"The truth of love an unsung song must tell"

The Annotated "Reuben and Cerise"

An installment in The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics.
By David Dodd
Research Associate, Music Dept., University of California, Santa Cruz
Copyright notice; © 1995, David Dodd
"Reuben and Cerise"
Words by Robert Hunter; music by Jerry Garcia
Copyright Ice Nine Publishing; used by permission

Cerise was brushing her long hair gently down
It was the afternoon of carnival
as she brushes it gently down

Reuben was strumming the painted mandolin
It was inlaid with a pretty face in jade
Played the Carnival Parade

Cerise was dressing as Pirouette in white
when a fatal vision gripped her tight
Cerise beware tonight

Reuben, Reuben tell me truly true
I feel afraid and I don't know why I do
Is there another girl for you?

If you could see in my heart
you would know it's true
there is none Cerise except for you
except for you
I swear to it on my very soul
If I lie may I fall down cold

When Reuben played the painted mandolin
the breeze would stop to listen in
before going its way again

Masquerade began when nightfall finally woke
Like waves against the bandstand dancers broke
to the painted mandolin

Looking out on the crowd, who is standing there?
Sweet Ruby Claire at Reuben stared
At Reuben stared
She was dressed as Pirouette in red
and her hair hung gently down

The crowd pressed round
Ruby stood as though alone
Reuben's song took on a different tone
and he played it just for her

The song he played was the Carnival Parade
Each note cut a thread of Cerise's fate
It cut through like a blade

Reuben was playing the painted mandolin
When Ruby froze and turned to stone
for the strings played all alone

The voice of Cerise from the face of the mandolin
singing: Reuben, Reuben tell me true
for I have no one but you
If you could see in my heart
you would know it's true
There is none Cerise, except for you -except for you

I swear to it on my very soul
If I lie, may I fall down cold * * *

The truth of love
an unsung song must tell
The course of love must follow blind
without a look behind
Rubin walked through the streets
of New Orleans 'till dawn,
Cerise so lightly in his arms
and her hair hung gently down

these additional verses connect at the asterisks(***)
and replace the original ending verse

Ahoy old Ferryman
Riverboat of Charron ride
Though alive, take Reuben to the other side
For his sweet Cerise has died

It's a long lonely walk from Hell
to the burying ground
Cerise may return
but don't you look around
for your glance would cut her down

The truth of love an unsung song must tell
The course of love must follow blind
but Reuben looked behind

Reuben walked the streets of New Orleans till dawn
with the ghost of Cerise in his empty arms
and her hair hung gently down

"Reuben and Cerise"

Recorded on (Note: On Cats Under the Stars the tune's title was spelled "Rubin and Cherise." The title as spelled here is from Hunter's Box of Rain anthology of lyrics.)

First performance of only four total by the Dead: March 17, 1991, at the Capital Centre, in Landover, Maryland. "Reuben and Cerise" occupied the penultimate spot in the first set, following "Queen Jane Approximately" and preceding "Let It Grow".


"Cerise" is French for "cherry," and may also refer to the color, cherry-red. The word is also used in English for the color.


Hunter has set the story in New Orleans, so this reference must be to Mardi Gras, the pre-Lent blowout celebration. This places the time in February, on Shrove Tuesday, which falls on a date determined by the date of Easter in any given year. The celebration is the final night of the traiditonal world-wide celebration of Carnival, which is a season of celebration beginning with Twelfth Night--January 6.

The word "carnival" derives from the renunciation of meat (carne vale or "farewell to meat") which is a traditional way of observing Lent. Tom Robbins, in one of his books, proposed an alternate etymology for the word, linking it to carre navalis, or "car of the sea."


According to American Given Names:
"From the oldest son of Jacob; also a tribal name. ... The name is uncommon, and approaches extinction after 1850."

Carnival Parade

While I cannot locate a specific reference to any song entitled "The Carnival Parade," it is interesting to note that there are three main parades at New Orleans' Mardi Gras: Endymion, Bacchus, and Orpheus.


This line has always confused me--is it possible that Hunter was referring to the classical Commedia del'Arte character of Pierrot, the companion to Harlequin? This would make sense, in terms of "dressing as" a character. I can find no reference to Pirouette as a character in any context.

Reuben, Reuben

Calls to mind the song by Harry Birch, "Reuben and Rachel":
"Reuben, Reuben, I've been thinking,
What a queer world this would be
If the men were all transported
Far beyond the Northern Sea."

Ruby Claire

Again, a name meaning "red." The addition of "Claire" to the name indicates "bright red."

dressed...in red

Ruby dresses in red. Reminiscent of the lines in "Casey Jones":
"Trouble ahead
The Lady in Red!"

without a look behind

In the version of the song published in Box of Rain, Hunter includes a number of verses that flesh out the song's plot a bit, making it clearly a parallel to the tale of Orpheus, in which the hero makes a trip to the underworld in order to rescue his lover, Eurydice. He is told that he may have her back, as long as he does not look behind to make sure that she is following him.

In the context of the Cats Under the Stars album, there is a nice echo of this idea in "Gomorrah," in which Lot is allowed to escape the doomed city with his family as long as he does not turn around. Of course, his wife does so, and is turned into a pillar of salt. The positioning of the songs on the album puts brackets around the entire set of songs, with "Rubin and Cherise" opening the album, and "Gomorrah" closing it.

The setting of the Orpheus legend in the context of carnival also echoes the 1959 film, Orfeu Negru (Black Orpheus).

Keywords: @New Orleans, @red, @colors, @music, @mythology
DeadBase code: [REUB]
First posted: December 13, 1995
Last revised: April 14, 1998