"Shadowboxing the Apocalypse, and wandering the land"

The Annotated "My Brother Esau"

An installment in The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics.
By David Dodd

Copyright notice; © 1995,2006 David Dodd
"My Brother Esau"
Words by John Perry Barlow; music by Bob Weir
Copyright Ice Nine Publishing; used by permission

My brother Esau killed a hunter
Back in 1969

And before the killing was done,
His inheritance was mine.
But his birthright was a wand to wave
Before a weary band.
Esau gave me sleeplessness
And a piece of moral land.

My father favored Esau,
Who was eager to obey
All the bloody wild commandments
The Old Man shot his way.
But all this favor ended
When my brother failed at war.
He staggered home
And found me in the door.

Esau skates on mirrors anymore...
He meets his pale reflection at the door.
Yet sometimes at night I dream
He's still that hairy man,
Shadowboxing the Apocalypse
And wandering the land.
Shadowboxing the Apocalypse
And wandering the land.

Esau holds a blessing;
Brother Esau bears a curse.
I would say that the blame is mine
But I suspect it's something worse.
The more my brother looks like me,
The less I understand
The silent war that bloodied both our hands.
Sometimes at night, I think I understand.

It's brother to brother and it's man to man
And it's face to face and it's hand to hand...
We shadowdance the silent war within.
The shadowdance, it never ends...
Never ends, never ends.
Shadowboxing the Apocalypse, yet again...
Yet again.
Shadowboxing the Apocalypse,
And wandering the land.

"My Brother Esau"

Cora, Wyoming. August-December, 1982.

Recorded on

First performance: March 25, 1983, at Compton Terrace Amphitheatre, Tempe, Arizona. "Esau" appeared in the fourth spot in the first set, following "Dire Wolf" and preceding "Big Railroad Blues." It remained fairly steadily in the repertoire through October of 1987.

This note from a reader:

On Fri, 17 Nov 2006, Joe Gowan wrote:

Hi David, greetings.
Several years ago I wrote to you about different lyrics for 'My Brother Esau'. I had found an e mail address for Barlow and written him and he replied that it was probably just Weir forgetting the words. Recently The Grateful Dead Hour played 'Esau" from 03/30/83, and this seems to be a better recording than the audience tape I had. It sounded to me that the second verse on that day had these lyrics:

'Esau tried to move away
A marvelous disguise

Where every street is easy
and, there's nothing to deny

Though he gave me
All his cards

I could not play his hand

Made a choice
Soon became a stand'

That's all, I don't get to too many shows these days, Saw Ratdog in Reno last December. Sure miss Jerry, thank god for all the recorded music left.
Thank you.
Joe Gowan


The Biblical character Esau is told of in the Book of Genesis, Chapter 25, and in chapters 27 and 33. He was, according to The Anchor Bible Dictionary:
"Isaac and Rebecca's firstborn son, and Jacob's older twin. In the OT he is described both as an individual person who represents a specific lifestyle (the hunter) and as the eponymous ancestor of a people (Edomites or Idumeans).


"The contrast between the twins is already anticipated before their birth in God's proclamation that the older brother will serve the younger. ... The older son is his father's favorite while the younger is favored by his mother. ... The younger brother bargained for the older brother's birthright...and deceitfully obtained the firstborn's blessing from Isaac... Jacob fled to Harran to escape Esau's vengeance. ... After Jacob's return the brothers reconciled and settled in different regions."

killed the hunter, back in 1969

This note from a reader:
Subject: Annotated lyrics: My Brother Esau
Date: Thu, 05 Dec 1996 14:30:08 +0000
From: alex allan


I just noticed one obvious annotation you haven't yet included. This is for My Brother Esau, where the opening lines "My brother Eaus killed a hunter back in 1969" clearly refer to Altamont, where the man knifed by the Hell's Angels was Meredith Hunter. See for example The Cribber's Rock 'N' Roll Stories (http://www.ns.net/users/cribber/story.htm)

And another note on this line:

Subject: My Brother Esau
Date: Fri, 21 Mar 1997 14:31:40 -0500
From: Chris Keiner

I love your site. Really informative.

Now, with regards to My Brother Esau. I see the song as a reaction to the Vietnam War.

"My Brother Esau killed the hunter back in 1969
And before the killing was done his inheritance was mine"
As you know, Esau is the hunter, so the killing is actually a killing of the self. As the song goes on, "My brother failed at war"...Esau refuses to fight, thus losing his father's blessing. Of course the lines about "that hairy man" and "the more my brother looks like me / the less I understand" are more closely related to the Biblical story. Jacob dressed in a sheepskin so that he would resemble the "hairy" Esau to his blind father's touch.

The lines: "Esau hates all mirrors anymore" would again refer to Esau making a decision to "kill" the self, but he cannot face himself anymore either.

It is interesting to look at the alternate lyrics for the song where Esau sells real-estate on roller skates in LA. Esau is reduced to the pale commercialism of the '80s. But, as Bobby sang often "we're still fighting the war". Maybe the war never ended for Esau?

Anyway, just my ideas.


keywords: @Bible, @war, @mirror
DeadBase code: [ESAU]
First posted: November 25, 1995
Last revised: November 20, 2006