"Grateful Dead concerts carry with them relics and fragments of our culture's history..."

Three Dave Kopel articles on Grateful Dead Lyrics

Originally published in Relix Magazine.

Reproduced in The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics by permission of the author.

Copyright notice

Allusions in Grateful Dead Lyrics

You've heard the lyrics to some Dead song about 500 times, so what do they mean? Probably about 10,000 different things. Here are some more: Rituals such as Mother Goose rhymes and Grateful Dead concerts carry with them relics and fragments of our culture's history, and that is one reason why these rituals have so much staying power. The visions of ancient Ezekial, the dilemmas of a young soldier in imperial England, the slogans of television commercials -- to be here now at a Dead concert is to close the gap of the dark years in between ourselves and all those who have built our culture over the centuries.

Lyric history

From the Texas swing of "Mama Tried" to the African rhythm of "Throwing Stones" to the Bulgarian folk cadence of "Uncle John's Band," the Dead draw their musical inspiration from the whole world's musical culture. Like the music, the Dead's lyrics draw on the full richness of our cultural history.

For example, the diverse imagery of "Ramble on Rose" takes us from the 1920's all the way back to the Old Testament. We all know the line "just like Billy Sunday, in a shotgun ragtime band," but who was Billy Sunday? The greatest preacher of the early 20th century, Billy Sunday shouted the gospel to a total audience of 100 million people. With the support of the Ku Klux Klan, he railed against the teaching of evolution and for the prohibition of liquor.

While Billy Sunday was a social conservative, Mary Shelley (as in "Just like Mary Shelley, just like Frankenstein") was just the opposite. She and her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, traveled throughout Europe and cavorted with the great Romantic writers of the early 19th century, including Keats and Byron. It was at Byron's Swiss castle where she began composing "Frankenstein," inspired by a nightmare that followed an evening of ghost stories by candlelight.

"Ramble on Rose" continues: "Just like New York City, just like Jericho, pace the halls and climb the walls and get out when they blow." In the Old Testament, as the Hebrews fought to conquer of Promised Land of Israel, they ran into Jericho, whose tall, sturdy walls made it seemingly impregnable. At the Lord's command, Joshua, the Hebrew leader, ordered seven priests -- each carrying a ram's horn trumpet -- to march around Jericho for six days. On the seventh day, they marched around seven times. When the priests blew the horns for the seventh time, the Hebrews shouted in unison, and "the wall fell down flat."

While there is no single "right" way to interpret Dead lyrics, understanding their historical roots opens up new meanings. Like Billy Sunday, the Dead at times represent rural, traditional, community-oriented values. Billy Sunday and the Dead preach against the false security of a New York City or a Jericho -- the idea that technological prowess can make one invulnerable. Like Mary Shelley and Dr. Frankenstein, the band members have created a huge, strange creature -- the Grateful Dead, that at times threatens to destroy its creators.

In "Uncle John's Band," Jerry sings, "Goddamn well I declare, have you seen the like? Their walls are made of cannonballs, their motto is 'Don't tread on me.'" Whose motto? The Americans who fought the War for Independence. They carried flags that showed a snake (representing America) warning "Don't tread on me." For a while, the "Don't tread on me" flag was the official battle flag of New York State's troops.

While British Deadheads haven't had much to cheer about since the 1981 tour, they can at least consider how many Dead songs involve British culture.

"Scarlet Begonias" starts off in London, with Jerry "walking round Grosvenor Square," a fashionable residential section of London.

Later, "the wind in the willows plays tea for two." The Wind in the Willows, of course, is the famous children's story by Kenneth Grahame. It details the adventures of Mole, Water Rat, and Toad on a river in rural England.

"Tea for Two" is a well-known song from the 1920's American musical "No, No, Nanette", in which Nanette and her fiancee plan their future life: "Tea for two, and two for tea; a boy for you, a girl for me; can't you see how happy we will be?"

Jackstraw hails from Wichita, but the first Jackstraw came from rural Britain. In 1381, Jack Straw and Wat Tyler led an unsuccessful peasant and labor rebellion against Britain's King Richard II. Jackstraw later came to mean a man without property, worth, or influence.

