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)?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Except the bridge. This is my personal take... the ideas and thoughts I experience
hearing the song.
Black Peter is a rough and tumble guy...maybe a coal miner..maybe a
farmer or cowboy on his death bed or looking back at himself from somewhere else (It is a song so why not?)
He lived hard; couldn't be restrained by the uptight social order i.e. "Sin and Gin." He is telling of his
death experience to a friend or whoever will listen.
The song has layers and ironies.
A good example is "Rolled on up! It's gonna roll back down." A poignant acknowledgement of Peter's powerlessness
that gives us a warm grin (as in "Ain't it the truth!" or Amen) and is empowering in that he is able to communicate and
understand it with the gumption and turn of phrase he cherishes. He absolutely knows what is happening...a moment
so rare in most of our lives yet a moment we all must share. Peter is being taken away by the irrepressible force
On top of this is the layer of death. Something we all share. "Now let's go run and see." is
what most if not everyone wants to do when someone is dying. And it transfers to the audience. We are all imaging
poor Peter in bed and are transfixed by the music and poetry. We are at his bedside sharing in the process of his death.
we are sad but comforted that we are sharing in the experience
Death is the most dramatic and fascinating event in every human's life and we all will die. Robert Hunter and Jerry
Garcia are expressing a view of death that is uncommon...at least in the media world. That is that death isn't the devil it
just IS and we all share it and that is a remarkable, wonderful thing. It is a great drama we all take part in. What could be
more inclusive (it touches everyone) than the subject of death. And what is the name of the band...?
Another piece of irony is this song was performed at a rock and roll show usually in the middle of some upbeat two steps
and stampeding horse jams. What a lark! It stood up and bopped you on the head and shook you down deep. At the same
time you are amazed and in a state of holy reverence for the eternal force of death. I mean that-- when we imagine death
we in process remember imagining our own death and likely remember the first time we saw or understood it. It activates
the complicated zone of our minds that encompasses death. Performance of Black Peter was magic in action when all the
pistons were firing.
Then there is Mr. Garcia. He is the only artist truly equipped to deliver this song properly...not to diminish the role played by
Robert and the rest of the Band. He sang it better and better as he got older and as he got closer to......dare I say it. Try to
imagine anybody else singing it.....it would lack believability. When Jerry sang the song it was perfectly framed.
Some have described Jerry as "spooky." He was a very unique special guy. I recall reading that he had one or two very
near death experiences that surely shaped his vision. He was the icon of the name Grateful Dead. Somehow his image caught the bands name.
I was a person facing death at an early age due to illness and I loved Black Peter immediately. It opened the door for all the other amazing Garcia tunes and my admiration for Jerry as well as Robert hunter.
Black Peter is a song that always sounds great when I listen to a live version, but the "see here how everything" bridge rarely gets the proper Phil/Bobby harmony treatment it deserves. Usually, in early 1970 shows, Jerry just goes it alone. The album version and occasional live performances WITH harmonies are pure magic. The decision not to do harmonies on the bridge, I'm sure, stemmed from the band's uncertain feelings about their singing (that's why they asked Crosby to give them voice lessons), but I have always loved their sound, especially Phil's belted-out high harmonies. For me, a Black Peter isn't complete without Phil blasting "SHIIIIIINE THROUGH MY WIN-IN-DOW!" into the mic. Whenever I turn someone new onto the Dead, the first thing they comment about is how bad the singing is, but that critique never occurred to me. Even during the haggard 80s and 90s, there is something about the vocal combination of Jerry, Bobby, Phil, and Brent that surpasses any previous expectations for what 'good' singing is supposed to sound like. The Dead's vocals are much deeper than that; they come from a place of emotion, ecstasy, and Americana that sounds sweet to my ears.
I couldn't agree more. As a child I never really liked this song. But then again, i didn;t really like any of the slower songs when I was young. But as I got more familiar with GD and other music, I really came to appreciate Black Peter for all of its great aspects, including and especially the bridge to end all bridges.
hear this song very literally. It makes me think of hard-scrabble times when folks worked long hours at jobs that eventually ruined their physical health-think white lung or black lung disease. They got the condition and were left to die a lingering death. It was inevitable for them and no one outside of them really cared about it. They themselves were resigned to it-what choice was there. The cycles just would keep going on. The song could be in a distant time or today it is the same stuff. Another generation may come up doomed to repeat the same cycle. Another Hunter lyric for the ages and Garcia's poignant, emotional music to frame those words and make us inhabit that space that guy is in. As I've said-this stuff is timeless art.
Thanks so much for sharing that, Buck. Sorry for your loss--sounds like Margaret had a wonderful son-in-law!