Research Associate, Music Dept., University of California, Santa Cruz.
An analysis of the lyric is available.
Just like Jack the Ripper
Just like Mojo Hand
Just like Billy Sunday
In a shotgun ragtime band
Just like New York City,
Just like Jericho
Pace the halls and climb the walls
Get out when they blow
Did you say your name was
Ramble on, baby
Settle down easy
Ramble on, Rose
Just like Jack and Jill
Mama told the sailor
One heat up and one cool down
Leave nothin' for the tailor
Just like Jack and Jill
My Papa told the jailer
One go up and one come down
Do yourself a favor
I'm gonna sing you a hundred verses in ragtime
I know this song it ain't never gonna end
I'm gonna march you up and down the local county line
Take you to the leader of the band
Just like Crazy Otto
Just like Wolfman Jack
Sittin' plush with a royal flush
Aces back to back
Just like Mary Shelley
Just like Frankenstein
Clank your chains and count your change
Try to walk the line
(Repeat chorus and bridge)
Goodbye, Mama and Papa
Goodbye, Jack and Jill
The grass ain't greener, the wine ain't sweeter
either side of the hill.
Did you say your name was
Ramble on, baby
Settle down easy
Ramble on, Rose
The song lyric is structured in trochaic rhythm, with paired verses consisting of two lines of triameter, one of quadrameter, and another of triameter, for a total of 13 strong feet (!) per verse. The verses' rhyming pattern is A, B, C, [C], B; with the bracketed [C] being an optional internal rhyme: halls, walls; chains/change; and plush/flush. There are seven verses, with the first six in pairs. The final verse stands alone, carrying into the final chorus.
The chorus' rhythm stays in trochees for the first line of five beats, then switches to dactylic quadrameter for the second line, and a punchy single dactylic line of two beats to wind up. The chorus contains no rhymes. It is repeated three times.
The bridge is less easy to pin down, moving from iambic to trochaic to dactylic rhythms. It similarly dispenses with any firm rhyming pattern, relying solely on the assonances contained in "ragtime" and "county line." The bridge is repeated twice.
Perhaps the main point made by this song is that a lyric doesn't need a firm interpretation in order to be evocative. Depending on the listener, this song could be about American music itself, or about a card game, or about a man saying so long to an immature lover. At least three Jacks are invoked: Jack the Ripper, Jack (of Jack and Jill), and Wolfman Jack, which could easily be construed as constituting a poker hand. Tin Pan Alley, the Blues, Ragtime, Spirituals, Folk, Nursery rhymes, Country & Western, and Rock and Roll are all brought into the song, as noted in subsequent links, below. And the narrator seems to be addressing a lover who is determined to leave him on the subject of growing up, of settling down, of not always trying to find greener grass elsewhere.
How could one person be "just like" so many varied characters and situations? Look at any one person's life, and you will find the answer. There is no black and white answer to this song, just as there is no black and white answer to the questions of life itself. Hunter's hyperbolic use of the "just like" simile is a way of granting us the freedom to find our metaphors where we may, depending on the situation.
It was introduced on Tuesday, October 19, 1971 at the Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. The show is noteworthy for a number of reasons. First performances at the show, besides "Ramble on Rose," included "Comes a Time," "Mexicali Blues," "Saturday Night" (on a Tuesday!), and "Tennessee Jed." It was also Keith Godchaux's first show. "Ramble On Rose" occupied the #2 spot in the second set, following "Truckin'," and preceding "Me and Bobby McGee." Since then, it has remained in the repertoire, placing 38th in frequency of performance as of 1986.
Numbering the song among his favorites, Robert Hunter stated in an interview in Relix (vol 5, no. 2, p. 25) that "Ramble on Rose is a particular favorite--there's something funny about that song."
