"...pushing the limits of 18th century technology...

Roll Away the Dew: an Exegesis of Robert Hunter's "Franklin's Tower"

By Andrew Shalit. (email: alms@folly.org) Reproduced for the Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics by permission of the author, who retains all rights.
Copyright notice.
As you probably know, Robert Hunter has a great of love of American History. The song is about events during the American revolution. 'Franklin' refers to Benjamin Franklin. The 'Bell' in the tower is the Liberty Bell.

Casting large metal objects is a complicated process. Casting bells is additonally complicated by the fact that bells must be able to withstand the stress of ringing, and they must produce a good tone. The Liberty Bell was not only very large, but it needed to ring loudly and clearly enough to be heard around the world. This was pushing the limits of 18th century technology.

As you probably know, Benjamin Franklin was not only a philosopher and statesman, he was an inventor. He was involved in the design of the Liberty Bell in the following way:

Franklin postulated that a process which he called "dewing" could be used to improve the production process of large bells. Dewing basically involves exposing the freshly cast bell to large quantities of steam while the bell is still hot. The steam causes a rapid cooling, producing droplet of 'dew' on the bell. After the dew is formed, the bell is rolled between large cotton sheets. He described this process as "rolling away the dew".

Unfortunately, Franklin's contempories had a very hard time understanding his technology. He showed them sample bells, asking him to simply look at the results without trying to understand the process. This was when he uttered the now famous quote, "if you get confused, listen to the music play."

In the end, Franklin couldn't convince the foundry to use his dewing process. Instead they used an alternate process developed by a Frenchman named Simon Legree (who eventually turned out to be a British agent). Simon's process involved planting small ice crystals (seeds) into the metal while the bell was being cast.

As we all know, the Liberty Bell didn't last very long. I believe it had one good ring, but you can't really tell because it was so long ago.

Apparently the one time it was rung was during a storm. After ringing, the famous crack developed in the side of the bell and the wind blew through the crack. They tried ringing the bell again, but the only sound was of the wind blowing through the crack.

Benjamin Franklin was understandably disgusted. When asked later about the incident, his only comment was "They planted ice, so they harvested wind." The ice refers to an alternate dewing process they used at the suggestion of a rival inventor (I'll spare you the details, but he turned out to be quite a Tory). The wind, of course, is the lack of sound from subseqent ringings.

A second meaning (Hunter's always the punster) relates to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The musical structure of Franklin's Tower is similar to that of "Deal." Hunter was suprised that Jerry would write two such similar songs, and so he considered "Franklin's Tower" a "New Deal".

It's really remarkable, the breadth of our culture that Hunter manages to work into his lyrics.

By the way, Franklin's Tower (the real one, not the song) has since been converted to a bridge. If anyone's interested in buying it, let me know.

On July 17, I received this message from Andrew Shalit:
From: Andrew LM Shalit
Cc: ddodd@serf.uccs.edu, alms@ministry.cambridge.apple.com
Subject: Re: Franklin's Tower Facts

>Dear Andrew:

[Actual text deleted at request of sender: query had to do with Shalit's sources--dd]

Most of my research was conducted with the assistance of the Silent Tristero, historical division. A number of descendents of Benjamin Franklin gave me information, but only on the grounds that I keep their names confidential, as well as the specifics of the information they gave me. They are, understandably, concerned for their safety given the sensitivity of the subject.

The James Madison historical society provided some very useful background papers, but I'm afraid those were destroyed in a fire of suspicious origin about two years. His whole house was burned to the ground. Sad.

One cautionary note. Stay away from the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution). They take this issue very seriously, believing that the original Liberty Bell was actually a Liberty Belle, a young woman known to many of the founding fathers --- they claim that she had a substantial role in the drafting many of the early documents, going so far as to give her a hand in the declaration of independence and consitution! I don't think it would be exagerating to say that your life could be in danger if you push this issue with them.

As for Hunter's connection to this whole web, and why he felt compelled to try to get some of this material out in the light of day, albeit in his particularly elliptical fashion... Well, you'll have to ask him directly. I enjoy my backstage passes too much to put them in jeopardy at this time !

Good luck with your research. And do be careful.


