"...till things we've never seen will seem familiar"

The Annotated "Terrapin Station"

An installment in The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics.
By David Dodd
Research Associate, Music Dept., University of California, Santa Cruz
Copyright notice
Deadlit topics 22 and 100 on the WELL are about "Terrapin Station."
"Terrapin Station"
Words by Robert Hunter; music by Jerry Garcia
Copyright Ice Nine Publishing; used by permission.


Let my inspiration flow
in token lines suggesting rhythm
that will not forsake me
till my tale is told and done

While the firelight's aglow
strange shadows in the flames will grow
till things we've never seen
will seem familiar

Shadows of a sailor forming
winds both foul and fair all swarm
down in Carlisle he loved a lady
many years ago

Here beside him stands a man
a soldier by the looks of him
who came through many fights
but lost at love

While the storyteller speaks
a door within the fire creaks
suddenly flies open
and a girl is standing there

Eyes alight with glowing hair
all that fancy paints as fair
she takes her fan and throws it
in the lion's den

"Which of you to gain me, tell
will risk uncertain pains of Hell?
I will not forgive you
if you will not take the chance"

The sailor gave at least a try
the soldier being much too wise
strategy was his strength
and not disaster

The sailor coming out again
the lady fairly lept at him
that's how it stands today
you decide if he was wise

The storyteller makes no choice
soon you will not hear his voice
his job is to shed light
and not to master

Since the end is never told
we pay the teller off in gold
in hopes he will come back
but he cannot be bought or sold


Inspiration, move me brightly
light the song with sense and color,
hold away despair
More than this I will not ask
faced with mysteries dark and vast
statements just seem vain at last
some rise, some fall, some climb
to get to Terrapin

Counting stars by candlelight
all are dim but one is bright:
the spiral light of Venus
rising first and shining best,
From the northwest corner
of a brand-new crescent moon
crickets and cicadas sing
a rare and different tune

Terrapin Station
in the shadow of the moon
Terrapin Station
and I know we'll be there soon

Terrapin - I can't figure out
Terrapin - if it's an end or the beginning
Terrapin - but the train's got its brakes on
and the whistle is screaming: TERRAPIN


While you were gone
these spaces filled with darkness
The obvious was hidden
With nothing to believe in
the compass always points to Terrapin

The sullen wings of fortune beat like rain
You're back in Terrapin for good or ill again
For good or ill again

"Terrapin Station"

Musical details: Recorded on

The Mudkats cover the song on The Mudkats Play Terrapin Station (1996)

First performance: February 26, 1977, at the Swing Auditorium in San Bernardino, California. "Terrapin" opened the show, which also included the first "Estimated Prophet." It has occupied a stable place in the repertoire ever since, though only on two other occasions has it appeared in the first set.

There are some interesting aspects to this song. Most notably, the fact that the Grateful Dead's realization of the piece is, in Hunter's view, lamentably incomplete, leaving out as it does the lyric resolution. Garcia intentionally uses only a fragment of Hunter's lyric. In Box of Rain, Hunter writes more about "Terrapin" than about any other single piece, with the exception of "Amagamalin Street." Hunter's own recording of "Terrapin," on Jack O' Roses is complete, and attempts to incorporate a plethora of imagery and iconography from all over the Grateful Dead map, especially in the "Ivory Wheels/Rosewood Track" portion of the song. Utlimately, Garcia's decision to treat the piece as a fragment is far more satisfying.

See Alex Allan's site for Hunter's realization of a completion of the cycle, "Return To Terrapin."

John Whitehead has written a wonderful parody of the song: "Turingtest Program."

Syd Barrett recorded a song entitled "Terrapin," on his Madcap Laughs.

Lady with a Fan

The "plot" of this section of the piece is very similar to the ballad, "Lady of Carlisle," known also as Sharp #66, "The Bold Lieutenant," and as "The Lion's Den," or "The Lady's Fan". Hunter recorded a version of this on Jack O' Roses.