In Gans' Conversations..., Hunter says:
"I think "Ramble On Rose" is the closest to complete whimsy I've come up with. I just sat down and wrote numerous verses that tied around "Did you say..."" --p. 28
Blair Jackson, in Grateful Dead: the Music Never Stopped, had this to say:
"Most of Garcia's songs from this period feature unusual rhythms that make them hard to peg in a specific musical genre. 'Ramble on Rose,' written around a whimsical, completely undecipherable bit of nonsense verse by Hunter, has a beat that sounds like a slowed-down shuffle with every other beat taken out, and bits of old-time American pop music thrown in." (Jackson p. 135)
An interview with Garcia in The Rolling Stone Rock N Roll Reader offers this perspective on Garcia's approach to musical styles:
"You have to get past the idea that music has to be one thing. To be alive in America is to hear all kinds of music constantly--radio, records, churches, cats on the street, everywhere music, man. And with records, the whole history of music is open to everyone who wants to hear it. ... Nobody has to fool around with musty old scores, weird notation, and scholarship bullshit: you can just go into a record store and pick a century, pick a country, pick anything, and dig it, make it a part of you, add it to the stuff you carry around, and see that it's all music." (pp. 259-260)
Another theory, which enjoyed brief popularity, was that "Jack" was actually "Jill" the Ripper--based on the assumption that a woman would be less suspect, and could escape undetected while everyone searched for a male killer.
For more information, or for entertainment, you can read from the list of books below:
There is also a 1986 book by J.J. Phillips entitled Mojo Hand, published by City Miner Books.
The Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed.) does give a definition for "mojo": "local U.S. [Prob. of Afr. orig.:cf. Gullah moco witchcraft, magic, Fula moco'o medicine man.] Magic, the art of casting spells; a charm or amulet used in such spells."
Further down in the definition, an example of usage speaks of a synonym for "mojo" being "lucky hand."
And yet another definition in the OED equates "mojo" with morphine.
According to Hoodoo--Conjuration--Witchcraft--Rootwork: Beliefs Accepted by Many Negroes and White Persons, These Being Orally Recorded Among Blacks and Whites by Harry Middleton Hyatt (Hannibal, Mo.: Alma Egan Hyatt Foundation, 1970):
"A hand is a magic helper, an object or act, which aids a person in obtaining a desire... hand has other names, among them--toby, guide, shield, roots, mojo, jomo (transposition of syllables in mojo), and hoodoo bag."
Sunday's style was highly flamboyant, and included colloquial baseball lingo, which won him a mass audience. One important aspect of his road show was the music which accompanied it, which consisted of a huge choir, with piano and trombone accompaniment. The music is said to have been "far from unctuous; it approached the jazzy."
[They Gathered at the River.
"Alexander's Ragtime Band" was published in March of 1911, and was first popularized by Emma Carus. According to James J. Fuld, in his The Book of World-Famous Music, "The `Alexander' in the title is reportedly Jack [!] Alexander, a cornet-playing bandleader who died in 1958. It has been frequently pointed out that the song is not in real ragtime. Berlin was born in Temun, Russia, in 1888." (p. 79)
Alec Wilder, in his book American Popular Song: the Great Innovators, 1900-1950, devotes 30 pages to the role of Irving Berlin, and comments as follows on the subject of "Alexander's Ragtime Band": "I have heard enough ragtime to wonder why Alexander's Ragtime Band was so titled. For I find no elements of ragtime in it, unless the word `ragtime' simply specified the most swinging and exciting of the new American music. It is a very strong, solid song, verse and chorus. More than that, it is not crowded with notes. There are constant open spots in it. At the outset, in the verse, the first three measures begin on the second beat. This `kicks' the song, and immediately. Incidentally, this is the earliest popular song I know of in which the verse and chorus are in different keys....Could the slight, chromatic opening phrase of the song have cuased all the furor, the grass fire that spread over the face of Europe? Or was the restatement of this phrase a fourth higher the device which did the trick? In any event, the song was a high point in the evolution of popular music." (pp. 94-95)
Hunter, in alluding to Berlin's song, manages to evoke two strains of American popular music simultaneously, ragtime and Tin Pan Alley. This becomes significant as the song progresses, evoking more and more tributaries to the mainstream of American music.