Also harking back to very olde England is "Sugaree," which begins: "When they come to take you down, when they bring that wagon round, when they come to call on you, and drag your poor body down...." The lyric evokes the medieval practice of hauling dead bodies away in a wagon. (Remember the beginning of "Monty Python and Holy Grail," when a man directing a wagon shouts "Bring out your dead.")

Another medieval image is The Ship of Fools. A common figure in religious paintings, the Ship of Fools reproached people who thought of sailing only as an end in itself, rather than a means to reach a port -- people who cared only for earthly pleasures, and forgot the goal of salvation.

Next time your parent/teacher/boss/authority figure tells you that "In the Dark" is destroying your mind, explain that you consider the album a sort of history lesson. For example, in "Hell in Bucket" Bobs mocks his former sex partner: "You might be the reincarnation of the infamous Catherine the Great." Empress of Russia in the late 18th century, Catherine the Great deserved her infamy. By conquest and diplomacy, she vastly expanded Russian power in Europe, the Middle East, and the Far East. Under her reign, many once-free peasants were enslaved as serfs. Up until her death at age 67, she had sex with a huge variety of (mostly young) men, including her great Field Marshall Potemkin. Her sexual appetites reportedly extended to sado-masochism and bestiality. Although she actually died of natural causes, rumors have long persisted that she died lying in bed, "waiting for a stallion to be lowered onto her; the winch broke, and she was crushed by the weight of the horse."

You can explain that you're listening to the new album because of your interest in early European cartography. "Here they may be tigers," we are warned in "When Push Comes to Shove." That line comes from an old map of Asia, drawn by a European explorer; the map includes a vague drawing of India, and the warning "Here there may be tygers."

History won't get you far with "China Cat." Nobody's ever seen a "Copper dome bodhi drip a silver kimono." The "bodhi," though, is short for "Bodhisattva." In Buddhism (one of the major religions in China), a bodhisattva is a being who compassionately does not enter Nirvana, so he can stay on lower (earthly) planes and help others.

One of Robert Hunter's greatest strengths as a lyricist is how his words carry so many levels of meaning, each reinforcing the other. For example, the proclamation "you are the eyes of the world" is a strong and upbeat message reminding people that they have special gifts to offer. The line is reminiscent of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus made the same point: "You are the light of the world." Similarly, "The heart has its seasons, its evenings and songs of its own" seems inspired by the 17th century French philosopher Pascal's saying: "The heart has its reasons which reason does not understand." (Pascal was explaining why he could accept Christianity on the basis of faith, rather than reason.) In one sense then, the song places itself in the Christian tradition. Yet while Hunter restates an element of Jesus' message, Hunter's lyrics later seem to reject the idea of a Jesus (or anyone else) as a permanent source of inspiration: "There comes a redeemer and he slowly too fades away." Hunter's point is that all things -- including the most cosmic -- participate in the cycle of birth and death: "Seeds that were silent all burst into bloom and decay. Night comes so quiet and close on the heels of the day."

But immediately after Hunter delivers the "evening" message that nothing is permanent, he brings the song around to the refrain's "morning" message: "Wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the world." By paraphrasing the words Jesus said two millennia ago -- and Pascal's affirmation of the words 1600 years later -- the song acknowledges that some things may endure through all time.

"Eyes" contains both a thesis (everything grows and then decays), and an antithesis (some things, like the words in the Sermon, may survive forever). By uniting two contradictory ideas, the song imitates the world it describes, where life and death -- two opposites -- become part of a greater whole, and where the conflict between permanence and decay is never fully resolved.

In "Touch of Grey," Hunter's borrowings strengthen one of that song's major themes. "Light a candle, curse the glare," is an ironic variation of a Chinese proverb: "It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness." While lighting a candle in the darkness (a good act in a bad time) is a positive event, even that good act has a negative side -- the candle's glare. The chorus repeats the same theme; every dark cloud, as the saying goes, has silver lining, but "every silver lining's got a touch of grey."