This note from a reader:
Date: Fri, 20 Oct 95 12:59:50 -0700
From: Barbara Saunders
Subject: a Terrapin reference

I love these pages!

re: Lady With A Fan:

The fan is a symbol of the African orisha Oshun, also a love goddess.


Another note from a reader:

Sam Lopez [mailto:slopez@blue.weeg.uiowa.edu]
Sent: Wednesday, January 08, 2003 11:35 AM
Subject: Terrapin "lady with a fan" lyric

As you have heard countless times, INCREDIBLE work on the Annotated Dead Lyrics site! It's meant a lot to be able to clear up some of those fuzzy lyrics I've been mishearing...
But to the point. Terrapin Station, being my fave GD song, has held quite the fascination for me and I thought I'd lay out out a possiblity for the lady with a fan:
The first thing I thought of were the images of the Spanish "Maja", a woman of Spain attired in flamenco dress with a black fan, often a sultry image, powerful and seductive. There are several dances with fans from Spain, as well as fan dances in Japanese culture. The fan seems to be a method of expression and a bold image-- it can draw attention to something or hide it and make one wonder. That the lady throws the fan away and challenges the men seems to bring up the dancing Maja as well (to my overheated mind). There is also a possibility of a Carmen connection-- the opera where Carmen the seductress (with and without fan) challenges the men openly into battle with each other-- in Terrapin, the soldier is too wise to fight the sailor over the lady with the fan.
Phew! Sorry to be long-winded. Awesome work again, wonder if any of this is useful!
Sam Lopez
Chicagoland, IL

"Let my inspiration flow" and "Inspiration, move me brightly"

Hunter invokes the muse with a prayer-like supplication in the manner of the Greek poets: He comments on this in Steve Silberman's interview, "Standing in the Soul."

Some examples:

"Inspiration" is from the Latin for "breathing in." The entry for "Inspiration" in The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics states that

"At least as early as Homer, inspiration holds a central place in Greek poetics, both as invocation to the gods, or, more often, the Muses for the gift of memorable speech, and also as claim that when the god does take possession, the poet enters a state of transcendant ecstasy or frenzy, a 'poetic madness' or furor poeticus. Throughout most of archaic Greek thought, the creation of art is associated with ritual, religion, and substance-induced ecstasis."

This note from a reader:

Subject: Terrapin Annotation
Date: Thu, 01 May 1997 12:39:03 -0700
From: Tony Kullen


A little addition to the "Let my inspiration flow" lines of Terrapin. Vergil's Aeneid borrows from Homer, and begins in the same fashion ("I sing of arms and a man"), but moves on to a four line invocation of the Muse. The footnote for these lines in Clyde Pharr's edition of Vergil's Aeneid shows the importance for classical poets to seek Inspiration (the muse), when it states:

"It is the custom of epic poets to invoke the muse for inspiration and to assign to some such divine source the gift of being able to compose their poems." (p.16)

while the firelight's aglow

Compare Hunter's lines in "Lay of the Ring" from his "Eagle Mall Suite":
"Josephus lately of the mountain wild,
Seated before a desert fire,
Led the men to silence
While the fire told its tales..."

Lewis Carroll's poem, "Faces in the Fire" presents another interesting comparison:

"The night creeps onward, sad and slow:
In these red embers' dying glow
The forms of Fancy come and go.


"The picture fadeth in its place:
Amid the glow I seem to trace
The shifting semblance of a face."

