"There is a road, no simple highway..."

No Simple Highway

by Elizabeth Greene
August 7, 1988
First Unitarian Church of Oakland

(Reprinted by permission of the author for the Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics. Copyright 1988 Elizabeth Greene. All rights reserved.)

Copyright notice

Nearly everyone in the Bay Area of California knows what a Deadhead is: it is a person who is devoted to the music of the rock group, The Grateful Dead. (I begin with that statement because I discovered that people in Boise, Idaho--where I am moving--don not all know what a Deadhead is.)

Now I am not a Deadhead. I don't "get it" in the way they do: The Grateful Dead's music doesn't enthrall me in quite the thoroughgoing way it does them.

But, it turns out, I am a Deadhead-by-association. For the last dozen or so years, some of my best friends have been Deadheads; I have, therefore, attended at least one concert a year, and have heard their albums a lot.

And, willy-nilly, I have begun to catch on. Take the song "Ripple." Precarious Vision sang it a little bit ago, and it is one of the Dead's best-known songs.

One day, for no apparent reason, the phrase "no simple highway" leaped out at me as I head the song. "'No simple highway'?!?! Sounds like life to me. No simple highway. Maybe I'd better pay a little closer attention." So I did. I discovered that the song basically knocked my socks off. The more I listened, the more I like it, the more it spoke to me in poetry's metaphorical voice.

Robert Hunter, the man who wrote the words, begins the song with a question:

"If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine
and my tunes were played on the harp unstrung,
Would you hear my voice come through the music?
Would you hold it near, as it were your own?"

I had heard that voice come through the music; I had held it near, as it were my own. By extension, I had heard the voices of my Deadhead friends a little better. [This service is, in one sense, for them, in gratitude for their voice. You know who you are.]

The song gets a good deal more complicated, though. Sort of like life. Right after posing the question, Hunter lapses into the quasi apologies that come to our lips so easily when we are trying to say something dear to our hearts:

"It's a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken;
Perhaps they're better left unsung."

He reconsiders, though:

"I don't know, don't really care.
Let there be songs to fill the air.

In the first verse, he has quite matter-of-factly presented us with messages a paradoxical as those we are always presenting each other. The hesitant question: will you hear me, will you not laugh, if I am trying to let my voice come through the music?; then the qualifiers: you probably won't be really interested in any case, it's OK, it wasn't that important; then the leap, anyway: I'm going to go ahead and try, whatever the odds, and I hope you add your voice.

When I take it out of the poetry (parenthetically--perhaps doing violence to the voice by that very process; when I take it out of the poetry, we can see that it is a rather confused message. And that's one of the main things I love about this song. It doesn't pretend to develop a single, well-delineated theme. Neither does life. We live squarely in the middle of confusion and paradox all the time.

To me, the primary paradox is the one Hunter addresses in his images, all the way through this song: we are alone on this road, this highway that is not a simple one. But we are also not alone.

Let's take the "alone" part for a minute--the knowledge of self as isolated from all others. It's the classic Existentialist problem, the modern person's search for meaning in the face of essential aloneness. It is a common theme.

Robert Petersen, in the poem David read about the death of Grateful Dead member Pigpen, wrings my heart with:

"thousands maybe millions
loved him
were fired instantly
into forty-five minutes of
midnight hour
but when he died
he was thin, sick, scared

In "Ripple," Hunter makes sure that we understand, by saying it in three different ways. See if these words don't echo your experience:
After the "no simple highway lines:

"And if you go, no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone."
A little later:
"You who choose to lead must follow,
but if you fall, you fall alone."
And just in case we missed it, he asks,
"If you should stand, then who's to guide you?"

When I was candidating for the Boise, Idaho, church a couple of weeks ago, I had one intense period of really understanding those lines. I was right in the middle of nine days in a strange town, meeting new people in exploring the very serious matter of possible mutual commitment--no old friends, no relatives, not even my cat--and I felt alone. The lines rang true for me: The path seemed for my steps alone; if I were called and accepted, I was choosing to lead, and knew I would have to follow also; as I stood, I didn't feel as though there was anyone to guide me. I had, in short, a fairly serious case of existential angst.

I was alone.

