"Hey, Tom Banjo, it's time to matter..."

The Annotated "Mountains of the Moon"

An installment in The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics.
By David Dodd
1997-98 Research Associate, Music Dept., University of California Santa Cruz
Copyright notice

Mountains of the Moon

Words by Robert Hunter; music by Jerry Garcia
Copyright Ice Nine Publishing; used by permission.

Cold Mountain water
the jade merchant's daughter
Mountains of the Moon, Bow and bend to me
Hi ho the Carrion Crow

Hi Ho the Carrion Crow
Bow and bend to me

Hey Tom Banjo
Hey a laurel
More than laurel
You may sow
More than laurel
You may sow

Hey the laurel
Hey the city
In the rain
Hey, hey,
Hey the white wheat
Waving in the wind

20 degrees of solitude
20 degrees in all
All the dancing kings & wives
assembled in the hall
Lost is a long & lonely time
Fairy Sybil flying
All along the all along
the Mountains of the Moon

Here is feast of solitude
A fiddler grim and tall
Plays to dancing kings and wives
Assembled in the hall
Of lost, long, lonely times
Fairy Sibil flying
All along the all along
the Mountains of the Moon

Hey Tom Banjo
It's time to matter
The Earth will see you
on through this time
The Earth will see you on
through this time

Down by the water
The Marsh King's Daughter
Did you know?
Clothed in tatters
Always will be
Tom, where did you go?

Mountains of the Moon, Electra
Mountains of the Moon
All along the
All along the
Mountains of the Moon

Hi Ho the Carrion Crow
Hi Ho the Carrion Crow
Bow and bend to me
Bend to me

"(note: the lyric in italics is a re-write of the preceeding lyric which was dashed off in the studio under pressure & which I never thought did proper service to the song. Jerry approved of the change & I put in on the teleprompter hoping he'd sing it one day, but the band never got around to playing it again.)"--Robert Hunter

Mountains of the Moon

Recorded on AOXOMOXOA.

DeadBase gives only ten performance dates for this song in the band's live repertoire, between February and July of 1969. Set lists for this period are far from complete, however, so it is likely there were more performances.

Tom Constanten covers the song on his album Morning Dew; and the Dead Ringers cover it on their album Dead Ringers.

The Other Ones performed the song on the 1998 Furthur Festival Tour.

The WELL's Deadlit Conference topic #42 is about "Mountains of the Moon."

Cold Mountain

Gary Snyder, in The Evergreen Review, no. 6, 1958, published his translations of a seventh-century Chinese poet, Han-Shan. According to Snyder,
"Kanzan, or Han-shan, "Cold Mountain" takes his name from where he lived. He is a mountain madman in an old Chinese line of ragged hermits. When he talks about Cold Mountain he means himself, his home, his state of mind. He lived in the T'ang dynasty-- traditionally A.D. 627-650."( Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems , p. 35)
Snyder's translations reveal a mind speaking to us from the dim past with words that ring remarkably fresh today. Here's one that seems particularly pertinent:
"Spring-water in the green creek is clear
Moonlight on Cold Mountain is white
Silent knowledge--the spirit is enlightened of itself
Contemplate the void: this world exceeds stillness."
--Number 11, page 49.

Jade Merchant's daughter

Compare the title of Sharp #64: "The Silk Merchant's Daughter," one of those ballads, like "Jack-A-Roe," (aka Jack the Sailor) in which a woman disguises herself as a man in order to go find her true love.

Mountains of the Moon

(Illustration, entitled "Ruwenzori, from Karimi", from Henry Stanley's In Darkest Africa, 1890.)

The popular name, deriving from Ptolemy (second century A.D.), who thought them the source of the Nile River, for an actual region of Central Africa, the Ruwenzori Mountains, bordering Uganda and Zaire. Several accounts of journeys to the "Mountains of the Moon" were published as books:

Additionally, it is interesting to note that one of the expeditions to the Mountains of the Moon was undertaken by none other than Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890), in 1858, in search of the source of the Nile. (Cold Mountain water?) Burton also translated the Arabian Nights, which are indirectly mentioned in What's Become of the Baby.

Edgar Allan Poe also mentions the "mountains of the moon," in his poem, "Eldorado" (1849):

"Gaily bedight,
A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,
Had journeyed long,
Singing a song,
In search of Eldorado.

