Grateful Dead

Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Brokedown Palace"

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!)

"Brokedown Palace"

A few days ago, I was lucky enough to be at a backyard house concert featuring Mark Karan, playing acoustic and mostly solo. He ended his show with a beautiful version of “Brokedown Palace.” A friend of mine, standing next to me, turned to me when it was over and said, “Just in case—that’s the song I want played at my memorial service.” I told him, “Me, too.”

I have heard it played at a couple of memorial services over the years, always to excellent effect. It’s a song that begs to be sung again and again, and there have been some excellent cover versions over the years, including, in particular, versions by Joan Osborne, found on her album, Pretty Little Stranger, and a gorgeous instrumental version by Jeff Chimenti with Fog.

The lyric to “Brokedown Palace” was written by Robert Hunter as part of a suite of songs that arrived via his pen during a stay in London in 1970. He entitled it “Broke-Down Palace,” and now that it exists as a piece of writing, it seems to have always existed. It was composed on the same afternoon as “Ripple” and “To Lay Me Down,” with the aid of a half bottle of retsina.

Its first performance was on August 18, 1970, at the Fillmore West in San Francisco, and became a staple of the live repertoire. After the 1974 hiatus, “Brokedown Palace” appeared almost exclusively as the closing song of the show, as an encore. It had the effect of sending us out of the show on a gentle pillow of sound, the band bidding us “Fare you well, fare you well…”

The story the song may be telling for any one of us is wide open. Hunter doesn’t give us much. The song can be a song to someone departed from life, or just from the relationship with the singer. Or maybe the singer is departing, and possibly departing this life, or possibly departing a relationship. Some have suggested it is a song about reincarnation, and the journey through existences (“…many worlds I’ve come since I first left home”). So, regardless, the song appeals to us repeatedly throughout changing life circumstances and, in different contexts, rings true over and over again. (I’ve harped on this idea of hearing a lyric differently at different points in our lives repeatedly over the course of my posts, but it’s kind of a major theme, I think. Let me know if I should stop pointing this out….)

For me, the “many worlds” line always spoke to experiences I had inside the many worlds to be found in the human brain, when we can unlock those experiences. Enough said about that, although I suspect several of you may wish to share stories about your own “many worlds.”

In The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics, I quote from a note I received from a reader, recounting hearing Ken Kesey speak at the University of Virginia in 1998. I just spent a little time tracking down a transcript of that talk, and here’s the part about “Brokedown Palace”:

I lost my son in a wrestling accident. On the way to a wrestling meet, the van went off a cliff. I remember the feeling….I’ll get back to that… ok I’ll tell it….You know, if anybody knows the song "Broke Down Palace," (fair thee well, fair thee well, I love you more than words can tell), after Jed had been dead a few months we went to see the Dead. They were playing at our opera house. They did their usual stuff and got their big ovations and then, they started playing "Broke Down Palace" and they all turned toward me and all our family was sitting up there. They all turned toward us and the guys in the audience began to turn toward us. And that song was sent from the Grateful Dead to our bruised hearts. And it was like having somebody reach out and putting their hand on your shoulder and saying, "Yeah we feel it." And when it was over there was no applause. Everybody knew it. We were all crying. And how many bands do you know that could do that? Like when Eric Clapton begins to sing "Tears in Heaven," this is real. This isn’t rock and roll. This is the heart speaking out to other people whose hearts have been wounded. And there are a bunch of us.

While the song does stand alone extremely well, it also inhabits a particular place on the American Beauty album, rising out of “Ripple,” and leading into “Till the Morning Comes.” It echoes bits and pieces of “Box of Rain” (“such a long long time to be gone, and a short time to be there”) and lends emotional background and depth to “Operator.” Even “Truckin’” resonates with “Brokedown Palace”—“Back home, sit down and patch my bones…” The entire suite of songs holds together incredibly well, and I believe that “Brokedown Palace” is the glue.

The act of planting a weeping willow, of doing something that won’t be fully realized, or grown, in any immediate sense, is a key to the song. While there are plants in other songs on the album (last week I counted eight in “Sugar Magnolia” alone, including a willow), this is the one where the singer plants the tree. Stays. Makes a home—another recurring theme throughout the album. The singer is going to plant a tree by the water’s edge and thereby see continuity and change in one view—the tree standing in one place, “the river roll, roll, roll.” Of course, the tree will “grow, grow, grow,” so it’s not truly standing still, not static, but it is, at least, stable.

Ready to hear your stories of how this song has resonated for you, what comfort you may have taken from it, or anything else that you might care to relate about “Brokedown Palace.”


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ddodd's picture
Joined: Jun 6 2007
Listening, and listening, and listening...

