"These songs are nostalgic not by being sentimental, but in the sense that they remind the listener of the journey home, wherever he or she may find it."


By Wally Bubelis

A thematic essay for The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics.
(The opinions expressed are those of the author, not of the University of Colorado.)
Copyright notice; © 1997, Wally Bubelis

Many Grateful Dead songs involve the idea of home--usually highlighting the fact that the singer or the character of the song is not near home, but has strayed from the familiar into uncharted, often dangerous territory. This essay explores three kinds of character--the ones at home, the ones who are lost, and the ones who will guide the lost ones home--and looks at home as the center of a mandala.

If home is yin, being lost is yang: most of the songs that deal with home deal with the loss of home, the nostalgia for home. "Nostalgic" is a word that has been used to describe the Grateful Dead, usually referring to the audience's desire to return to a happier time and place. The word "nostalgia" derives from Neo-Latin and then from the older Greek nost(os), a return home.

Where is home if not at the center of one's life, the center of one's circle? Home is the center of the mandala, paradise lost and paradise regained. What makes up the edge of the mandala? Home must differ from something to mean anything; its opposite must be the wilderness, the fringes of society, the edges of our experience. Life happens between the beginning at home and, if you're lucky, the ending at home. Some characters have become lost and can't seem to find their way home.

Jack Straw has no home ("Ain't no bed will give us rest"), and in the context of the song it seems to be his fault ("You keep us on the run"). The singer of "Friend of the Devil" is lost at night (possibly the dark night of the soul?): "If I get home before daylight/I might get some sleep tonight." The singer of "Tennessee Jed," beset by troubles one verse after another, names his home when he sings "Tennessee, Tennessee, there ain't no place I'd rather be," and is so broken he must ask, "Baby, won't you carry me/Back to Tennessee." In "It Must Have Been the Roses," we hear how sailors have been lost: "Ten years the waves rolled/the ships home from the sea." In "Lost Sailor," we hear a description of what it means to be lost, without navigational guides: "The compass card is spinnin'/The helm is swingin' to and fro/Ooh, where's the Dog Star?/Ooh, where's the moon?"

In the wake of the flood, the rabbit is told, "Get back home where you belong/and don't you run off no more." In "Broke-down Palace" we hear the singer lament "Mama, Mama, many worlds I've come/since I first left home." Cosmic Charley, about whom the singer says "I just wonder if you shouldn't feel/less concern about the deep unreal", is admonished to "Go on home/Your mama's calling you." St. Stephen has "Been here so long he's got to calling it home."

One of the few characters to tell their story from a position of being at home is Black Peter. Having lived a full life, he is now "laying in my bed and dying," at home and at peace at last. In contrast, the singer of "Dire Wolf" may be at home, but home is located in the wilderness, "In the timbers of Fennario."

There are ironic instances of home as well. The Candyman is far from home, but he doesn't seem lost; instead, he is gambling here to "take your money home." In his case, neither place (the town he's visiting to cheat, home of Mr. Benson, and home, which we could guess is impoverished) sounds particularly welcoming. It would seem he is relying on the wheel of fortune to bring him home. The singer of "Loose Lucy" "got jumped coming home last night"; he was not yet home, but making the journey there. He sings "Went back home with two black eyes," indicating that home is not the same place he meets Lucy. In "Doin' That Rag," the singer asks "Tell me why will you never come home?/Tell me what's your reason if you got a good one." The singer is the one at home, wondering why he's alone. The singer of "Truckin'" knows the other side of that coin: "Most of the cats you meet on the street speak of True Love/Most of the time they're sittin' and cryin' at home." This person would rather be on the road than at home, but in the end accepts (at least for a moment) the nostalgia others feel: "Truckin'--I'm goin' home/Whoa-oh, baby, back where I belong/Back home--sit down and patch my bones/and get back Truckin' on." The song is an anthem for those who like to be lost.

While few are at home, and most are lost from home (although some by choice), there is another kind of character in these songs about home. This third character is the guide, or psychopomp. A psychopomp is, according to C. G. Jung, "a mediator between the conscious and the unconscious"; put another way, he or she is the one who has been lost from home and yet has returned home, but with a purpose: to help others who are lost find their way home. The singer of "Estimated Prophet" believes himself to be a guide ("You've all been asleep/You would not believe me/Fire wheel burnin' in the air/Them voices telling me:/You will soon receive me") but is probably too involved with his own messianic visions and voices to be of much help to others. Likewise, the singer of "Truckin'" does not qualify as a guide; he is concerned with his own wanderings, and not those of others. Home for him is a way-station, as it is for the guide, yet his travels are not in service to others: witness the plight of Sweet Jane, for whom "all a friend can say is ain't it a shame."

A character we never directly meet is Uncle John; the singer here tells his listener to "Come on along or go alone/he's come to take his children home." The singer of "Franklin's Tower" blesses the listener, though he cannot guide: "May the four winds blow you safely home." The singer of "Ripple" admits doubt about his ability to act as a guide, saying, "If I knew the way/I would take you home." Perhaps he is a psychopomp in the making. The song "I Will Take You Home" begins with the line "Little girl lost/In a forest of dreams" and moves to the title line, offering guidance from father to daughter. St. Stephen comes closer to being a trustworthy guide. He has "been here so long he's got to calling it home," so he has chosen his place in the wilderness as his home. He is also a mediator, a key quality of a true psychopomp, for "in and out of the garden he goes"; here the garden could represent home, paradise, the place we all seek when we are lost. As well, St. Stephen mediates a complex set of opposing pairs: "Hell halfway 'twixt now and then/Stephen fill it up and lower down/and lower down again." He is the one who sends something (people's karma? What else makes him a saint?) to hell, which lies between now (the wilderness?) and then (home?). How does he do it? What is his secret? The answer to his ability to act as a guide may lie in the first line: "Saint Stephen with a rose."

The rose is a kind of mandala, a circular (sometimes spiraling) form that organizes the psyche around a centering point. The center is home, and according to Joseph Campbell, is the goal of all our journeys. J. E. Cirlot says "Even though the mandala always alludes to the concept of the Centre--never actually depicting it visually but suggesting it by means of the concentricity of thefigures -- at the same time it exemplifies the obstacles in the way of achieving and assimilating the Centre." The rose, then, could be used as an object of contemplation by Saint Stephen, helping him order his universe.

Grateful Dead songs feature many mandalas, from the rose to the wheel ("Small wheel turn by the fire and rod/Big wheel turn by the grace of God") to Earth ("Picture a bright blue ball spinning, spinning free/...call it home for you and me") to the universe itself ("Reason tatters/the forces tear loose/from the axis"). These songs are nostalgic not by being sentimental, but in the sense that they remind the listener of the journey home, wherever he or she may find it.

A final note on the experience of a Grateful Dead show: the while the first set remained a sort of warm-up for the band and the audience, the second set evolved quickly into a freeform jam which took the musicians and the listeners away from the "home" of familiar musical territory into the outer fringes of sonic exploration. Nearly always, however, the band returned with the audience to the familiar, often ending their concerts with sentimental favorites. Thus the experience of the show was a mirror to the text of many songs.

Posted April 15, 1997