"It won't do to be too literal-minded here..."

Black, Muddy River--line by line

by Andrew Stiller

A thematic essay for the Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics.
Used with permission of the author. Thanks, Andrew!

The last song on the Grateful Dead's darkest album is a heartbreaking confession of ultimate failure, relieved only by grim stoicism.

When the last rose of summer pricks my finger

An extraordinarily pregnant image that front-loads the song with most of its content. First of all, it evokes the beautiful old song "'Tis the Last Rose of Summer," whose whole text is relevant:

'Tis the last rose of summer,
Left blooming alone,
All her lovely companions
Are faded and gone.
No flow'r of her kindred,
No rose bud is nigh,
To reflect back her blushes,
Or give sigh for sigh.

I'll not leave thee, thou lone one,
To pine on the stem;
Since the lovely are sleeping,
Go sleep thou with them;
Thus kindly I scatter
Thy leaves o'er the bed
Where thy mates of the garden
Lie scentless and dead.

So soon may I follow
When friendships decay,
And from love's shining circle
The gems drop away!
When true hearts lie withered
And fond ones are flown
Oh! who would inhabit
This bleak world alone?

Every bit of this is injected into "Black, Muddy River" at this instant. The two songs even share their first three notes in common. But what a shock! The passive, Romantic, languishing rose turns on its admirer and attacks. His world has become not merely bleak, but vicious.

We were warned. Anyone listening to this song has likely just heard the rest of In the Dark, and encountered these lines in "When Push Comes to Shove":

Shaking in the garden, the fear within you grows;
Here there may be roses to punch you in the nose.

But there we were told that anyone harboring such a fear is "afraid of love." The singer of "Black, Muddy River" is not afraid, but love has attacked him anyway.

And there is still more. The feminized rose of "'Tis the Last Rose of Summer" and "When Push Comes to Shove" is only one way of looking at the flower. The Grateful Dead invoked the rose at every turn, and with multiple layers of symbolism: it stands for love, for the female principle, for the rosa mystica of Christian and Rosicrucian mysticism, for the soul in general, and for the Dead's original "flower children" followers and their spiritual descendants, the Deadheads. Furthermore, "summer" is a common metaphor for youth or a heyday (as for example in the Doors' "Summer's Almost Gone"). So this first line of "Black, Muddy River" means many things, none of them nice:

When my love goes wrong
When my lover rejects me
When my good deeds go bad
When my spiritual resources are exhausted
When my dwindling fans turn on me
above all: When the last person to share my ideals abandons them.

And the hot sun chills me to the bone,

This started as a lighthearted bit of nonsense in Stephen Foster's "Oh! Susanna" ("the sun so hot I froze to death"); but in "New Speedway Boogie!" the Dead told us that "In the heat of the sun a man died of cold" when a fan was murdered in broad daylight at Altamont. Coldness, there and here, is to be understood emotionally: The singer is depressed, and that which should normally warm the spirits or warm the cockles of his heart instead produces bleak apathy or grim sadness.

When I can't hear the song for the singer

Not a literal song here, but the song of life, or of humanity. The line laments an inability to see past the surface of things to their spiritual essence, an inability to "find one's center." The ultimate source of the metaphor is the Rolling Stones' 1965 "The Singer, Not the Song," whose title has become proverbial in its own right. The Stones song is a cheerful investigation of the difference between love and sex, but it also contains these words:

The same old places and the same old songs
We've been going there for much too long

And I can't tell my pillow from a stone,

A depressed person sleeps very poorly.

I will walk alone by the black, muddy river

Because he has been abandoned or rejected, he must make his way alone. The river is the one from "Uncle John's Band," but how changed! It is polluted now (not necessarily by human agency) and is no longer a gathering place, since our protagonist finds solitude there. Even further back than "Uncle John's Band," the river originally came from an old revival hymn:

Shall we gather at the river
Where bright angel feet have trod,
With its crystal tide forever
flowing by the throne of God?

Even in the hymn it's a complex metaphor, representing both the allegorical "Jordan" of so many hymns--the border between earth and heaven--but also a real river where a revival meeting is to be held and, perhaps, converts baptized. The unusual use of "tide" to mean "current" is borrowed in "Uncle John's Band," as is the idea of gathering on the banks of a symbolic river. This pointed reference to a familiar hymn served to emphasize the Dead's priestly role for the counterculture--which indeed is what "Uncle John's Band" is all about. But by 1987 the counterculture was a fading memory, preserved only in the coccoon of Deadhead culture, an artificial construct limited to the time and space of a concert. The idea that something important might be at stake, that large numbers of people need to be drawn together to observe the flow of time, of history, so as to act on what they see--that urgency no longer exists, might have been an illusion from the beginning.

