Grateful Dead

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!)

“Black Peter”

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)?

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ddodd's picture
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Joined: Jun 6 2007
Horrific pic

I agree--utterly horrific. Found it online with a generic "Black Peter" image search. Seemed worth sharing! It's a vintage German postcard.

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Joined: Jan 13 2010
where did you get that horrific picture?

gotta love the Germans.

Gruss vom Krampus.

creeeeepy...

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Joined: Jan 13 2010
4/29/71

8/6/74 10/19/74 4/10/78 11/1/79

all great versions of Black Peter

"and my friends they come around, come around, coooooomme arououououououououououounnndddddd."

slo lettuce's picture
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Joined: Jul 20 2012
this song more than any other...

has always said to me to slow down and take stock in today......appreciate it for what it is....a gift. "Tomorrow maybe go beneath the ground". Someday it will be our turn......maybe tomorrow....no guarantees for anyone.....if we woke up today, be grateful because today is all we are given. "Tomorrow" really is nothing more than a hope and a prayer, but because most of us have been fortunate enough to string enough "tomorrows" together, "tomorrow" always seems to be a given that it's going to be there. That's just our nature, if the same thing happens the same way over and over enough times in a row, we take it for granted, until it doesn't happen anymore.

"See here how everything lead up to this day". Imho, it's always worthwhile to stop on the path that we're on and look back. How each of our defining life moments - the successes, failures, happiness, love, heartaches, tragedies, deaths, births, wins and losses - have shaped and guided us each, knowingly or not, to where we are today. And it always is "a day like any other day" no matter what is happening. I , too, like the lyrics to this masterpiece more than the music or singing.

unkle sam's picture
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Joined: Oct 3 2008
one day

we will all be the narrator in this song. Who can not relate to this story? It's like any other day that's ever been. Sun goes up and comes down and my friends come around, maybe out of respect or just to see the hero die.

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Joined: Aug 17 2007
another hand for the bridge; and another aspect

The bridge in "Black Peter"--musically, lyrically, one of the great song bridges, in any song I've ever heard. (And Jerry did have a great way with that aspect of song turning.)

Jerry's performance of "Black Peter" at the third of the three back-from-near-death performances in Oakland, December 17, 1986, his singing of the latter verses and the culminating guitar soloing, evoked to my hearing a sexual blues from this song. His blues soloing seemed shruggingly masterful--he seemed expressing some ironically offhand and humiliated virtuosity --I mean that in the inescapably honest sense of deeply humbled: one has nearly died, he now knows very (grimly? ridiculously?) closely something more of death's inevitable superseding anything well doable in this life, including his musical capability, and then the organic sexual tinge I felt in the culmination of this rendition, a sort of blues-in-your-balls romantic futility/fatality of knowing/feeling that no matter what you've done sexual-lovingly you've come short of your desired communion with, or even acceptance by, one you have loved. Maybe I was just projecting from my own internals! And who am I to presume, assume some understanding of Jerry's internal biography from his emoting theatrically over there some hundred feet away on the stage? Except that I seemed another guy like he seemed, and seemed to be singing about in the moment, who'd felt that blues in his balls. I had never experienced so clearly (and mainly unwordably) that bluesily biochemically emotional sexual awareness tied in with "lying in pain," embedded in mortality. Okay, enough trying to define that strong and ~ "what for" sadness; but I think Jerry was telling us about it in that performance.

mustin321's picture
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Joined: Aug 12 2011
more bridge talk

speaking of bridges...i think my favorite is Wharf Rat. It even switches time signatures and its still natural and beautiful.

@taphedfrek: I dont know if Garcia wrote the bridge but i know that he did write lines in songs from time to time.

Light a candle, curse the glare.

taphedfrek's picture
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Joined: Apr 18 2009
the bridge

From what i understand, garcia wrote the lyrics to the bridge, you can hear the change in style. someone correct me if i am wrong, but but it does make sense.

mustin321's picture
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Joined: Aug 12 2011
Bridges

Great post David! Also, Im glad you mentioned that about the bridges. As good of a son wg writing team garcia/hunter were, I think the bridges to a lot of out beat just about everything out there. Hes gone, brown eyed women, black peter, stella blue, etc...they are amazingly powerful but also have a simplicity to them. the intensity of the will change completely but the always sound so natural and perfectly.

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Joined: Aug 22 2007
Hunter/Garcia

Hunter has said that he didn't write "Black Peter" as such a slow dirge. It's when Jerry took it and really slowed the vibe down that Hunter said it became a "Monster" song. It's a timeless song because death is timeless. The Irish have plenty of songs about death. This is a song that would fit right in that Genre. When listening to the various versions through the years you can't help but hear how Jerry takes on a slightly different feel as he got older. Especially when his health went downhill later on. You can hear it now but we didn't want to admit it then. I don't know if comforting is the right word but I listened to Black Peter many times as my brother was dying. When you know someone going through what the narrator of the song is going through it brings the song to life. What must it be like to know your time is almost up? That's what makes this such a Dead Masterpiece.

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