Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Bertha"
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!)
“Bertha.” How is it that it took me 90 weeks to get to “Bertha”? I know..I have a long ways to go before the storehouse of tunes is empty. But “Bertha” is so essential, so often played, and so joyously received—at least at every show I was at—that I feel remiss.
“Bertha” is another in the group of songs that I like to think of as the unrecorded studio album—songs that never got the studio treatment. I’ve harped on this before, but I think, because it’s a favorite concept of mine, that it merits a brief re-cap. I’m referring to the post-American Beauty, pre-Wake of the Flood songs that made up a good part of the two live albums, Skull and Roses (for want of a more useable title…) and Europe ’72. This set of songs deepens and further explores the “old, weird America” of many of the songs from Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. I love the idea that someday, maybe, they might be recorded in a studio setting as a real “album” of songs—remember that concept?
“Bertha” captures yet another of Hunter’s loveable but somehow downtrodden or down-and-out characters, defiant (“why don’t you arrest me?”) and bumbling (“ran smack into a tree…”) within the space of a song. We all have our moments, right?
“Bertha” has long suffered from what now seems to be a piece of disinformation, which might fall into the “never trust a prankster” category. From an interview cited by Alex Allan in the deadsongs conference on the WELL:
Interviewer: What about Bertha? Is it true she was a fan? An electrical fan?
RH: No, this was after the fact. I don't know where that story ... I think they started calling this fan in the office that would run around and try and catch everyone and cut their fingers off. They started calling it Bertha. But no, this is not true. Bertha, I think, is probably some vaguer connotation of birth, death and reincarnation. Cycle of existences, some kind of such nonsense like that. I wouldn't be surprised, but then again, it might not be. I don't remember.
OK, so Hunter alludes, in this brief and fairly vague snippet of interview conversation, to an entirely different possibility. “Birth (‘Bertha’ pun), death, and reincarnation.”
This is one of those songs that can be listened to, and interpreted, and second-guessed at so many levels that it’s almost ridiculous. I’ve read a fairly convincing argument that the song is really a reference to Lady Chatterly’s Lover, by D.H. Lawrence. And there is a large amount of speculation about what the lines “dressed myself in green, went down unto the sea” might “mean.” So many traditions, so much folklore, about the color green!
But here’s Hunter, lending credence to one of the most obscure alternate hearings for a lyric that I know of. The couplet is “Ran into a rain-storm / Ducked into a bar door.” Many people, over the years, have mentioned to me that they have heard this in a couple of alternate ways. I myself also heard “Ducked back into Novato,” which is a town about 10 miles south of where I live which was, for awhile, home to the band. In fact, oddly enough, and contrary to every other published source, the dead.net lyrics page itself (link at the top of this post) cites the line that way. So maybe that’s got some merit.
However, the hearing that fits with Hunter’s somewhat lackadaisical statement about reincarnation is the version that reads: “ducked back into a bardo.” A bardo! This is a concept from Tibetan Buddhism that there is an intermediate state between two existences, a space between incarnations. Between lives.
In this hearing of the line, the entire song becomes transformed into the adventure of a soul on its way to a new life. Rather than get too deep into that, I’ll just offer it up for consideration.
Say it is actually a bar door that the singer ducks into. Then the song is about someone on the run from someone’s window—what could the singer have been doing at someone’s window, in a rainstorm, in unfamiliar territory (“run smack into a tree”)?
Again—kind of an interesting scenario, with a multitude of stories spinning out in every direction.
And, if it was a bar, then there’s the additional ambiguity of the lines “all night pouring, but not a drop on me,” which could be taken to refer either to the rain going on, or to the drinks being poured in the bar. In which case, if they really didn’t pour in the singer’s direction, he is perfectly ready to be tested for sobriety: “Test me, test me…”
So many different directions for thinking, from one little line and its possible variant hearings. That is exactly what I love about this stuff — it all seems true and possible and correct, depending on your own state of mind or background at the moment you are listening to or singing the song.
If it’s a song about birth, death, and reincarnation, then it is certainly a non-dreamy, rocking song about those topics.
This song is all about dancing—the crowd always “had to move” when it was played, and in a big way. I’ve enjoyed the many different performance practices over the years: the variations in tempo from mid-tempo to upbeat; the times when “why don’t you arrest me?” became a rallying cry resulting in a huge roar from the crowd (as when Garcia first sang it after being arrested for possession of cocaine in Golden Gate Park); the coordinated emphasis on the two, three, or four beats of the measure led by Weir behind Jerry’s singing—all of these added up to an adventure each time the song was played.
And the most fun: the ending. How many times will Jerry sing “any more” this time? Someone must know if it really varied as much as it seemed to, or went on as long as it seemed to sometimes. I remember reading Paul Grushkin’s wonderful set list in The Official Book of the Deadheads:
I HAD A HARD RUN
RUNNIN’ FROM YOUR WINDOW
melody of pure dance
a roaring musical wind in our faces
TEST ME TEST ME
WHY DON’T YOU ARREST ME?
