Grateful Dead

Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Althea"

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!)


My friend, Grateful Dead scholar Mary Goodenough, mentioned this week how she was listening to “Althea” a lot lately, and still finding new things in the song. If there’s a song that can be repeatedly applied to many different life circumstances, it’s “Althea.”

The outlines of the story, told through a back-and-forth dialogue between the singer and Althea, seem a bit elusive, and as always, Hunter doesn’t give everything away by any means.

The narrator, after an elegant opening musical riff that establishes a deceptively lazy and laid-back feel, tells Althea about his life situation, as a lead-up to what, apparently, is a declaration of needing to back out of their relationship. At first, the narrator seems to be complaining in general about feeling adrift, and possibly unable to trust his friends—there is “treachery” afoot. Althea assents that indeed, things are not all right in his world, and proceeds to give him quite a bit of advice.

At that point, the narrator tells Althea that he is “born to be a bachelor,” that is, he doesn’t see their relationship as permanent. She cuts him loose with an “ok, that’s fine,” and he regrets the turn of events, changing his mind and trying to get her back.

That all seems pretty straightforward, right?

But the vagueness of references to what is actually going on in the narrator’s life allows for the listener (us) to hear ourselves in the song.

A great deal of ink has been spilled putting forward the idea that the song is a somewhat pointed message from Hunter to his old partner Garcia, and I’m not saying that’s not the case. But Hunter always meant his songs to be many things, carrying levels of meaning relevant to many listeners, and so I think it is something of a mistake to reduce any song, even one as poignant and possibly pointed as “Althea” to anything quite so specific.

Starting with our title character, Hunter weaves in his ambiguity. The name “Althea” is often noted as meaning “with healing power,” as it is a variant of the Greek word, “althos” which means “healing.” However, the character in Greek mythology who bears the name is not purely a healer, but also a justice-dealer who revokes the healing power she has used on behalf of her son, Meleager, when he kills her brothers, his uncles, in a dispute over a prize in a hunt. I know, it’s complicated—go read the entire story—but it does seem kind of amazing that Althea, the mythological character, has this two-sided relationship with her own son.

And, there is the method of his healing and his subsequent killing, which is via a fated log (literally “fated”—the Fates told her that he son would die when the log was burned). She pulls the log from the fire, but casts it onto a fire years later when she learns her son has murdered her brothers. And poof! He’s dead.

“Baby, it’s your fire…”

What I had never particularly noticed before today’s hard look at the lyrics was the extent of Althea’s dialogue portion. Her speech begins at the end of the first verse, and carries through to the beginning of the final verse. Both the first and last verses start with the “I told Althea…” introduction.

It’s hard for me to tell, once the narrator has told of the outcome (“so now I’m tryin’ to catch her…”) , who it is speaking in the final four lines, but they are among the most resonant for many listeners:

Can’t talk to you without talking to me
We’re guilty of the same old thing
Thinking a lot about less and less
And forgetting the love we bring.

That line: “Can’t talk to you without talking to me…” casts the entire song we’ve just listened to in a different light. Each word we say is something we ourselves might need to hear, and all those words attributed to Althea—might they not be a conversation the narrator is having with himself? Could it be an entirely internal dialogue? Or, conversely, could it be that the words Althea speaks might just as well be self-directed?

This is what I love about these words—they might sound like one wise person giving advice to a foolish heart, but they might be that foolish heart talking to himself, or they might be the wise person addressing his or her own foolish heart while supposedly giving advice to another.

And all along there is the wash of the musical setting, lulling us and gradually building to the bridge, and then dropping off again for the final verse, and the closing with one final instrumental round through the verse chords.

The last time I saw the Dead was in June 1995 at the Shoreline Amphitheater. They played “Althea,” and Garcia’s voice was, if not weak, at least sounding older than it had to me ever before. The entire show was like that, and there were moments of less-than-stellar musicianship.

If the song was a message to Garcia from Hunter, then his playing it right up to the end was some kind of brave acknowledgement of the relevance of the lyrics. If Garcia didn’t take it that way, then the point might be moot. But even if Garcia’s performance of the song was directed outward, there was always that closing verse to bring it home: “Can’t talk to you without talking to me.”

I’m sure this song will accrue additional layers of meaning for me as my own years accumulate, since that’s what has happened so far. And that is a wonderful thing to look forward to.


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DanielSpace's picture
Joined: Aug 13 2018
There's also the fact

I have always liked the Althea played at Cornell on 1981. I don't know if it is "stronger" but it is a solid performance, appropriately punctuated with Bob's slide.

Joined: May 30 2018

I feel like it wad Hunter writing a love song about Jerry's love and affection for heroin

Joined: Feb 10 2018
A roving sign

I always thought “a roving sign” was an interesting phrase or image. I was listening to the song “Days of ‘49” today from Dylan’s album Self-Portrait and the phrase is included in that song as well. “Days of ‘49” is apparently a traditional folk song that can be traced back to the nineteenth century. Just thought this was an interesting connection and wanted to share it as I’m a huge fan of the Annotated Grateful Dead lyrics and this isn’t currently included in the Althea entry.

