Grateful Dead

Blair's Golden Road Blog - “Listen to the river sing sweet songs…”

By Blair Jackson

My 18-year-old daughter just had a week no one should have to experience. As Regan and I were coming out of the screening of the 7/18/89 Alpine show at the recent Meet-Up at the Movies, floating on air, we got a call from her telling us that three of her friends—all high school seniors—had been involved in a horrible automobile accident south of the Bay Area on Highway 101. One boy was killed, a second was in a coma, the third in critical condition but expected to recover. The past week has been a swirl of disbelief, grief and soul searching, as both students and parents have struggled to cope with this unthinkable tragedy, offer support to all who need it and also try to carry on with the other things in our lives. It’s not easy buckling down to read a chapter on comparative government when one of your pals is undergoing his second brain surgery in three days. Nor for us, as parents, to see our daughter entering what is new emotional territory for her and many of her closest friends. There have been solemn get-togethers and a beautiful candlelight vigil, and teachers and counselors at the high school have been sympathetic and helpful.

A few nights ago, my daughter was headed out of the house and surprised me by suddenly asking, “Can you find me version of ‘Brokedown Palace’ I can play in the car?” She has always enjoyed the Dead on some level, knows a lot of their songs to varying degrees and has become more interested in their music over the past year, especially since seeing Furthur during the last New Year’s run. I have heard her idly singing bits of “Brokedown Palace” around the house from time to time; maybe it’s from all those nights I sang it to her as I rocked her to sleep when she was a baby.

I had about 30 seconds of panic wondering which version I should choose before I went with the obvious one: the pristine studio recording from American Beauty, right out of “Ripple” (another song she knows), sweet as can be. The next morning she reported she’d listened to both songs a few times and it had made her feel better. And that eased my worried soul a bit to hear that. How wonderful it is that we can take solace from songs; relieve some of the emotional burdens we all carry.

“Water Lily Pond and Weeping Willow”
by Claude Monet, 1919.

“Ripple” and “Brokedown Palace” have brought me through sad and confused times and also, as often, put an even bigger smile of my face when I was happy. There was always something that felt right about ending a great weekend of Dead shows with a beautiful “Brokedown,” as fans and band got to sing to each other: “Fare you well, fare you well, I love you more than words can tell /Listen to the river sing sweet songs/ To rock my soul.” What a profoundly gentle and loving sentiment. I felt it strongly listening to Furthur end their recent Beacon Theatre run on that lovely grace note. And Crystal Hall from the Mickey Hart Band sings it as well as anyone these days; her version is in my head now, too.

Sometimes at a concert or listening to tape, I don’t know the song that’s going to affect me until I’m in the middle of it. A line will trigger some thought or memory and suddenly “The Wheel” is a revelation, or some line from “Stella Blue” or “Comes a Time” is the one that touches my heart in unforeseen ways. For me, “Attics of My Life” may be the single most affecting song in the entire Hunter-Garcia canon, at once mysterious (with its “cloudy dreams unreal” and “secret space of dreams”), frank about our frailties and so full of compassion and empathy. It always gets me. It is spiritual in the most uplifting and undogmatic way.

There are times I feel the quest in “Terrapin” is my own (down to being trapped in the lion’s den) and that’s the song that speaks to me, or I’m hurtling out of control and hanging on for dear life in “The Other One,” with Cowboy Neal at the wheel (at least someone else is driving!). I’ve been the Lost Sailor and had many a day Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad. A well-placed “Bertha’ might wash the blues away. Conversely, “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” can be a cold slap of reality to remind us of life’s fragility. And a lot of the songs are marvelous escapes, where we briefly encounter the myriad characters that populate the Grateful Dead universe—from gentle Jack Jones to Delia DeLyon to Jack Straw from Wichita to Althea to Loose Lucy—and then move on, perhaps more observers than participants. I love a good yarn (although there are life lessons in them, too).

It’s an infinite, ever-changing tapestry that continues to yield new meanings and emotions, that changes as I change, and as the particulars of my world—and those I love—shift in both subtle and obvious ways. It seems as if there’s always a Dead song out there in the ether to shed light and move me brightly.

What are some of the Grateful Dead songs that have been important to you—in good times and bad?


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Joined: Jan 13 2010
a box of rain will ease the pain and love will see you through.

as I recall, BoR was recorded during Phil Lesh losing his father.

Box of Rain
Attics of My Life
Comes a Time

JeremyP's picture
Joined: Jun 8 2007


I'm so sorry to hear about your daughter's friends. As a parent of four adult children, I think the worst thing for any parent is to lose a child. My father predeceased his mother, who was in her late 80s when he died, and she said as much. God speed healing for your daughter's two injured friends.