Oh! ma honey, Oh! ma honey, Better hurry, and let's meander; Ain't you goin', ain't you goin' To the leader man, ragged meter man? Oh! ma honey, Oh! ma honey, Let me take to to Alexander's grandstand, brass band, Ain't you comin' along?
Come on and hear, come on and hear Alexander's Ragtime Band; Come on and hear, come on and hear, It's the best band in the land. They can play a bugle call Like you never heard before, So natural that you want to go to war; That's just the bestest band what ma, honey lamb! Let me take you by the hand Up to the man, up to the man Who's the leader of the band; And if you care to hear the Swanee River played in ragtime, Come on and hear, come on and hear Alexander's Ragtime Band.
Oh! ma honey, Oh! ma honey, There's a fiddle with notes that screeches Like a chicken, like a chicken, And the clarinet is a colored pet. Come and listen, come and listen To a classical band what's peaches, come now, somehow, Better hurry along!
In Wade in the Water,, Arthur Jones entitles one entire chapter "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho: Struggle and Resistance."
"A song like "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho," for example, could honor the actions of any number of "Joshuas" in the African community who led their people in battle in many different "Jerichos." It could also be used as bibliocal support for planned batles. For example, in his meetings with co-conspirators in Charleston, South Carolina, Denmark Vesey preached from the Bible, using verse from the book of Joshua to draw parallels between the biblical story of Joshua and the plans for the insurrection in Charleston." -- p. 52.
Date: Wed, 01 Mar 1995 10:42:18 -0600 (CST)
From: Gary Hartman
Subject: Annotated GD Lyrics
I have one minor comment on Ramble on Rose. I think the end of the Jericho verse -- "get out when they blow" -- resonates with the musical allusions you have so correctly identified. "To blow" is, especially in the jazz argot, to play music. And, of course (this may be so obvious that you intentionally don't mention it), the walls of Jericho were brought down by the power of music. It even seems that earlier in the verse, "pace the halls" could refer to the rooms in which the musicians play (and the backstage areas in which they anxiously await the time to blow).
A rambling rose is an old-fashioned and now rarely cultivated type of rose which would spread low across the ground on long, whippy canes. Ramblers are now grown usually as climbers, instead.
Three songs in American popular music have borne the name "Ramblin(g) Rose." The most famous of the three is the 1962 "Ramblin' Rose," words and music by Joe and Noel Sherman. It was introduced by Nat King Cole, who at first did not wish to record it. He was talked into it, however, by his 12-year-old daughter, (Natalie?) and her instincts were good, because it was a hit, reaching the #2 position on the charts in August, 1962. It has since been recorded by Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Willie Nelson, among others.
The second most popular tune of this title is the 1948 "Rambling Rose" by Joseph McCarthy (not the infamous Joe McCarthy) and Joe Burke.
The third is of unknown date, titled "Ramblin Rose" by Wilkin and Burch, recorded by Slim Whitman.
A fourth song, dating from 1931, is entitled "Marta (Rambling Rose of the Wildwood)" by Gilbert and Simons.
And a reader points out that "Rambling Rose" was also the title of a movie, starring Laura Dern.
Jack #2 of the song is thus introduced, along with his feminine counterpart. References to this pair predate even the nursery rhyme, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, which dates the rhyme from the first half of the 17th century. Shakespeare says "Jack shall have Jill, Nought shall go ill," (Midsummer Night's Dream, Act 3, scene 2, line 461) using the names in the general sense of "lad and lass." (And, in Love's Labours Lost, there is the line "Jack hath not Gill," [5.02.875]--but that's a different story, and there's already plenty written on Shakespeare.)
Many theories have arisen regarding the origin of the rhyme, but most agree that it can be traced to the Scandinavian Edda epic, and that it may have pagan ritualistic significance. To most listeners, however, Jack and Jill conjure up an image of childhood, just like Mama and Papa.