At 12:00 PM 9/13/95, William Ward wrote:
I read your web article reference Franklin's Tower and casting of the Liberty Bell with great interest, for reasons unrelated to my appreciation for the Grateful Dead and all the music of their era (my son is bassist in, would you believe, a heavy metal band, Pink Cream 69, out of Karlsruhe, Germany). I take the opportunity to share the following with you, in hopes you might guide me to sources (other than the DAR) which might help me in my quest:

From the Family Book of PASS, by Sybill Pass Holland:

"It seems appropriate to mention here that the Liberty Bell has the name of one John Pass inscribed on it. Whether he was our ancestor remains to be proved. In 1751 the Pennsylvania Assembly decided to install a bell in the steeple of Philadelphia's State House, now known as Independence Hall. The first stroke of the bell created a crack which affected the sound. While they were waiting for a new bell from England, the colonists grew impatient, so two foundrymen volunteered to recast the cracked bell. These two men were John Stow and John Pass. Their first attempt failed, but they were successful the second time they tried. The bell was hung in June of 1753, and the crack that is in it today did not appear until the first half of the 19th century. Both men's names can be seen on the Liberty Bell."

Mrs. Pass, my second cousin, once removed, cites her source for the above as "Pennsylvania 1776", Robert Secor, General Editor, The Pennsylvania State University Press, page 339.

Our first known PASS ancestor in America was John J. Pass who was born over 200 years ago in Virginia; the names of his parents are unknown to us, but his children included: William Huel PASS, Frances PASS, Henrietta D. PASS and John PASS. John J. Pass may have been a son, nephew, sibling of the John PASS who was one of the foundrymen who recast the bell.

Should you be able to shed any light on this, it would delight me and the entire PASS family interested in our roots. In any case, perhaps it will give you a bit of pleasure to know of our interest, and how far reaching music is.

Bill Ward, g-g-g-grandson of John Pass

Date: Wed, 13 Sep 1995 20:15:43 -0400
From: Andrew LM Shalit
To: William Ward
Subject: Re: Franklin's Tower Facts

Bill -

Thank you very much for this information. It solves a couple more pieces of the puzzle for me.

An early draft of "Franklin's Tower" (actually just some chicken scratch on the back of an electric bill, don't ask how I came by it) contains slightly different lyrics from the version with which we are all so familiar.

The original lyric of the middle verse was "if you pass ice, you're gonna harvest wind". And the original refrain was "stow away the dew".

I can only surmise from this that your ancestor John Pass and his partner John Stow were the casters who were in disagreement with Ben Franklin. Here the lyrics refer to Pass suggesting the use of ice rather than Dew Rolling, and Stow advocating that the whole idea of 'Dewing the Bell' be 'stowed'! God, Hunter's creativity never ceases to amaze me!

I can only guess that he didn't go with the original lyric because he didn't think people would get it. (And indeed, even I didn't get it until you provided these additional clues.) He must have decided to go with something more obvious.

As you've probably guessed by now, I don't have any additional information for you, but I'm very glad to have the information _you've_ provided to me. Thank you!


p.s. I've CC'd David Dodd in case he thinks this minor exchange is worthy of inclusion in his web site.

[Note from the editor: Oh, most definitely worthy!]

Update: January 18, 1996!

Date: Thu, 18 Jan 1996 13:39:38 -0500
From: Andrew LM Shalit (alms@folly.org)
To: Derrick Hussey (hussey@routledge.com)
Cc: alms@folly.org, ddodd@serf.uccs.edu
Subject: Re: Franklin's Tower question

At 8:52 PM 1/17/96, Derrick Hussey wrote:

>     Hello there,


>     I was reading your excellent essay on this song and I have a question: 

>     how did Legree sow the ice crystals into the molten metal? I would 

>     think they would melt extremely fast. Any information you can provide 

>     would be great.  Thanks in advance,


>     Derrick

Derrick -

Your question is very timely. I had wondered this myself for a long time. A recent conversation with a fellow Dead Head who is studying materials science at MIT enlightened me, and showed yet again the truly amazing depth and intricacy of Hunter's lyrics.