Songs to heal, from the Dead. Where to start? Those that come to me immediately are

Box Of Rain
Brokedown Palace

Other that hit a similar spot.

Comes A Time. Always does it for me ... when the blind man takes you hand...
Althea. Can't figure it, but this is a song that always gets me.

deadmike's picture
Joined: Jun 13 2007
It must've been the roses

used to make me feel safe. Not everytime I heard it but from time to time, I felt like being home, like being me, when I heard it.

Of course there are other Dead/Garcia tunes that I like a lot and some may have a soothing effect but "It must've been the roses" is very special to me. For no particular reason except maybe because "Reflections" was the first record I got with the Dead actually playing on it. That was in late February or early March, 1976.

Micke Östlund,
Växjö, Sweden

cosmicbadger's picture
Joined: Jun 13 2007
Standing on the Moon in Burma

It was very heartwarming to hear recently that Burmese Nobel prize winner and democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi said in an interview that she found comfort and encouragement from 'Standing on the Moon' during her years of house arrest, imprisonment and maltreatment.
She is free now and has been elected to Parliament. Maybe Burma is changing at last....Jerry and Hunter should be so proud that they made a difference for someone so special.

Joined: Oct 1 2007
Ship of Fools

Back during my touring days Ship of Fools was the song that seemed to always signal that the show would be good. Not sure why, not sure even if, but thats how it always seemed, "Ah, Ship of Fools--ok it will be a good one!"

mustin321's picture
Joined: Aug 12 2011
"Ever changing Tapestry" on this Ship of Fools

I love how Robert Hunter's lyrics are very ambiguous and change meaning just like Blair said. I have wondered for a long time exactly what Ship of Fools was really about. During a hard time in my life, the meaning of the lyrics, for me, went a whole different direction. The meaning had changed from what I originally thought and became what I needed to hear at that particular time. Very amazing but not surprising...One of my favorite songs and every performance I've ever heard is great.

claney's picture
Joined: Jul 20 2007
As I was reading...

Blair, I'm really sorry to hear about this tragedy.

As I was reading this thread, of all things, a friend came into my office to tell me that her biopsy revealed cancer. The prognosis is good, but of course that is always alarming. She doesn't want many people at the college to know, so I find myself sharing it here for some reason.

And this makes me think... in addition to the words, the music, and as Grateful Prof says, the combination of the two, there is the community. That Blair can share this personal tragedy here, and all the thoughtful comments in response, just serves to remind me that the community is almost (at least?) as important as the music. All the arguments go away, in the end there's just a song, and a lot of really interesting, compassionate folks.

Syracuse78's picture
Joined: Jul 15 2010
Grateful Prof

That is one of the most eloquent and thought provoking posts I have read on here. Bravo!

Joined: Feb 28 2011
all the passages

So sad for the losses and families, Blair.

We and others have navigated those transitions helped by
My Dad, cousin, aunts, uncles, pals, friends and especially the young ones gone suddenly in war and acccident, babies...
My own last wishes are for Uncle John's Band to be played acoustically for whatever reason-seems to lft the most spirits.

Joined: Oct 1 2007
It is with sadness....

that I read of your daughter's loss, my heart goes out to you all. Now for the far more mundane and less important. It is worth thinking not just about the words and the effect they have to capture our moods, funnel our thoughts, show us doorways and paths we had not seen, but the combination of the words with the music. This is something I study "professionally", so to speak, and it is one of the great mysteries of music, and the holy grail, in many ways, of music cognition. Perhaps the most profound aspect of the Garcia/Hunter partnership was their mutual ability to match word to melody, and visa-versa. Many a Hunter lyric would be simply a nice song, but not something that would drill into your soul, without the melody, and many a Garcia melody would be simply a nice tune to whistle if not for the hunter lyric. It is the song, the combination of the two that "rocks our soul". So whether it is Stella Blue, Ripple, Brokedown Palace, Box of Rain, To Lay Me Down, Mission in the Rain, one can easily go on, it is both the meaning of the words, and the meaning of the music, that affects us. Perhaps this is why folks like myself are overly (according to some!) sensitive to changes in the Dead's "style" over the years, the word/music link is so tight, that we cannot just focus on the song-as-words-simply-melody, but note how much issues like guitar tone and the like make the piece. Stella Blue can be a dusty window shining grey light onto your soul, or a stained-glass window, casting bright colors onto all it touches. Which is up to the band.
Peace to all, my we find solace where we can in the Dead oeuvre.


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