By David Dodd
Here’s the plan—each week, I will blog about a different song, focusing, usually, on the lyrics, but also on some other aspects of the song, including its overall impact—a truly subjective thing. Therefore, the best part, I would hope, would not be anything in particular that I might have to say, but rather, the conversation that may happen via the comments over the course of time—and since all the posts will stay up, you can feel free to weigh in any time on any of the songs! With Grateful Dead lyrics, there’s always a new and different take on what they bring up for each listener, it seems. (I’ll consider requests for particular songs—just private message me!)
When the Bush regime invaded Iraq in search of the supposed hidden caches of weapons of mass destruction, I changed the kicker line on the “Annotated Lyrics” website to the line from “Blues for Allah”: “The ships of state sail on mirage and drown in sand.”
It has been, what, 11 1/2 years? And despite a regime change here at home, we seem to find ourselves embroiled in an endless war in the Middle East. Once again, the United States is engaged in hostilities that include air strikes and now, boots on the ground, and there is a new enemy, the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
The Grateful Dead refrained fairly emphatically from overt political expression, but “Blues for Allah” stands with those very few songs that do make a statement. “Standing on the Moon”; “Ship of Fools”; “My Brother Esau”; “Throwing Stones”—those few songs (you might argue for “U.S. Blues,” and indeed, several others) stand as the exception.
Hunter wrote about the song, in A Box of Rain: "This lyric is a requiem for King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, a progressive and democratically inclined ruler (and, incidentally, a fan of the Grateful Dead) whose assassination in 1975 shocked us personally. The lyrics were printed in Arabic on the jacket of the Middle Eastern release of the album."
The lyric may be a requiem for a certain King, but it stands as a universal statement about war. “What good is spilling blood? It will not grow a thing.” It includes an overt acknowledgement of the conflict between Muslims and Jews: “Let’s meet as friends / The flower of Islam / The fruit of Abraham.”
It contains an appeal to reason in the face of opposed beliefs:
Let's see with our heart
These things our eyes have seen
And know the truth must still
Lie somewhere in between
I’ve made the case a number of times for the significance of taking a principled stand for not knowing, with the phrase “I don’t know” becoming a touch-point throughout so many of Hunter’s lyrics. When the truth lies “somewhere in between,” we are open to the state of ambiguity, and that alone can defuse conflict, I believe. It’s when people are sure of themselves, when they buy into a dogma, that they feel it is the right thing to kill someone who believes differently.
The lyric includes a number of pointed references, including scriptural (“the needle’s eye is thin”), and literary (“the thousand stories have come round to one again”—a reference to Scheherazade, who also appears in “What’s Become of the Baby?”).
Never a staple of live performance, the song uses a freely-flowing, unmetered melodic line (no time signature is given in the printed music) that breaks out of western musical norms. Nothing unusual about breaking out of norms, for the Dead, but there is something unusual about “Blues for Allah,” musically speaking, that is unlike most of the other unusualness in which the band indulged. It’s a disciplined, planned, and rehearsed weirdness.
“Blues for Allah” is a suite that includes the subsequent “Sand Castles and Glass Camels” (attributed to the entire band) and “Unusual Occurrences in the Desert,” which is credited, as is “Blues for Allah,” to Hunter and Garcia. The mesmerizing “Under eternity, under eternity, under eternity blue,” refrain seems to go on for quite awhile (nine repetitions), and then the “Bird of paradise” section of “Blues for Allah” is reprised, followed by Garcia playing the melody once through. It’s worth noting that the motif that opens the suite on the album is the “Under eternity” phrase.
I enjoy the lyric linkage to “What’s Become of the Baby?” because of the similar position occupied by the two songs on their respective albums—not attempting to sound like songs, really, but as experimental musical compositions with sung parts.
The vocal parts on “Blues for Allah” are varied and complex—great care was taken with the arrangement of the voices so that the various harmonic implications of the melody could be explored, without much in the way of instrumental clues. Donna’s wailing parts over the top of the “under eternity” section are effective and eery and perfect.
I always wished to hear the song done live. I’ve played it, by request of my minister, in a church service as an instrumental piano piece. But really, I need to arrange it for choir, mapping out the vocal harmonies, and enlist my drummer friends to do it right—I think it would be a very effective piece done in a very low-tech, acoustic manner.
The song has been brought back in several performances. Furthur played it, as did Warren Haynes in his “Jerry Garcia Symphonic” shows with symphony orchestras. So I think the song will live on.
But even without any more live performances, the song stands as a reminder of the hopelessness of war.
“Allah—Pray where are you now?”