The river itself, turbid with life's complexities and blackened by compromises, disappointments, and neglect, nonetheless continues to flow, as it must. But there is nothing here to drink, and the waters are opaque. Crystal tide? Hah!

Note, finally, that the music of "Black, Muddy River" is highly hymnlike, with a narrow melodic range; square, simple rhythms; simple harmonies; and blocky, uncontrapuntal accompaniment. It even vaguely resembles the tune of "Shall We Gather at the River," though this may be a coincidence. But no hymn ever preached such despair, and the effect is of the deepest irony.

And sing me a song of my own.

In "Uncle John's Band" the Dead ask their audience (their flock, really) for guidance as to what they should sing about for the benefit of all. Now, though, the flock are dispersed, and the singer can only sing his own song, for his own benefit.

I will walk alone by the black, muddy river
And sing me a song of my own.

When the last bolt of sunshine hits the mountain

Because of its brevity and restricted extent, the sunset gleam is likened to a lightning bolt. The language throughout this stanza is violent (hits, splatters, splits, scream), for the landscape is really an interior one. Note that it is "sunshine" (a perennial metaphor for happiness) rather than the neutral "sunlight" that is here extinguished.

And the stars start to splatter in the sky,

The stars "splatter" because they are seen as fragments of the (liquid) sunset-bolt that shattered itself against the mountain. Poets have regarded the stars with awe or serenity, but here they are mere splatters of something messy.

When the moon splits the southwest horizon

It won't do to be too literal-minded here. If the moon were really on the southwest horizon just after sunset, it would be a new moon, and setting (it would also be high summer), while the imagery clearly intends a moon that is full, and rising. The horizon is "southwest" because the whole landscape, with its mountain and (metaphorical) eagle belongs to the Southwestern U.S. If we want, we can think of this line as a poetically compacted version of "When the moon splits the Southwest's horizon." Note, by the way, how deftly sketched this landscape is, like a Zen watercolor, or some of the paintings of Georgia O'Keefe. Mountain, stars, moon, horizon, and a hint at "Southwest"--that's all there is, and it is enough.

The rising moon is another image that is usually positive, but here it is something ominous, violently cracking through the surface of the earth. South and West are metaphors for failure and death: all his plans went south. She nearly went west in that accident.

With the scream of an eagle on the fly,

Again, there is no real eagle here. The rising moon is likened to an eagle screaming as it leaps from its perch. Bad news for its prey!

I will walk alone by the black, muddy river,

In fact, this whole landscape is dead. There is no life in it at all--none in the whole song, except for the singer himself and the (purely symbolic) rose at the beginning.

And listen to the ripples as they moan.

Moaning water has long been taken as an ill omen, as for example the famous "moaning of the bar" that portends disaster for ships leaving a harbor. Here it is specifically ripples that moan, which of course refers back to the song "Ripple," in which the "ripple in still water/ Where there is no pebble tossed/ Nor wind to blow" represents both inspiration and community, that seem to arise miraculously, without obvious cause. In "Black, Muddy River" the miracles are still on offer, but with no one to observe them, well might they moan.

I will walk alone by the black, muddy river
And sing me a song of my own.

Black, muddy river,
Roll on forever!

Another hymn reference, this time to the spiritual "Roll, Jordan, roll." Life goes on. Time marches on. The singer must embrace that, because there is nothing else left.

I don't care how deep or wide,
If you got another side,

The word "or" is to be understood between these lines. The singer has resigned himself to the flow of life, even if it no longer possesses an object or a goal.

Roll, muddy river,
Roll, muddy river,
Black, muddy river, roll!

When it seems like the night will last forever
And there's nothing left to do but count the years,

"New Speedway Boogie!" concluded with the optimistic assertion that "one way or another, this darkness got to give"--but now the poet knows there is no such guarantee. The "people that dwelt in darkness" have not seen a great light, nor is there any prospect that they ever will. The possibility of a mass spiritual revolution seems more remote with every passing year.

When the strings of my heart start to sever,

Jerry Garcia had recently suffered a heart attack. The word "heartstrings" originally referred to the internal tendons of the heart. The more familiar sense of the word is intended as well, referring to that time "when friendships decay,/ And from love's shining circle/ The gems drop away." In any case, time is running out.

And stones fall from my eyes instead of tears,

An even more terrible image than the stone pillow of Stanza One. The singer's emotions portend his death.

I will walk alone by the black, muddy river
And dream me a dream of my own.

The collective dream is gone, and the singer must dream alone. The "song" metaphor of previous choruses is here made overt.

I will walk alone by the black, muddy river
And sing me a song of my own,
And sing me a song of my own.