And yet I wasn't. At the same time I felt loneliness of the kind that sometimes leads to despair, I cherished the certain knowledge that I was not alone. The knowledge did not erase the aloneness; it existed side by side with it. I found myself in paradox, perhaps humanity's most frequent home.

Hunter understands that. He knows that we turn to each other in our aloneness. "Would you hear my voice come through the music?" "If I knew the way, I would take you home." "Reach out your hand, if your cup be empty."

Reach out your hand, if your cup be empty. That's what I eventually did in Boise.

Recklessly abandoning prudence in terms of my future phone bill, I reached out my hand. I called Ron. I called Janne and Rob. I called Maggie. I called both my sisters. I called my old friend and colleague Peter. None of these was able to change the essential facts. I was by myself, far away, doing work that was mine alone. They did not know the way to take me home.

But they heard my voice--hand-me-down, broken thoughts and all. And I heard theirs. I still had before me the job I was choosing to do. However, the reaching out improved my hearing, thus opening my heart to a renewed vision.

And that's what saves us from despair. Against all odds, we reach out to one another; in reaching out to one another, we reach out to the divine.

"Let it be known," says Robert Hunter, "there is a fountain, that was not made by the hands of men." Lest we forget, in our aloneness and deafness, there is a fountain. The second hymn this morning reminds us of the same thing: "Thou font of life, O hear our call." In Hunter's song, there is a ripple in the water, although there is no apparent reason for it.

One of my favorite Grateful Dead scholars, David Dodd, has written a paper on the song; he calls the chorus "the central puzzle." "Ripple in still water, when there is no pebble tossed, now wind to blow."

It is a puzzle, indeed; a mystery. It is also a little confusing in the context of the song--it appears to change the subject from the previous interweaving of the aloneness/reach out your hand themes. Why, we wonder, does Hunter bring in this particular image as the chorus? What does this fountain, with its mysterious ripples, have to do with us as we travel, alone and together, on our not-so-simple highways?

It has everything to do with it. When we reach out to each other, we reach out to the divine. That fountain is the wellspring of God. It is the mysterious presence to which we aspire; it is the shimmering repository of the love we hear in the heart of the music. It is the place of rest for our aching, yearning, journeying selves. Let it be known, there is a fountain that was not made by human hands.

However, we do not simply stroll up to it and have a drink, thereby dissolving our existential loneliness. We may have faith that there is a fountain, and be profoundly solaced by that knowing. But we have to do the work.

One day, I came home after being gone all day, and there was a very distressed message from a friend on my phone machine. The call had come in at 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon, and I heard the message around 9:00 in the evening. The tone of voice was understated, but with an edge of desperation to it; my friend was clearly reaching out. I was deeply worried, so I called immediately. Thank goodness my call was answered. My friend was not feeling up to par, but better than in the afternoon. And the good part was that she had kept on reaching out until people were found who were at home and could help. The very best part was that these people are part of the church community, people I happen to love dearly.

The "ripple" image took on new meaning for me. It was as though the reaching out, one of us to the other, is what causes that ripple in the wellspring of God. It is our having the courage to ask and the love to respond that lets us partake of the fountain. When we do, we affect each other; when we try to let our voice be heard, we ruffle the water; when we hear each other's voice, hear them with our hearts, we widen the circle.

My favorite line in this song (along with "no simple highway") is, "If I knew the way, I would take you home." I don't know the way, and you probably don't either. My path is for my steps alone, and so is yours. But when we truly say, "If I knew the way, I would take you home," we have so much more than just our separateness.

We have the music. (The final part of the song is simple La-de- da-da-da, sung together in harmony.) We have the fountain, a wellspring of grace as we travel.

We have one another. We have the love that lets us hear each other's voices, that lets us reach out when our cups are empty-- and share when they are full. (I am vastly richer for having finally "heard" some of what my Deadhead friends hear.) We have our common yearning for home, the God-ache we all know in some form or other.

If I knew the way, I would take you home. Or if you did, maybe I would go home with you. My song is a hand-me-down, and the thoughts are broken; perhaps, after all, it is better left unsung.

I don't know. I don't really care. Let there be songs to fill the air.

Return to The Annotated "Ripple"