All that fancy paints as fair

Compare the Lewis Carroll poem:
"She's all my fancy painted him;
(I make no idel boast);
If he or you had lost a limb,
Which would have suffered most?"

hold away despair

Hunter's new journal of September 24, 2001, contains this entry:

After dark fell, I sat alone on the roof, fifteen stories high, of a building in Soho commanding a panoramic and unobstructed view of the skyscrapers of midtown Manhattan and the lights of the bridges. I had my guitar in hand and felt moved to sing "Terrapin Station" to the City. While I sang, rain began falling - I stood and edged around to the other side of the roof, still singing, to the corner of the roof facing the World Trade Center, some fifteen blocks away, where the sky is bright with floodlight illuminating the work of the excavation crew. A great plume of smoke continues to rise from the site of the devastation. As I sang, a powerful wind blew up very suddenly - wind so strong it threatened to rip my guitar out of my hands - reminding me of the storm in which I first composed the words I now sang. I wondered if I was involved in some kind of sacrilege, singing like this in the face of all that had gone down - the wind roaring increasingly louder and stronger, as though filled with spirits, as though trying to blow me over, make me stop. I kept singing until the end, repeating the "hold away despair," expressing all the sorrow I felt for the lost loved ones and for the healing of this magnificent and resilient City. I hope it helped. Helped me, anyway.


From the Algonquian for "little turtle." Brought into the English language circa 1672.

According to Cirlot's Dictionary of Symbols:

"The turtle has a variety of meanings, all of which are organically related. In the Far East its significance is cosmic in implication. As Chochod has boserved: 'The primordial turtle has a shell that is rounded on top to represent heaven, and square underneath to represent the earth.' To the Negroes of Nigeria it suggests the female sex organ and it is in fact taken as an emblem of lubricity. In alchemy it was symbolic of the 'massa confusa. These disparate sense have, nevertheless, one thing in common: in every case, the turtle is a symbol of material existence and not of any aspect of transcendence, for even where it is a combination of square and circle it alludes to the forms of the manifest world and not to the creative forces, nor to the Origin, still less to the irradiating Centre. In view of its slowness, it might be said to symbolize natural evolution as opposed to spiritual evolution which is rapid or discontinuous to a degree. The turtle is also an emblem of longevity." (p. 353)

The Encyclopedia of Religion has an entry on Turtles and Tortoises--here's an excerpt:

"There is a widespread belief that the earth rests on the back of a turtle or tortoise. This archaic idea is found not only among North American Indians but also in South Asia and Inner Asia. The turtle now appears even as a symbol of the entire universe (e.g. in China). Moreover, according to creation myths involving an earth diver, the turtle, sometimes as an incarnation of the divine being, plays a prominent part in the cosmogony of various cultures." (v. 15, p. 96)

Other resonances occur: the naming of the North American continent as "Turtle Island" by the Native Americans; and the use of the terrapin as a character in the Uncle Remus tales of Joel Chandler Harris.

Turtles always makes me think of the following story, for which I have, as yet, no firm attribution:

A student asked the master: "What does the world rest upon?"
The master answered: "On the back of a huge turtle."
The student asked: "And what does the turtle rest upon, oh wise one?"
The master answered: "Upon another turtle."
The student, yet again, asked: "And what does that turtle rest on?"
The master, becoming annoyed, answered: "Don't you get it? It's turtles all the way down!"

This email arrived, giving rise to a chase for references:

Date: Sun, 5 May 1996 15:58:40 -0400
From: Rollie306@aol.com
To: ddodd@alf.uccs.edu
Subject: a possible firm source for Turtles all the way down

I may have a lead for you. In his text book, Turbo Pascal 4.0/5.0, Walter Savitch uses a quite similar story as an introduction to Chapter 14, "Problem solving Using Recursion"

The text of this story, as well as my feeble typing skills will allow, is as follows:

After a lecture on cosmology and the structure of the solar system, William James was accosted by a little old lady.

"Your theory that the sun is the center of the solar system, and the earth is a ball which rotates around it has a very convincing ring to it, Mr James, but it's wrong. I've a better theory," said the little old lady.

"And what is that, Madam?" inquired James politely.

"That we live on a crust of earth which is on the back of a giant turtle."

Not wishing to demolish this absurd little theory by bringing to bear the masses of scientific evidence he had at his command, James decided to gently dissuade his opponent by making her see some of the inadequacies of her position.

"If your theory is correct, madam," he asked, "what does this turtle stand on?"