But he grew old--
This knight so bold--
And o'er his heart a shadow
Fell as he found
No spot of ground
That looked like Eldorado.

And, as his strength
Failed him at length,
He met a pilgrim shadow--
"Shadow," said he,
"Where can it be--
This land of Eldorado?"

"Over the Mountains
Of the Moon
Down the Valley of the Shadow,
Ride, boldly ride."
The shade replied,--
"If you seek for Eldorado."

Also compare Hunter's "Lay of the Ring" from the Eagle Mall Suite:

"From the gates of Numinor
to the walls of Valentine
It's seven cold dimensions
past the Mountains of the Moon"


It's unclear whether Hunter is naming the jade merchant's daughter, or simply invoking the spirit of Electra. The name could refer to either (1) the daughter, in Greek mythology, of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, who kills her mother with the aid of her brother, Orestes, to avenge the murder of her father; or
"(2) One of the Pleiades, daughter of Atlas, mother of Dardanus. She is known as `the lost Pleiad,' for it is said that she disappeared a little before the Trojan war, that she might be saved the mortification of seeing the ruin of her beloved city. She showed herself occasionally to mortals, but always in the guise of a comet."-- Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia

Heigh-ho the carrion crow folderolderiddle

This line is directly from an old nursery rhyme/ballad:
"As early as 1796 it ["The Carrion Crow"] was published as a ballad with the refrain: `With a heigh ho! the carrion crow!/Sing tol de rol, de riddle row!" ( The Annotated Mother Goose, p. 127)
Sharp lists the ballad as #222, "The Carrion Crow." It's a nonsense tune, with lines like: Carrion crow sitting on an oak, with a ling dong dilly dol kiro me..."

The crow appears in one other Hunter lyric, "Uncle John's Band," although the "bird of paradise" mentioned in "Blues for Allah" is also known as a "paradise crow."

The carrion crow (corvus corone corone) is found in western Europe and eastern Asia.

This note from a reader:

Subject: Mountains of the Moon
Date: Fri, 26 Jan 2001 17:37:09 -0800
From: Mike Tisdale

Dear David,

Michael Hearn's "Annotated Wizard of Oz" points out in one of its numerous footnotes that the Scarecrow's exclamation "Tol-de-ri-de-oh" after he is rescued from being stuck in the middle of the river echoes the carrion crow's tol de rol, de riddle row. Whether this could be included in your site without copyright concerns, I will leave to somebody with brains instead of straw!

Mike Tisdale

Bow and bend to me

This line, in a number of variations, is used as a refrain in the ballad "The Two Sisters" ( Child #10, Sharp #5). Bronson writes:
"This ballad is still in active traditional life, especially in those regions of the USA where the `play-party' dancing custom has persisted. In many variants the words of the refrain affirm the association..."(p. 34)
Some of the variants found in Bronson and Sharp:

Of these variants, one is of particular note: "Bow and balance to me," because it is a dance step, and the Hunter lyric seems to be speaking of "kings and wives" assembling for a dance.

The balance is described as follows in the Country Dance Book:

"Balance Partners: Partners face each other, then each step to the side with right foot, point toe of left foot in front, step back to place with left and point toe of right foot in front of left foot."(p. 34)
You may see this step executed at the start of almost every dance at any contra dance in the U.S. today, and it is a very courtly step, lending the dance an air of chivalry.

Tom Banjo

Lenny Bailes, in the WELL's Deadlit conference (Topic #42, response #11, August 18, 1990), points out the possible reference to J.R.R. Tolkien's character Tom Bombadil.

A wonderful and imaginative website, pointed out by Alex Allan, chronicles the life of a character named Tom Banjo.

Alex also sends this comment:

Subject: Re: Friend Of The Devil
Date: Thu, 11 Nov 1999 09:18:33 +1100
From: "Alex Allan"


One point I sent you soon after you got back is a possibility for "Tom Banjo." If Uncle John is John Cohen, mightn't Tom Banjo be a reference to Tom Paley, who played banjo with the New Lost City Ramblers? Like Uncle John's Band, Mountains Of The Moon contains references to folk songs that the NLCR played or would have known about.