As with much of this song, there is music associated with the words, and it is likely that most of us have chanted this nursery rhyme, so that the inclusion of Jack and Jill adds still another component to the swirl of music conjured up by this song.
Then up Jack got,
When Jill came in,
Now Jack did laugh
Went up the hill,
To fetch a pail of water;
Jack fell down,
And broke his crown,
And Jill came tumbling after.
And home did trot,
As fast as he could caper;
To old Dame Dob,
Who patched his nob
With vinegar and brown paper.
How she did grin
To see Jack's paper plaster;
Her mother, vexed,
Did whip her next,
For laughing at Jack's disaster.
And Jill did cry,
But her tears did soon abate;
Then Jill did say,
That they should play
At see-saw across the gate.
Then up Jack got,
When Jill came in,
Now Jack did laugh
Percy Green, in his A History of Nursey Rhymes, explains the rhyme as a children's game:
"This almost forgotten nursery song and game of "The Bells of London Town" has a descriptive burden or ending to each line, giving an imitation of the sounds of the bell-peals of the principal churches in each locality of the City and the old London suburbs. The game is played by girls and boys holding hands and racing sideways, as they do in "Ring a Ring a Rosies," after each line has been sung as a solo by the children in turns. The
"Gay go up and gay go down
To ring the bells of London town"
is chorussed by all the company, and then the rollicking dance begins; the feet stamping out a noisy but enjoyable accompaniment to the words, "Gay go up, gay go down." "--p. 180
The line is also echoed in the folk song "Maid Freed from the Gallows, "and may therefore be a reference to hanging. (Sharp #28, version H) The song is also registered as a Child Ballad, #95, "The Prickly Bush."
As a side note, which relfects another aspect of Grateful Dead lyrics in general, namely, how it is possible to mis-hear lyrics in concert.
At the closing of Winterland concert, I distinctly remember being so glad that I finally understood this line of Ramble on Rose. What I heard was: "Buckle up and buckle down: do yourself a favor."
And it still makes more sense to me than the "real" lyric.
"Relix: We're interested in the 'Leader of the band' concept ... Do you feel that there is a leader ...?
Hunter: [partial response] Well, it would be hard to imagine the Grateful Dead without Garcia, wouldn't it?
Relix: Were you getting at anything like that in 'Ramblin' Rose?' [sic] Was talking about taking someone to the leader of the band talking about the Dead per se?
Hunter: I suppose there's an element of the Dead in a lot of my songs. It's hard to scramble it out from what's pure fancy."
This seems a fairly noncommittal reply, and is therefore consistent with the song: don't tie it down, package it; don't say: this is what it means. It also seems worth noting the extensive parallels to "Alexander's Ragtime Band", with all its talk of a leader of the band.
Most reference works on ragtime that mention a Crazy Otto, however, are referring to Johnny Maddox, another popular piano player. A phone call from Maddox to me on October 22, 1997, revealed the entire story of Maddox's association with the Crazy Otto name and music. Maddox says that a returning GI brought back a copy of the Otto der Schrage record from Germany, and brought it to the deejay Walt Henrich at WERE radio in Cleveland. Henrich in turn brought it to Bill Randall, also a deejay at that station, who played some tracks from the record on the air. Such was the reaction of the listening public, that Randall got in touch with Randy Wood, who was a producer of "copy" records, and who, in turn, commissioned Maddox to record a copy of the ragtime pieces as a medley, which was released as "The Crazy Otto Medley-Played by Johnny Maddox."
At the time, (1954), Maddox was rated the number one jukebox artist in America, independent of any association with Crazy Otto. According to Maddox, it was a common practice at the time for independent producers to commision "cover records"-virtual note-for-note copies of records which were not readily available. Maddox never wanted to be known as Crazy Otto, though, and he only released one other record which contained a reference to the character, Crazy Otto Piano. He released over forty albums of ragtime and other popular piano pieces under his own name. His biggest album, mentioned in most standard ragtime discographies, was Authentic Ragtime. (As an interesting side note, Maddox noted that many of today's reverential ragtime performers make the music sound like it belongs in a funeral home, rather than for dancing.) Maddox hailed from Gallatin, Tennessee.