"You're a very clever man, Mr. James, and that's a very good question," replied the little old lady, "but I have an answer to it. And it is this: the first turtle stands on the back of a second, far larger turtle, who stands directly under him."

"But what does this second turtle stand on?" persisted James patiently.

To this the little old lady crowed triumphantly. "It's no use, Mr. James, - it's turtles all the way down."

Thus ends the text.

Both stories have the same "punch line", but differ in that the Master was becoming inpatient, but Mr. James maintained his patience. The other difference is that it was the person filling the niche of student who enlightened the "master" in the James story.

Please note that Savitch attributes this story to J. R. Ross, "Constraints on Variables in Syntax", most likely another book on programing. ...

Rollie Smith
Washington, GA


This led me to consult the famous archive of difficult reference questions, Stumpers-L.

There I found the following exchange of information:

Date: Wed, 03 Aug 1994 11:00:42 -0700 (PDT)
From: Mary-Ellen Mort
To: Stumpers
Subj: Re: ? Elephant Standing on a Turtle

Outlines of Chinese Symbolism and Art Motives by C.A.S. Williams (Dover, 1976) 3rd Rev. Ed. on p. 405:

In the shape of the tortoise is also depicted the pi-hsi. a god of the rivers, to whom enormous strength is attributed; and this supernatural monster is frequently sculptured in stone as the support of huge monumental tablets planted immovably, as it were, upon its steadfast back. The conception is probably derived from the same source with that of the Hindoo legend of the tortoise supporting an elephant on whose back the existing world reposes.
This section appears as a quotation from:
Mayers, Chinese Reader's Manual, Pt. I, No. 299.
(Have you ever seen a more cryptic footnote?---Don't all answer at once!)

Another (peripheral) reference is Hendrickson's American Literary Anecdotes (Penguin, 1990) pp124-125 in the section on Wliiam James:

An old woman approached him after he gave a lecture on the solar system. 'We don't live on a ball rotating round the sun,' she said. 'We live on a crust of earth on the back of a giant turtle.'
'If your theory is correct, madam, what does the turtle stand on?' James asked gently.
'You're a clever man, Mr. James, and that is a good question, but I can answer it. The first turtle stands on the back of a second, far-larger turtle.'
'But what does this second turtle stand on?' asked James. 'It's no use, Mr. James!' the old woman crowed. 'It's turtles all the way down.'
Mary-Ellen Mort
BALIS Reference Center (& parts west)

Date: Thu, 04 Aug 1994 18:19:25 -0700 (PDT)
From: "John N. Davis"
To: stumpers-l
Subj: Turtles all the way downDate: Thu, 04 Aug 1994 18:19:25 -0700 (PDT)
From: "John N. Davis"
To: stumpers-l
Subj: Turtles all the way down

Mary-Ellen Mort says:

Another (peripheral) reference is Hendrickson's American Literary Anecdotes (Penguin, 1990) pp124-125 in the section on William James:
An old woman approached him after he gave a lecture on the [etc.]...

I've been looking for the earliest version of this "turtles all the way down" story. What source does Hendrickson give? The earliest thing I've found so far is in Bernard Nietschmann, "When the Turtle Collapses, the World Ends," Natural History, 83(6):34 (June-July 1974).

I have been told that the story appeared in the preface to a dissertation written at MIT in about 1969, by J. R. (Haj) Ross, Constraints on Variables in Syntax (published by Ablex in about 1979), but I haven't been able to verify it.

Stephen Hawking tells more or less the same story at the beginning of A Brief History Of Time. In Hawking's version however, it was

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. ...