And now, there is a most intriguing possibility:

Subject: Email from web page (Tom Banjo
Date: Wed, 11 Oct 2000 14:48:14 -0400
From: Scott Odell

Dear David Dodd,

During a recent visit from my old friend and musician/poet, Burt Porter, we were reminiscencing about another old friend, Tom "Tom Banjo" Azarian, who is now living and sometimes performing around Burlington Vermont. We have for a long time assumed that the Tom Banjo of "Mountains of the Moon" was a now-obscure reference to Tom Azarian, who grew up in West Springfield Mass. and was one of the best known (and properly so) banjo players in that part of New England during the late 50's, the 60's and 70's. He, Burt, and another friend, Denny Clifford hung out and played a lot of traditional music around the campuses and coffeehouses of that part of western Massachussets and nearby Connecticut. He's used the performing moniker "Tom Banjo" for as long as I can remember. I don't recall the specifics, but I remember Tom talking about David Grisman and Robert Hunter circulating in the same crowd during some of those years -- along with Judy Collins and Taj Mahal, among others.

Tom's a great guy and fine banjo player and singer, but totally unengaged in mainstream music-biz culture. He has always affected a somewhat casual oldtimey working class sort of fashion style which jibes well with the image called up by that line in MOTM, ..."Clothed in tatters / Always will be / Tom, where did you go?"

Answer -- Burlington Vermont!

Anyway, I thought of your excellent and most-interesting labor of love, the annotated GD lyrics website, and thought you might be interested in these musings . . .

Regards, Scott Odell


And now, what seems to be a pretty definitive answer on this one (but who knows?):

From: Andrew Estroff [mailto:estroff@mail.com]
Sent: Friday, October 18, 2002 1:13 PM
To: ddodd@marin.org
Subject: Mountains of the Moon and Tom Banjo

In case you hadn't already heard of the CD, or read any reviews, here is a link to the Time Argus (local central Vermont newspaper) review of Tom Azarian's recent CD.


"Hanging out on college campuses, he became "Tom Banjo" and traded licks with other young pickers including budding mandolinist David Grisman (who would later record a song with Jerry Garcia featuring a character with Azarian's nickname). Soon, he found himself and his growing family living in an old Cabot, Vt., farmhouse, where his all-night music parties became legendary"

Andrew Estroff

And on November 1, 2005, I received a letter from Tom Azarian, confirming himself as Tom Banjo. An excerpt:

There are two slight corrections I should say...one is that I never lived in West Springfield but lived in Westfield.

And I didn't name myself "Tom Banjo"--the students a tthe University of Conn. did. Banjo players were scarce back then and they knew I appeared from time to time, with "tattered closthes," was always unemployed and played on the college radio and parties along with Dave Grisman and Judy Collins. They named me Tom Banjo only because no one knew my last name.

In the song Mtn. of the Moon it says "clothed in tattered always will be Tom, where did you go?" Well...I did sleep in my clothes but not always...and "where did I go?" I went to Vermont in 1963--married and started a farm with horses and cattle. Now I am divorced and livin in low income housing with assorted alcoholics and misfits.

I am still playing the same Vega banjo I bought in 1956. ...

Cheers and good luck for all your endeavors,
Tom Azarian

Visit the Tom Banjo website!


A wreath of laurel is a symbol of victory in battle.

From Michael Abrams' Florida Wildflower Page, a picture of a Mountain Laurel. (Kalmia latifolia)

Fairy Sybil flying

A misspelling? Hunter may mean "sibyl" rather than "sybil." Benet says:
"sibyl. A prophetess of classical legend, who was supposed to prophesy under the inspiration of a particular deity. The name is now applied to any prophetess or woman fortuneteller."

Marsh King

Nickname for Alfred the Great (849-899), King of England, 871- 899. So named for his act of raising an army to defeat the invading Danes from the stronghold of the impenetrable British marshes, or fens (Fenario). He is the only British monarch to have earned the designation "the Great." His name means, literally, "Adviser to the elves." He had at least three daughters, all of whom hold significant places in English history:

Marsh King's Daughter

This note from Robert Hunter:
"The Marsh King's Daughter" is a character in a fairy tale of the same name by Hans Christian Andersen. I just wanted to say that.


keywords: @moon, @dance
DeadBase code: [MOON]
First posted: March, 1995.
Last revised: April 24, 2006