This note from a reader:
From: Warren Hurley [mailto:WHurley@uc.usbr.gov]
Sent: Tuesday, June 24, 2003 4:18 PM
Subject: crazy otto
Johnny Maddox still plays piano (and still hails from Gallatin), particularly summer stints at the Diamond Belle Saloon in Durango Colorado.
Throughout the late 50's and all through the 60's, Wolfman cultivated a vocal persona that led everyone to think he was actually a Black deejay. With his first appearance in the flesh, in the movie "American Graffiti," he shocked everyone with the revelation that he was, indeed, white. "Nobody knew if I was shite or black or whatever," he said in an interview with Time in 1973, "and I kept the mystique up. No pictures, no interviews."
The appellation "Wolfman" conjures up a wild and supernatural being, as introduced into American pop culture with the 1941 movie "The Wolf Man," starring Lon Chaney, Jr. (See "Werewolves of London" by Warren Zevon, for mention of Chaney in song.) Bela Lugosi as Frankenstein's monster met Chaney as the Wolf Man in a 1943 sequel, "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man." They reunited in the 1944 film "House of Frankenstein." And, of course, they meet again in this song.
The Dead are not the only ones to have included Wolfman Jack in a song. Leon Russell's "Living on the Highway" is about him.
Wolfman Jack appears as Jack #3 in the song.
As a side note, it is probable that Hunter assumed, as did everyone else, that Wolfman Jack was Black, as the song predates his public appearance.
Author (1818) of Frankenstein. Her mother was the famous early feminist theorist Mary Wollstonecraft. She married Percy Shelley, the poet, at age 16, and wrote Frankenstein at the suggestion of her husband and Lord Byron, after beginning the story as impromptu entertainment around the fire in Geneva, in the summer of 1816.
The line also summons up echoes of Johnny Cash and his 1956 song "I Walk the Line," adding some country flavor to the stew that already includes everything from ragtime to Dark Star.
Source: Picturesque Expressions: a Thematic Dictionary. L. Urdang, Gale, 1980.
Old proverbs are usually a breeze to track down, as they have been the subject of study for years, and a large number of books cataloging and indexing proverbs have been written, dating back to the biblical book of Proverbs. However, a determined search for the origin of the saying "The grass is always greener on the other side of the hill (or fence)" yielded not a clue.
An inquiry sent to the Bay Area Library and Information Service turned up a file on the phrase, luckily, and its origins turn out to be quite ancient, most likely predating the Latin authors whose work contains the seed of the quotation. Both Ovid and Juvenal wrote lines which, in translation, turned into the proverb we know. Ovid's appears in his Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love), Book 1, line 349: "Fertilior seges est alienis semper in agris" or "The crop seems always more productive in our neighbor's field." Juvenal's Satires, in Satire XIV, Line 142, says "Majorque videtur et melior vicina seges," or "And the crop of our neighbor seems greater and better than our own."
The earliest notation of The grass is greener as an American phrase is found in an article by Helen Pearce in the California Folklore Quarterly, vol. 5, July 1946, entitled 'Folk Sayings in a Pioneer Family of Western Oregon.' She recorded the phrase as "The greener pasture's over yonder (or The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.)"
All this is very well, but it seems unlikely that even Robert Hunter was actually familiar with Ovid and Juvenal and their versions of this phrase. I believe the source is much closer, and that the line merits comparison with the line about Jericho earlier in the song, as a couple of possible sources in American popular song of the 1960's are much more easily identified--namely, the two songs "Green, Green" and "The Grass is Greener." Most of us can hum the first, which dates from 1963, words and music by Barry McGuire and Randy Sparks, and based on fragments of traditional material, according to its authors. (This "fragmentary material" has yet to come to light.) The song was a hit record for the New Christy Minstrels. The second tune was written by Barry Mann and Mike Anthony, and was a best-selling record for Brenda Lee, also in 1963.