Thanks to all for the thoughts on this song. Each week, because of the opportunity to write this blog, I have the gift not only of being able to spend some time thinking in depth about a song, but then the additional and amazing gift of hearing the thoughts of everyone who takes the time to comment on the post. So it's an exponentially enriching experience. I will be very interested, when and if I get through to the end of this project, to then go back and re-read, and then rewrite and rethink yet again. Thanks, everyone, for the ongoing conversation!

jbxpro's picture
Joined: Dec 4 2012
Brokedown in Context and Alone

Some albums you listen to over and over and American Beauty probably tops my list. Mr. Dodd has nailed it again, the way the songs such as Brokedown can mean different things at different times and the perfection of the suite of images presented by the various songs. The first half of the second side was always the most affective to me, with the validating images of Ripple leading into the intense loneliness of Brokedown before the uplift of the other songs.

Brokedown is about aloneness, solitude, living in a world where you’ve said farewell to all the singing birds, even you. Whether this happened because the narrator died (or is dying and is telling us about what’s going to happen, the way I’ve always heard it), because his lover left him and he’s totally bummed, or because of an apocalyptic event doesn’t matter, the point is that he is facing a solitary world beyond. But on further reflection, perhaps this is a return home, and perhaps giving actions like creating a symbol (planting a weeping willow) and singing a lullaby will see us through.

And then the morning comes and you realize that you’re not alone in the world and that there’s someone watching out for you while you watch out for her. Maybe this is as simple as the narrator finding a new lover, but I think the first three songs of the second side are parables that work together to tell us that love, validation, and self-sufficiency will all happen … they aren’t always easy and there will be fear and loneliness mixed in, but look for them and you'll find them.

I've got to say too that this is one of the most covered Dead songs to my experience. I especially love Ollabelle's and Adrienne Young's versions of this song, both of which are on YouTube.

Joined: Jun 15 2007
Gospel Dead

Played this one at open mic the other night and got quite a few compliments from people who'd never before heard the song or knew anything about the Grateful Dead. I usually introduce the song as written by Hunter, but smilingly told one girl who liked it that it was called Gospel Dead. As with Operator and Cassidy, I always like to keep this one dusted off and handy, but I do the intro in the key of D, so that the verses start in G. A bit easier on the fingers and aging voice than the original key. This is the last song I ever heard them play - encore at RFK in '95. After seeing him up close earlier during Dylan's set, I knew that Jerry was dying and told the kid sitting next to me later that this was the last time we'd be seeing him. Sad to say that I was right. Fare you well, indeed. Summer's not been quite the same since.

Joined: Jun 26 2013
Stonewall Jackson

This song reminds me of the last words of Stonewall Jackson before he passed with his devoted wife at his side...

"Presently a smile of ineffable sweetness spread itself over his pale face, and he said quietly, and with an expression, as if of relief, "Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees."

Quoted from Dr. Hunter McGuire. "Death of Stonewall Jackson". Southern Historical Society Papers 14 (1886).

Underthevolcano's picture
Joined: Feb 6 2008
play this song

in its album version to folks who recoil when you mention the group's name. Of course, that doesn't happen as much as it did in the day but this song still goes a long way in starting that process of opening a mind previously closed to anything "Grateful Dead". Also good to open a mind blank to the Dead-I know several Laotian political refugees who have settled here and who never heard of the group-this song on this album along with Workingmans Dead and others started a process of eager discovery. In fact there is a type of old Laotian folk music that reminds me of some of the Dead- in the sense that it is a real musical creation of a place you can inhabit-not just songs that quickly end. It is hard to describe but I think of the Dead's music as a place you can go to and live in for awhile. Their music has a prominent lead, melody line that sometimes resembles Garcia's style as well. In any event "a great little song".

Joined: Jan 13 2010
I loved this song from the start

It was played at my first show, but I didn't know it was "Brokedown Palace" until I heard AB. Seguing straight out of Ripple (another song I loved from the moment I heard it), it was one of the best songs I had ever heard.

One thing I don't get is why so many people say "fare thee well" when it is "fare YOU well." (only a Deadhead would care, I suppose.) Cassidy's lyrics say "farin' {or fare} thee well now".

A great song.

Gr8fulTed's picture
Joined: Jul 9 2007
Telluride '87

Great restart at Telluride when Jerry told the crowd he f*#cked up

Joined: Jun 4 2007
brokedown goofs

They did the same thing twice in '85, once at a Red Rocks show and the other in Pittsburgh. They both are Jerry-led goofs and are pretty funny as well.

marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007
that moment at Telluride

one of the greats!

Grateful Don's picture
Joined: Aug 19 2008

I always loved Brokedown Palace as an encore. I remember a false start they had at the Telluride show in '87. They started out in the wrong key until Garcia comes on the mic and says "wait a minute this is all f%$#!d up". I still laugh when I think of it. So very human. One of my all time favorite songs.


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