Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Black Peter"
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!)
I have gone back and forth and back again, and maybe forth again, over the years in my conception of how to hear “Black Peter” — whether as a dire piece, or a philosophical piece, or what.
But I love the song no matter how it strikes me at any given point in my life. If someone I love has just passed away, or is in the process of going through a serious illness, then it becomes poignant—I’m sure that’s true for many listeners. (There’s a similarity to the effect of “He’s Gone,” which was certainly not originally intended to be a tender farewell of any kind, but which has taken on that role over the years.)
And listening to it on the newly-released Dave’s Picks 6, when it was not too far removed from its debut, and prior to its release on Workingman’s Dead, has made me think about it in a different way still.
The Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia tune was first performed on December 4, 1969, at the Fillmore in San Francisco. They played it 342 times thereafter, and it was never out of the rotation for very long. Its final performance was on June 22, 1995 at the Knickerbocker Arena in Albany, New York.
The song is enigmatic in the way of many Hunter lyrics. It’s a partial, fragmentary short story - we don’t know all the circumstances of the narrator’s troubles. Indeed, we don’t even know if they are legitimate troubles, or if they are the self-pitying rantings of a hypochondriac. The enigma begins with the song’s title. “Black Peter.” Is that the narrator’s name? Or is it a reference to the characters who bring bundles of switches to beat ill-behaved children?
There’s an element of the boy who cried wolf in the song. The narrator’s friends gather around because he is dying, supposedly. But he doesn’t die—he finds himself alive one more day. So now he admonishes them, accusing them of only coming to have fun at his expense—“Take a look at poor Peter / he’s lyin’ in pain / now let’s go run and see.” (Some listeners have proposed that the narrative view changes in the final verse, from first to third person, but I still hear it as the same voice, mimicking what others are saying. Interesting to think about the alternative, though!)
It would be easy if that’s all there was to the song. But there is the matter of what I believe to be the very best bridge in a repertoire filled with amazing bridges:
See here how everything
Lead up to this day
And it's just like any other day
That's ever been
Sun going up and then
The sun going down
Shine through my window
And my friends they come around
Come around, come around
There is so much packed into that simple set of lines, so much that a listener can unpack over a lifetime of listening, that you have to wonder how Hunter, at a relatively young age, could have come up with something so profound. And the synergy between Garcia’s setting of this bridge, the lyrics themselves, and the harmonies that developed over the years of performance make it a spine-tingling piece of music.
The version on the new Dave’s Picks seems to feature Garcia singing the song as if to elicit laughter at the sheer pitifulness of the song’s narrator. I found myself laughing at the lyrics for the first time. Previously, I had seen them as dark, or truly pathetic (in the sense of emotional pathos), or even as profound and empathy-inducing, but this performance made me laugh. Garcia’s reading seems to invite that response. I will have to go back and listen to a few other performances now, to see if I can detect the irony behind the singer’s portrayal of the narrator.
This all gets pretty “meta.”
Surely part of the message here, conveyed largely via the bridge, is that of the speaker in the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, who is working to convince us of the vanity of human existence:
"The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course....What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun."
Every day is just like the other before it and after it, even though everything in our experience is cumulative and leads to the present moment. The significance of that moment is dismantled by the realization that there is after all nothing special about “this day.” And yet, here is someone on his deathbed. He may live another day, true, but it is absolutely certain that he will, one day, die.
(And then the bridge, sometimes, just lifts out of the context of the song altogether and stands there, all alone, speaking to where we might be at that particular moment, listening to that concert or that recording: see here how everything lead up to this day… It’s a psychedelic moment, a moment of realization, being offered up to us.)
His friends gather. They attempt to make normal conversation about the weather. But the narrator doesn’t let this slide—he wants to know something particular about the weather. He wants to know “who can the weather command?” Now, there’s a line that can be read in two distinct ways. “Who can command the weather?” or “Who can be commanded by the weather?”
I have heard, over the years, from people besides myself who have been at the deathbed of beloved friends and family, for whom this song has held particular meaning, if not comfort. It is a song that helps us into the feelings of the dying person, who might be resentful of those who gather, of their inane everyday conversation, and yet still grateful for their presence. There’s something about the way that one visitor, Annie Beauneau, is specifically mentioned—I can’t help but think this might have been the love of his life, and yet all she has to say is something about the weather.