William James did write at least once about turtles and elephants. In "Humanism and Truth", Mind 13 (N.S.): 457 (Oct. 1904), at 472; reprinted as chapter III of The Meaning of Truth, he wrote:

But is this not the globe, the elephant and the tortoise over again? Must not something end by supporting itself? ...
This in turn seems to be an echo of comments by John Locke in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), Book II, Chapter XIII, Section 19:
... Had the poor Indian philosopher (who imagined that the earth also wanted something to bear it up) but thought of this word substance, he needed not to have been at the trouble to find an elephant to support it, and a tortoise to support his elephant: the word substance would have done it effectually. And he that inquired might have taken it for as good an answer from an Indian philosopher,- that substance, without knowing what it is, is that which supports the earth, as we take it for a sufficient answer and good doctrine from our European philosophers,- that substance, without knowing what it is, is that which supports accidents. ...
and Book II, Chapter XXIII, Section 2:
... If any one should be asked, what is the subject wherein colour or weight inheres, he would have nothing to say, but the solid extended parts; and if he were demanded, what is it that solidity and extension adhere in, he would not be in a much better case than the Indian before mentioned who, saying that the world was supported by a great elephant, was asked what the elephant rested on; to which his answer was- a great tortoise: but being again pressed to know what gave support to the broad-backed tortoise, replied-something, he knew not what. ...

There's no snappy retort about "turtles all the way down" in these passages however.

It seems to me that a story about William James or Bertrand Russell cannot first have been told in 1969.

Can anyone help me find earlier versions?

John N. Davis

So... all that work, and still no definitive answer!

Counting stars by candle light

Vincent van Gogh painted "Starry Night Over the Rhone" with candles set onto the brim of his hat on the banks of the Rhone River.


The planet, named for the Roman goddess, has long been associated with the goddess of love, who in the Greek pantheon was Aphrodite.

The Greek poet Bion (ca. 100 B.C.E.) writes:

"Evening Star, gold light of Aphrodite born in the foam,
Evening Star, holy diamond of the glassblue night,
you are dimmer than the moon, brighter than another star.
Hello, good friend!" (Greek Lyric Poetry, p. 206)

And William Blake's "To the Evening Star":

"Thou fair-hair'd angel of the evening,
Now, whilst the sun rests on the mountains, light
Thy bright torch of love; thy radiant crown
Put on, and smile upon our evening bed!
Smile on our loves, and while thou drawest the
Blue curtains of the sky, scatter thy silver dew

On every flower that shuts its sweet eyes
In timely sleep. Let thy west wind sleep on
The lake; speak silence with thy glimmering eyes,
And wash the dusk with silver. Soon, full soon,
Dost thou withdraw; then the wolf rages wide,
And the lion glares thr' the dun forest:
The fleeces of our flocks are cover'd with
Thy sacred dew: protect them with thine influence."

Here's a beautiful picture of a crescent moon with Venus nearby, taken by Tom Polakis, and posted on his Twilight Astronomy Landscapes page.

northwest corner

This note from a reader:
From: John Allen [mailto:bigness22@hotmail.com]
Sent: Wednesday, October 29, 2003 12:26 PM

Just thought you might find this interesting:
In the song Terrapin Station, there is a reference to "From the Northwest Corner."
This is a Masonic reference. It pertains to Masonic ritual in which all new masons are placed in the Northwest Corner of the lodge, standing there a just and perfect mason (the implication is that you are as yet unsullied, much as an infant is considered innocent, having not yet experienced the world). This dovetails nicely to the lnext line about a brand new crescent moon.
Furthermore, the reference to Venus may also be a masonic reference, because venus is known as the Morning Star, and has several masonic references, mostly related to its position in the east. Furthermore, it is the morning star that sailors followed, east to the new world.
Just one of several masonic references, hope that you find this helpful Thanks for all of your work,
John Allen, D.C.

crickets and cicadas

This note from a reader:
From: David Whiteis [mailto:dgwhiteis@hotmail.com]
Sent: Tuesday, January 28, 2003 4:52 PM
To: DDodd@co.marin.ca.us
Subject: RE: "Terrapin Station" annotation

Greetings --

I think I've stumbled upon something you might consider including in your annotations to "Terrapin Station." Apparently that "rare and different tune" those "crickets and cicadas" are singing resonates back to Socrates' time.