Lesh lets go with a sonic blast
the audience instantly responds
the love vibe, the sex beat
so ridiculous, yet so apparent
everyone knows it
no one can say what it is
THAT’S WHY IF YOU PLEASE
I AM ON MY BENDED KNEES
up red lights everywhere
a real rabble-rouser tonight!
folks flinging themselves skyward
ANY MORE HOR HOR
Just exactly perfect.
First time I actually read the lyrics and thought about it, I felt like maybe it was an old girlfriend done wrong, and it's haunting him. Everywhere he goes, the guilt follows him . Or maybe she even died and it's her ghost following him everywhere, trying to get him to repent for what he did.
I heard a story completely different. I was told Bertha was a fan, but not one you plug in at the office. Someone told me she was the first deadhead and she would sleep in their living room and would never leave. So in my mind "I had to move, really had to move, Bertha don't you come around here anymore" is lamenting that he has to move since Bertha won't go home!
I hear Novato too, although it could be down back in Novato. In the version on skull and roses, there is no way it could be barroom - there's a "t" sound clear as can be, and it's repeated. Every time I see a mention of Novato "Bertha" starts going through my mind. This is my story and I'm sticking to it. This is my second favorite Dead song after "Weather Report Suite".
Hey man, just wanted to say tat as a history teacher, I appreciate this post!
This is from left field, I know, but it struck me this morning while listening to Dan Carlin's Hardcore History on World War 1 that Bertha might be the story of a French soldier in Verdun during the siege of the city by the Germans in 1916.
I had to move, Really had to move, That's why if you please, I am on my bended knees
Bertha don't you come around here anymore.
The French, upon learning of the german position around Verdun, moved quickly through the night to defend the city. Running through the forests surrounding the city to take up position, forests that would eventually be leveled from the constant bombardment. The first shots fired were by the Germans with their largest gun, Big Bertha. Firing 16.5" shells from miles away, bringing the French soldiers to their knees.
Dressed myself in green, I went down to the sea, Try to see what's going down, Maybe read between the lines, Had a feeling I was falling, falling, falling.
Turned around to see, Heard a voice calling, calling, calling, You was comin after me, Back to me.
The lyrics of Bertha also play into the fog of war as well as the topography, elements, and tactics of the battle. In this war, the network of trenches form a line from Switzerland up to almost the English Channel, the "race to the sea" is the name for the tactic that each side used in an effort to outflank the enemy. Pushing men to the brink, into the fog of war, the fog of mist, smoke and gas.
Ran into a rainstorm, Ducked into a bar door, It was all night pouring, pouring rain, But not a drop on me
Test me, test me, Why don't you arrest me? Throw me in the jail house, Until the sun goes down, Till it go down.
I had to move, Really had to move, That's why if you please, I am on my bended knees, Bertha don't you come around here anymore
The futility of war has never been more apparent than in World War 1, sending men over the to into "the meat grinder" of machine gun fire and artillery. Desertion is a a daily event, many times punishable by death. It would be forgivable for a man to wander of the battlefield and seek refuge in a nearby town.
my reaction was/is identical to yours...first time I heard it in a friend's dorm room, I danced. Every time I heard it in concert, I danced (thrashed around, more like!) and every time I hear it now, I try to dance. I'm not a dancer by nature but can't help it with Bertha!
One of my favorites no matter the lyrics and interpretation, similar to what one poster just said....
But what about...ducked into a bar door. All night pouring but not a drop on me....hmmmm....Not a drop on him because he ducked in out of the rain? Or were they all night pouring in the bar, but he abstained? Just a cup of cold coffee, perhaps. If they throw him in the jailhouse, will it be for some other f-ers crime?
It all rolls into one.
Interesting side note for me...I had NEVER heard the electric fan story until tonight.
My younger bro' was into the band way before me; our sister lived all 'round the Haight, and I was a student @ UC Davis while he was going to shows at the Fillmore/Winterland: the high school punk! Anyweigh, he had this great sound system in his room back home in the 'burbs; after my 1st show (in Davis), plus falling in love w/ American Beauty, I would go back to my parents' house & IMMEDIATELY go to his room to hang/ listen to the band. He had this bootleg; cannot remember any name on it; and there I heard Bertha for the first time: IMMEDIATELY felt like dancin' in his room (which he and I did, at times, when we got pretty High!) I ended up going to a gazillion shows thereafter: every time Bertha came around, THAT WAS one of my Favorite times of ANY show...don't really care 'bout interpretations (couldn't make out the lyrics on that murky bootleg, anyway): I STILL will feel like dancing (plus WILL dance still, even @ my advanced geezer-age(65)whenever that ol' enigmatic, cooking song comes 'round my way!
I will still think of this song as an electrical fan jumping around their office. I won't be able to not think that now. kinda bums me out that I believed that for so many years.
One of my first tapes (7-2-71 Fillmore West) contained a rockin' Bertha, but I thought the Any More line sounded like Dinty Moore. To this day, when my wife hears Bertha come on, she satrts singing "Dinty Moore" to me...