"High culture" figures like Blaise Pascal or Mary Shelley are hardly the only cultural sources of Dead lyrics; old-time slang is important as well. "Cassidy" (in part a tribute to the death and life of the wandering, semi-crazy hero Neal Cassady) portrays a funeral in which a "catch-colt draws a coffin cart." A "catch-colt" is 19th century American slang for a colt (or human) whose paternity is unknown.

In "Don't Ease Me In," Jerry is "Standing on the corner, talking to Miss Brown." This seems to be about the same thing as "going down by minglewood," since "Miss Brown" is 18th-19th century British slang for female genitals.

Robert Hunter plainly intends that his songs operate on various levels. In Blair Jackson's book "The Music Never Stopped," he explains that the Dire Wolf represents (among other things) the Id -- the psychological source of animalistic, pleasure-oriented impulses.

Yet there are other meanings in the songs that Hunter did not intend. Although St. Stephen was the first Christian martyr, Hunter says he did not write the song with the historical figure in mind. Nevertheless, much of the song's imagery is consistent with a martyr's story. Images in the song such as Stephen's rose (a martyr's emblem) and the "babe in scarlet colors" easily work as Christian symbols. Following a conviction of blasphemy, St. Stephen was stoned (!) to death by a crowd -- "wherever he goes the people all complain." The historical St. Stephen grappled with ultimate questions, and eventually decided he was ready to die to defend the answers. The character in Hunter's song asks his own big questions, and wonders what the importance of the answers will be.

One of the great aspects the Dead experience is that it is not just a one-way message from musicians to audience, but a reciprocal experience, in which the audiences helps create the meaning. The songs acquire a life of their own, partly independent of their authors' intentions. On "Live Dead," "St. Stephen" segues into "The Eleven," another song influenced by what Ken Kesey called the "messianic" LSD culture. The song carries out a numerical countdown, reminiscent of "The Twelve Days of Christmas." The "six proud walkers on the jingle bell rainbow," remind the listener of another Christmas carol. The "five men writing with fingers of gold" parallels the "five gold rings" from "The Twelve Days." The "Four men tracking down the great white sperm whale" are Captain Ahab and his crew in their obsessive, epic quest for Moby Dick, the great white whale. The whale seems to be elsewhere, though, for the next line is "Three girls waiting in a foreign dominion, riding in the whalebelly." (Sort of like Jonah, whose whalebelly trip took him to the foreign land of Ninevah.)

The song concludes: "William Tell has stretched his bow till it won't stretch no furthermore and/or it may require a change that hasn't come before." In legend, William Tell was the brilliant archer who, after shooting an apple off his son's head, assassinated the Austrian dictator of Switzerland, precipitating the revolution that changed Switzerland into an independent nation.

Bible imagery abounds in Grateful Dead lyrics -- not because the Dead necessarily agree with everything Billy Sunday said -- but simply because the book is the world's most influential work of literature. For instance, the first book of the Bible, Genesis, gets a thorough treatment. "Greatest Story's" main characters are Abraham and Isaac ("sittin' on a fence"). Abraham is man that God picked to father the Jewish nation, and Isaac is his son. Isaac's two children were Jacob and his twin brother Esau.

Older by a few minutes, Esau was a rough, burly hunter, and his father Isaac's favorite. ("Our father favored Esau...") Isaac's wife Rebekah, though, preferred Jacob, who was quiet, shrewd, and lived at home. As the oldest son, Esau was entitled to Isaac's final blessing (an event of legal and financial importance). As Isaac, nearly blind, lay dying, Jacob went to him, and pretended to be Esau. Disguising himself as the hairy Esau, Jacob covered his arms with goatskins. Unable to see, Isaac felt the goatskins, thought they were Esau's hairy arms, and gave Jacob the blessing intended for Esau. Jacob's mother knew that Esau would kill Jacob when Esau found out about the trick, so she sent Jacob away on a 500 mile journey. On the trip, Jacob lay down by the side of the road to sleep, and used a stone for his pillow. (Remember the line from "Black Muddy River, "when I can't tell my pillow from a stone.") Jacob dreams of a ladder which reaches from earth to heaven. At the top of the ladder is the Lord, who promises Jacob he will protect him, and that Jacob's numerous descendants shall be a blessing to all people of the Earth. Thus the lines: "Before the killing was done, his inheritance was mine....Sometimes at night I dream he's still that hairy man, shadow-boxing the apocalypse, and wandering the land."