What about you? What has “Black Peter” meant to you? Has it changed its meaning over time and circumstance? What good does it do for us, as human beings, to see ourselves as part of an eternally-recurring series of days, in which nothing is ever really new (except our own personal experience of life)?
I wondered if there was a specific back story (like, for example, 'He's Gone') for Black Peter. What springs to my mind is 710 Ashbury St,, and that maybe there were some days the band didn't feel like playing host. Yet, everyday, rain or shine, sickness or health, the folks showed up.
this tune set a scene in my mind that the movie M.A.S.H. seemed to have duplicated during its faux suicide scene. (the hypochondriac character they called "Painless" thinks he's offing himself and everyone shows up to help him think it all the way through.)
it's always seems dark and bittersweet but it comes off to me either like a semi-public self-pity party or like the death of an old southern man.
so i experience it either as just a ridiculous way of processing the blue.... or as a death meditation.
what makes it Really Weird for some of us is that it's what the Wharf Rat kids traditionally recite at the close of their between-sets ritual.
I see the character of Black Peter as an older gentleman an a deep south African American community, possibly a somewhat prominent individual around the turn of the 19th-20th century. Like many people in the south back then, he suffered from Malaria as a somewhat chronic illness: getting sick, then better. As he became older, his body became less able to fight off the effects of the disease, and when stricken, he becomes more convinced that death is near. Fever goes up and friends (and hangers on) start to come by to offer comfort and or get an angle on his belongings. A 105 fever sure could feel like a near-death experience, but not this time. Maybe the next time.
Hey man, glad you made it through your troubles! Just goes to show the Dead can get anyone through hard times.
When I was 17 I was diagnosed with cancer. I became interested in GD in junior high and started going to shows when I was 15 or 16.
So I'm 17 and going through major surgeries and chemotherapy. In and out of the hospital. Over and over.
While I was in the hospital I had a Grateful Dead photo book. Can't remember which one. I also had Robert Hunter's Box of Rain. Which I devoured. There was no internet then and hospital TV sucked ;)
But my friends, they'd come around.
At that time I always thought of Black Peter. It had personal meaning.
And now I remember that life experience through the song.
Kind of random, but a 90 year old woman was just telling me about Annie Besant and the Theosophical Society. Made me think of Black Peter's Annie Beauneau, if Besant was the intended character with an altered name. She seems in line with the themes of the song, and Hunter's spiritual/philosophical interests. Probably not, but who the hell knows?
black peter is the name of a Sherlock holmes story. it doesn't have anything to do with the story in the song but I always thought it was cool.
These words were presented to me on Facebook earlier this evening along with a picture of a person wearing black-face. It seemed a haunting image of a long ago age, yet, it is happening today (or rather yesterday).
Really briefly, Zwarte Piet is a character that is celebrated in the northern European countries, particularly in the Netherlands, but a version of him is used throughout the region. Like people dressing up as Santa Claus (a character he is indelibly linked to) there are people that dress up in Blackface on December 5 to celebrate Saint Nicholas' feast.
Zwarte Piet translates directly as Black Peter.
If you take the character of Black Peter as the narrator and with the understanding that Black Peter is Racism itself, the entire song becomes crystal clear.
Remember, this song was originally written at a time of great civil strife, with Civil Rights being at the forefront of the nightly news and every day occurrence at the time. It was bound to seep into the mind of storytellers such as Garcia and Hunter.
The story is then about the death of Racism, with the hope being that they were at a critical point in history where Racism was drawing its last breaths. Yet, each day the sun comes up and the sun goes down, it lives on.
The final refrains seemed to be a call to action from Garcia and Hunter to act, to see Black Peter die, and to have friends of all colors gather around in unity.
This also explains why, in subsequent performances, as the 60's became the 70's, into the 80's and finally into the 90's and Black Peter still breathed, that the song, once a song of hope, turned more and more into a dirge song, with less and less hope that Racism would cease.
Leave it to Garcia to turn to irony, once filled with so much hope, that things never quite changed and we continued to live in a world with Black Peter.
antonjo, I never knew either what he was saying. I though it was "anyone know from sand and gems" Funny!
great observations on an incredible song. The version hidden deep in the dozin at the knick cd is the best version I have ever heard. Stunning! Why it did not make the "without a net" cut is beyond me.
I like nsams73 comment of the angel coming down from heaven. It's a priceless song!