Joined: Feb 17 2017

It's the message of Get Out of Your Own Head and start living! The only thing that's really wrong is the part of you that's worried about what's wrong. The Self-Indulgent focus of Melancholy that the storyteller is caught up in and lamenting about is actually the very thing that needs to be let go. Althea is the personification of the eternal Wisdom of the Soul that is always there for a person if the will trust in it and get out of their own way and really listen and understand

goaskalice's picture
Joined: Mar 21 2015
In reply to jojo2275

I bet I knew what you thought Jerry said in the opening line of Bertha...
But of course it's about lovers. The line, "I told Althea I'm a roving sign, and I was born to be a bachelor. Althea told me, 'okay that's fine', so now I'm tryin' to catch her" so perfectly describes men's (most men's) approach to relationships. They want what they can't have and don't want what they can. Maybe it's not just men but I can't tell you how many times a guy has said they want a break, or let's just be friends, or just been non-responsive, only to do a 180 when I've moved on...
(#1 reason chasing a guy NEVER works)

goaskalice's picture
Joined: Mar 21 2015
reply, not

I guess the "reply" button is meaningless because I just end up writing a new comment every time, looking like an idiot with my non-sequitur remarks...

goaskalice's picture
Joined: Mar 21 2015
What she said

In reply to thatguy:
I thought I was replying to you but ended up writing a new comment, so here it is again.

What she said is "You're gonna want a bed to lay your head and a little sympathy". Otherwise what would that line refer to (the "you're gonna want a. ..".) He is just reiterating that she said it, "When the smoke has cleared she said (that's what she said to me)you're gonna want a bed..."

Clearly what "she said" and "that's what she said to me" are the same thing...

Check out this annotated lyrics
This guy shows the verse as written,
"When the smoke has cleared she said
that's what she said to me:
you're gonna want a bed..."

goaskalice's picture
Joined: Mar 21 2015
What she said

Is "You're gonna want a bed to lay your head and a little sympathy". Otherwise what would that line refer to. He is just reiterating that she said it, "When the smoke has cleared she
said (that's what she said to me)you're gonna want a bed..."

Check out this annotated lyrics
This guy shows the verse as written,
"When the smoke has cleared she said
that's what she said to me:
you're gonna want a bed..."

Joined: Jan 27 2017
To Althea, from Prison

Always a handful of lyrical changes from writing to recording-
So if you're feeling lost, or lacking in some direction, always remember:
"Can't talk to me without talking to you,
We're guilty of the same old thing-
Talking a lot about less and less...
And forgetting the love we bring."
...Be kind, re-mind.
*I do not love the idea of Deadheads across the universe assuming I've misquoted the last lines from my favorite Hunter piece, so I feel compelled to appease any slightly elevated pulses by sharing that my Althea quote above is pulled from "A Box of Rain," and appears here as the original writer intended. When Jerry adopts the lyrics, the roles are reversed, one "thing" turns into multiple "things," and instead of talking, we're only thinking about less and less. The end result is the same, reclaim your brain train and re-mind: WAKE UP AND REMEMBER TO BRING LOVE WITH YOU EVERYWHERE YOU GO

Also feel I should mention another origin of Althea, hopefully I did not miss previous mention of this-
I could annotate line by line, but you deadheads are smart, take what you will and leave what you won't; If I knew the way, I would take you home...

To Althea, from Prison:
By: RICHARD LOVELACE (written in 1642)

When Love with unconfinèd wings
Hovers within my Gates,
And my divine Althea brings
To whisper at the Grates;
When I lie tangled in her hair,
And fettered to her eye,
The Gods that wanton in the Air,
Know no such Liberty.

When flowing Cups run swiftly round
With no allaying Thames,
Our careless heads with Roses bound,
Our hearts with Loyal Flames;
When thirsty grief in Wine we steep,
When Healths and draughts go free,
Fishes that tipple in the Deep
Know no such Liberty.

When (like committed linnets) I
With shriller throat shall sing
The sweetness, Mercy, Majesty,
And glories of my King;
When I shall voice aloud how good
He is, how Great should be,
Enlargèd Winds, that curl the Flood,
Know no such Liberty.

Stone Walls do not a Prison make,
Nor Iron bars a Cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an Hermitage.
If I have freedom in my Love,
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone that soar above,
Enjoy such Liberty.

Joined: Nov 1 2016
Who's speaking in Verses 2 and 3?....and other thoughts

Like everyone here, I love this song to bits, and I'm in the club that thinks the 'Without a Net' version is probably the peak: Jerry's singing and playing are both so right in that performance. The lyric has always puzzled me, though, and I was looking at it again today, to see if I could at last make everything fit. I still have some difficulty with the three Hamlet quotations (though I get the displaced Hamlet/Ophelia suicide reference), and I wonder whether Robert Hunter was indulging himself just a little here, showing off his literary background. But what the hell - Hamlet's my favorite play, and I'm always up for hearing bits of it again. I'll be fascinated to read any further thoughts on how those quotes fit, though.

Some thoughts on the parts of the lyric that (I think!) I do understand. Although there's some questioning in comments here and elsewhere, David D seems sure that the middle verses and the bridge are a continuation of Althea's words to the singer (i.e. Jerry), following on from "Now cool down boy" in Verse 1. I agree - this is the only way that I can see to make the complete lyric hang together - especially Verse 3 with the "she said, that's what she said to me" interruption. This strong, wise woman is commenting and advising on the singer's weaknesses and bad behavior - you could imagine that he's having a mid-life crisis - and in the final verse he acknowledges his mistakes. 'Now I'm trying to catch her' is such a lovely piece of dark humor: you can picture the rueful grin on his face.

I also subscribe to the oft-stated view that Hunter was having a personal moan at Garcia in this song, via Althea’s words. One specific that I looked at today supports this: in Verse 2 Althea talks to 'Saturday's child', and a quick check shows that 1 August 1942 (Jerome John Garcia's birth date) was indeed a Saturday. And wow, didn't that particular child move with a pinch of grace! It's quite moving, too, that Garcia sang this song, which deals so directly with his self-destructive habits, many times between 1979 and 1995 – right up to the end. RIP Jerry – you lovely, flawed man; you absolute genius.


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