Conflict between brothers also appears in "Mississippi Half-Step," where "they say that Cain caught Abel, rolling loaded dice." In Genesis, Cain and Abel were the children of Adam and Eve; Cain killed Abel because the Lord liked Abel better. Thinking about the Dead's historical and literary roots does help a person understand them on some new levels. What's most important about the Dead, however, is an experience that transcends culture, history, and even language. John Barlow expresses this thought in "Let It Grow," with a reference to one of man's sillier attempts to apply reason to the things that are beyond reason. During the middle ages, religious scholars had debated how many angels could fit on the head of a pin. (Possible answers: one, since a pin is so small; three, for the holy Trinity; or an infinite number, because angels don't take up any space.) Barlow asks, "What shall we say, shall we call it by a name? As well to count the angels dancing on a pin."

When God appeared to Moses in a burning bush, Moses asked God his name, and God replied, "I AM WHO I AM." Instead of trying to name the unnamable, Barlow suggests we look at the "Water bright as the sky from which it came. And the name is on the earth that takes it in, will not speak but stand inside the rain, and listen to the thunder shout 'I AM, I AM, I AM, I AM!'"

Inside the Grateful Dead, we can all shout "I AM." We can find out that we are the eyes of the world, and by looking through and beyond the Dead's lyrics and the Dead experience, open ourselves to the world's possibilities.

Gathering Stories to Tell

The Grateful Dead is a world unto itself. One reason that world remains such an interesting place to be is that the Dead's world intersects so many other worlds. Grateful Dead lyrics are a window to some of the world's greatest literature, and some of history's greatest characters.

Alabama Getaway: "Majordomo Billy Bojangles sit down and have a drink with me." Immortalized in Jerry Jeff Walker's song, the Black dancer William Robinson used the stage name "Mr. Bojangles." As the song of that name goes, "He danced for those in minstrel shows and county fairs, throughout the South." Robinson was orphaned at age 7, and survived by dancing on Richmond street corners for pennies. By 1928, he was dancing on Broadway, and when he died in 1949, he had achieved such fame that he lay in state for two days in Harlem.

According to a new biography called Mr. Bojangles, William Robinson was sentenced to 15 years in Sing Sing for robbing a tailor at gunpoint. A higher court ordered a new trial, though. Did the "witness box began to rock and writhe"? It should have; the two whites who accused Robinson would later be indicted for perjury. It took only 15 seconds of deliberation for the second jury to acquit Robinson.

Ever wonder who Garcia's talking to when he sings "23rd psalm majordomo, reserve me a table for three, down in the valley of the shadows, just you, Alabama, and me"? A majordomo is the head steward of a large house. The 23rd Psalm says, "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for Thou art with me."

Althea: This song contains a host of literary references in its verse: "You may be Saturday's child, all alone, moving with a tinge of grace. You may be a clown in the burying ground, or just another pretty face. You may meet the fate of Ophelia, sleeping and perchance to dream."

The first line comes from the folk poem, "Monday's Child":

"Monday's child is fair of face,
Tuesday's child is full of grace. . .
Saturday's child has to work for a living,
But the child that's born on the Sabbath day
Is fair and wise and good and gay."

The next two lines, about the "clown in the buryin' ground," are from Hamlet. After Ophelia has committed suicide, two clowns dig her grave. They unearth a skull, which Hamlet holds during his soliloquy "Alas, poor Yorick."

Before the suicide, Hamlet himself had wondered "To be or not to be," and speculated about the afterlife: "To die, to sleep -- to sleep -- perchance to dream." Hamlet concluded that "dread of something after death" made people unwilling to flee the burdens of life.