In the PHAEDRUS, in a section called "The Myth Of The Cicadas," Socrates relates a creation myth of how cicadas (or, in some translations, "locusts") came to be:

"The story goes that these locusts were once men, before the birth of the Muses; and when the Muses were born and song appeared, some of the men were so overcome with delight that they sang and sang, forgetting food and drink, until at last unconsciously they died. From them the locust tribe afterwards arose, and they have this gift from the Muses, that from the time of their birth they need no sustenance, but sing continually, without food or drink, until they die, when they go the the Muses and report who honors each of them on earth. They tell Terpsichore of those who have honored her in dances and make them dearer to her; they gain the favor of Erato for the poets of love, and that of the other Muses for their votaries, according to their various ways of honoring them; and to Calliope, the eldest of the Muses, and to Urania, who is next to her, they make report of those who pass their lives in philosophy, and who worship these Muses who are most concerned with heaven and with thought divine and human, and whose music is the sweetest."

Thus, perhaps, the cicada soundtrack at Terrapin...?

David Whiteis

in the shadow of the moon

An ambiguous line, meaning either "within the dark portion of the 'brand-new crescent moon,'" or "on the dark side of the moon." The second, and I think more likely reading reminds us, inevitably, of the Pink Floyd album, Dark Side of the Moon.

This note, with a third possibility, from a reader:

From: chamberlain segrest [mailto:scsegrest@hotmail.com]
Sent: Wednesday, June 26, 2002 4:50 PM
Subject: shadow of the moon


I have always believed the line "in the shadow of the moon" (Terrapin Station) referred to a solar eclipse. I do not know if this idea has touched you before, but if it hasn't, I hope this is of some help. Seeing I have little knowledge in astronomy, I decided to do a wee bit of research (all web based). I have also included the basics just in case your knowledge is as crummy as mine.

solar eclipse- the passage of the new Moon directly between the Sun and the Earth when the Moon's shadow is cast upon the Earth. The Sun appears in the sky either partially or totally covered by the Moon.

totality- the period during a solar eclipse when the Sun is completely blocked by the Moon. (www.earthview.com/resources/glossary.htm)

During this so called "research" one particular site caught my eye. It is adapted from a book called Eclipse by Bryan Brewer. I have included a short excerpt from the webpage: (www.earthview.com/tutorial/effects.htm).

---This marvelous view of the Sun clearly commands the center of attention during totality. But there are other sights to see as well. Because the direct light of the Sun is blocked, some of the brighter stars and planets become visible. Sometimes a total solar eclipse reveals a small comet on its path near the Sun.

The darkness of totality resembles nighttime, and plants and animals react accordingly. Birds stop singing and may go to roost. Daytime flower blossoms begin to close as if for the night. Bees become disoriented and stop flying. The temperature drops in the coolness of the Moon's shadow. All of Nature seems still and quiet for this brief moment of daytime darkness.

And then the shadow passes. A bright speck of sunlight flashes into view at the western edge of the Sun as the corona disappears. Totality has ended. The same events that preceded totality now occur in reverse order and on the opposite side of the Sun---.

It seems as if the idea of a solar eclipse has a presence throughout Terrapin Station (example being the comparison of the line "If it's an end or the beginning" to the last two paragraphs of this excerpt). Also of interest, a crescent moon follows a new moon (which can only be seen during a solar eclipse). Although a new moon happens every month, a solar eclipse does not because the moon's orbit is slightly tilted.

Although my interrogation does not end here, I figured I wouldn't weigh down this email with too many extras. While I'm at it, however, I must thank you dearly for your lovely webpage. It's heaps of fun and greatly appreciated.

Take Care,

end or beginning

Compare T.S. Eliot's oft-quoted lines from the "Four Quartets: Little Gidding":
"What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning."

Keywords: @ballads, @love, @trains, @moon, @storytelling
DeadBase code: [TERR]
First posted: August 3, 1995
Last revised: October 29, 2003