This note from a reader:
From: clifford stephens [mailto:cliffrojousa@netscape.net]
Sent: Thursday, October 24, 2002 8:49 AM
Subject: Greatest Story ever told

Love your site.

I married a farm girl who listens to C&W. (Go figure) But was listening to some of her Marty Robbins (El Paso, Big Iron) stuff the other day and the song "Cool Water" and the last line in his song is "Cool clear water" repeated twice.

Keep up the great work!

keywords: @bible, @water, @wine
DeadBase code: [GREA]
First posted: March 23, 1995
Last revised: November 27, 2002