And We Bid You Goodnight: This old gospel song mentions several Bible stories. One verse goes:

"But His rod and His staff they comfort me.
Tell 'A' for the ark that wonderful boat
Tell 'B' for the beast at the ending of the wood
You know it ate all the children who would not be good."
Each of these lines is a Biblical reference to death or disaster. The rod and staff line is a slight variation on another line in the 23rd Psalm, "Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me." It immediately follows, "though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for Thou art with me."

The "A for the ark," of course, is Noah's ark, which saved its passengers from the great flood.

The "'B' for the beast" tells a story from the second book of Kings. Mocking the prophet Elijah to his face, some "young lads" yelled "Go up, you baldhead." Elijah "cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two female bears came out of the woods and tore up forty-two lads."

The song continues: "Walkin' in Jerusalem just like John. I go walkin' in the valley of the shadow of death." In Jerusalem, John the Baptist preached that the messiah was coming soon. Unafraid of the consequences, John also told King Herod that Herod's marriage to the wife of his deceased brother violated God's law. None too pleased, the wife ordered that John be executed, and his head brought to her on a silver platter.

Casey Jones: A skillful, daring engineer for the Illinois Central Railroad, John Luther ("Casey") Jones earned a reputation for always bringing his trains in on time. Assigned to the dangerous Cannon Ball run from Memphis, Tenn. to Canton, Miss., Casey Jones took an overdue train out of the station on the morning of April 30, 1900, determined to make up 95 minutes of lost time.

As the train hurtled down a 100 mile straightaway a switchman flashed a lantern warning of a disabled train ahead, but Jones apparently did not see the signal. Soon after, the train's fireman must have screamed, as he saw that his train was going to crash into a stationary freight train a few hundred feet ahead.

Knowing the wreck was inevitable, Casey Jones ordered the fireman to jump. Staying with the train, Jones pulled the whistle, and jerked on the air brake hose. His body was found with the hands still clutching the whistle and the brake. Casey Jones' heroism had saved the lives of all of his passengers, and he quickly became a folk hero. (David Morse's out of print book Grandfather Rock includes an excellent essay on "Casey Jones" and other classic rock lyrics.)

Goin' Down the Road Feeling Bad: "Going where the water tastes like wine" refers the Wedding at Cana, where Jesus was a wedding guest. When the hosts' wine ran out, Jesus made water into wine. (Remember the song in Jesus Christ Superstar, where King Herod sneers, "Prove to me that you're divine; change this water into wine.")

It's interesting to consider that the singer in GDTRFB is not going to a place where the water really is wine, just a place where the water tastes like wine. This reminds me of a line in "Saint of Circumstance," where Bob sings "This must be Heaven -- or close enough to pretend." These lyrics display a healthy awareness of the limits of the Grateful Dead experience. They're a nice Yin to balance to the fanatic Yang rave of the other songs, such as Estimated Prophet.

Greatest Story Ever Told: The title here is the same as a 1949 book: The Greatest Story Ever Told: A Tale of the Greatest Life Ever Lived. In that bestseller book, author Fulton Oursler rewrites the story of Jesus' life in the idiom of modern popular fiction. For instance: "Annas was now a very old man but he was still the political boss of Jerusalem."

Mountains of the Moon: Who's the "Electra," of "Mountains of the moon Electra, bow and bend to me"? In Greek mythology, Electra was one of the seven daughters of Atlas. The daughters were pursued by lusty hunter Orion; they escaped after the gods took pity, and changed them into stars -- the Pleiades constellation. Electra is the Seventh Pleiad, a very dim, dark star, said to be lost or in hiding.

Later in the song comes the line "hey the laurel." In Greek mythology, the laurel represents the nymph Daphne. Pursued by the sun god Apollo, Daphne prayed to her own goddess for escape, and was changed into a laurel tree.

New Potato Caboose: Even Robert Hunter, a master of complex, layered lyrics, probably didn't consider "Mountains of the Moon" an eco-feminist song when he wrote it. Lyrics have a life of their own, though, and take new meanings as listeners find them.