By way of background, I met this Dead Head on the bus. Her name is Inonu Ryder, and she studies train tracks. Apparently casting those big strips of metal so they are as unwarped as possible is quite a complicated task. In our daily commute to Kendall Square we got to talking, and I learned something more about casting. I now believe I know more about the alternative ice-dewing process that Legree proposed.

As you may know, snow forms different crystals when it is frozen at different temperatures. Snow formed at a relatively high temperature takes the shape of rods and produces a denser snow. Snow formed at a relatively lower temperature produces a more complicated, less dense crystal and snow. The crystals formed at these lower temperatures, actually, resemble the seeds of dandelion flowers. Because they are so fluffy, they carry well when blown by the wind. Because they are so cold, they do not melt quite as quickly. It turns out that in this process, even a fraction of a second of additional crystalline time can make a big difference.

However, even these colder, more buoyant crystals do not have the integrity to survive the temperatures as they approach the heated metal of a bell that has just been cast. To further protect the ice crystals, they are mixed in a slurry of silica, a sort of very fine sand. (You'll recall that it's a silica/ceramic compound that is used to make the heat-resistant tiles on the space shuttle.) The silica and ice crystals bond together in the slurry, the ice provides lift/buoyancy, and the silica absorbs heat as the metal is approached. When the slurry actually hits the bell, the ice creates an impact and finally melts, accomplishing the alternative dewing, and the silica has a fortuitous sandblasting effect, generating a pleasant patina on the surface of the bell.

Finally, Inonu impressed upon me that for this technique to be effective, the entire surface of the bell would need to hit with the slurry simultaneously, creating a uniform cooling effect. Otherwise the bell would shatter from the heat shock.

Once I had this information, I looked over the lyrics of the song again and was amazed: the information is all there, for those who have eyes to see. It just blows me away:

  Wildflower seeds            (cold-frozen ice crystals)

  in the sand and stone       (mixed in a silica slurry)

  May the four winds          (need to blow the slurry at the bell

  blow you safely home         from all directions, hitting the target

                               safely, simultaneously, and evenly.)

Inonu could give me the details of the process because it was perfected and used to great effect in the middle of the nineteenth century. It became standard practice for all large-bell manufacturing. So Legree wasn't actually mistaken about the best way to make a bell, he was just ahead of his time. In the late eighteenth century the technology didn't exist to produce the ice crystals at precisely the right temperature, to produce a fine enough silica powder, or to evenly blend and distribute the slurry.

However, Legree's contribution did not go unrecognized. The bells that were eventually produced using the process that he pioneered are called 'Legregian Bells' and hang in churches producing beautiful tones to this day. There's even a new album coming out, of Gregorian chanting accompanied by campaniles (church bells) entitle "Legregious Gregorious". I think it should be in stores by May.

I hope you find this information useful. I'd been meaning to write it up for the GD Lyrics Web Site, but hadn't gotten around to it yet. So thanks for the prod!



Andrew Shalit                                        alms@folly.org

                           -Thinking Allowed-


[Editor's note: Yet another masterpiece of explication!]

Date: Thu, 18 Jan 1996 18:25:16 -0500
From: Andrew LM Shalit alms@folly.org
Subject: Re[2]: Franklin's Tower question

One correction to my previous e-mail. The record coming out in May isn't called "Legregious Gregorious" but "L'egregious Cantos". It's being put out by Nonesuch, on their Mythos label.


Date: Thu, 25 Jan 1996 16:16:49 -0500
From: Andrew LM Shalit alms@folly.org
Subject: Re: Franklin quotation

At 8:35 PM 1/25/96, Thomas.Melvin@MVS.UDEL.EDU wrote:

>Greetings.  I was looking for a source that could verify the quotations that

>you attribute to Benjamin Franklin in your Exegesis of Franklins Tower, but

>despite looking in many quotation books and biographies of Franklin I can not

>find a thing.  I was hoping that you could provide a source, since you seem so

>familiar with the subject matter.  Any help would be appreciated.  Many


>         Tom Melvin

Well, I can give you some pointers, but I'm not sure how helpful they will be.

The quotes come from a description of the events written by Franklin himself. As far as I