When Robert Petersen wrote "New Potato Caboose" back in the Acid Test era, he wasn't thinking about the Solidarnosc labor union in Poland. But Solidarity has made its way into the song now, in the line "Black Madonna, two eagles hang against a cloud." (In some versions, Bob instead sings "above my doorknob," rather than "Black Madonna.")

Over 1,000 years old, the Black Madonna is a dark painting of the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus. It is also called "Our Lady of Czestochowa," for the town in south central Poland where is it located. The Black Madonna is Poland's Statue of Liberty -- a symbol of national unity and resistance to foreign tyranny. Many Poles credit the Black Madonna's miraculous powers with defeating a German invasion in the middle ages. (There are also less famous Black Madonnas in Switzerland and Spain, although they are not the over-arching symbols of nationhood that Poland's is.)

Throughout Solidarnosc's struggle against Soviet imperialism in the last decade, the Black Madonna has served as a rallying point for Poland. Strikers at the Gda_sk shipyards wear the a Black Madonna miniature next to their Solidarnosc pin. Labor leader Lech Walesa wears Black Madonna miniature around his neck, and prays to it during secret police interrogations.

Stagger Lee: This song reworks, with lots of changes, one of the most important stories of 19th century Black folklore.

In the original version, Stagolee was born on a Georgia plantation. Unwilling to serve white folks, he left home at age five, with a deck of cards in one pocket, and a .44 in another. He figured he could win all the money he needed with the cards, and take care of anything else with the .44.

By the time he was grown, Stagolee had a well-deserved reputation as the baddest character that ever lived. One night in Alabama, Stagolee was playing cards with Billy Lyons. Angry that Stagolee kept winning, Billy knocked off Stagolee's Stetson hat, and spit in it. Stagolee pulled his .44 revolver and shot Billy dead. Stagolee went to Billy's house, told Billy's wife that her husband was dead, and then moved in to take Billy's place.

The white sheriff -- ignoring the advice of all his deputies and the townspeople -- went to arrest Stagolee. The sheriff found Stagolee drinking in a bar, after midnight, when bars were supposed to be closed. The sheriff walked up to Stagolee, stuck a revolver in Stagolee's ribs, and announced "I'm placing you under arrest for the murder of Billy Lyons." Stagolee, as the story goes, "hit him upside the head and sent him flying across the room." After drilling the sheriff with three bullets, Stagolee had another drink and left.

In another story, Death comes down to earth to carry off Stagolee, who, according to records, should have died 30 years ago. Stagolee pulls his .44, whizzes a few bullets past Death's ear, and sends him scurrying back to Heaven.

Stagolee became a very-well known legend, especially in the cities. One historian lists "the apotheosis of the mythical Stagolee" as one of the major causes of the subculture of black violence in 19th century Philadelphia.

In the original story, Billy Lyon's widow lives happily with Stagolee, who turns out to be a pretty good husband. In the Dead's version, though, the widow revenges her husband's death. When the sheriff refuses to arrest Stagger Lee, she takes the sheriff's gun, and shoots Stagger in the balls. In the original story, Stagolee is the hero, a symbol of black resistance to white oppression. In the Dead's version, Billy's widow becomes the heroine, a symbol of female self-sufficiency.

What's Become of the Baby? "Scheherazade gathering stories to tell." In Mid-east legend, King Schahriah got tired of unfaithful wives, so he devised a novel solution: each night, he married a new wife, and the following morning, had her executed.

Princess Scheherazade found herself married to the King one night, trying to figure out how to avoid execution the next morning. So she told the King a fabulous story, but postponed the ending until the next night. The King postponed the execution by one day, so she could finish the story. That night, she finished the first story, but began another, and again postponed the ending.each night, she told the King a new story, and postponed the ending. For the next three years, she told a night-time story that saved her life the next morning. She saved her life, and the collection of stories became known as "The Thousand and One Arabian Nights."

Posted October 16, 1995