Grateful Dead

Greatest Stories Ever Told - "The Eleven"

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!)

"The Eleven"

Blair Jackson once wrote a very fun piece, “The Swirl According to Carp: A Meditation on the Grateful Dead,” under the pseudonym Jack Britton, in which he characterized Grateful Dead music as “the swirl! The swirl!”

“The Eleven” epitomizes that sense of the swirl better than any other single piece. The composition, credited to Phil Lesh, rushes headlong into its eleven-beat time signature, carrying us madly along as we dance to its various combinations of meter. Sometimes I hear two fours and a three, sometimes three threes and a two…sometimes, I think I really do feel The Eleven.

And that is an almost mystical state of being, when you don’t need all those intermediary anchors, but the one comes along in just the right place each time. And the other beats aren’t pretend “ones” or twos or threes or fours, but counts one through eleven.

Live/Dead, for me, was the perfect album, which I used alongside American Beauty to demonstrate the band’s range.

When I listen to that album’s version of “The Eleven,” I always hear something new in the dense instrumentation. I can pay attention in a focused way to any one instrument, or to the interplay, or let it all wash over me.

And then, the vocals come in.

Hunter’s poem seems, if not straightforward, at least semi-coherent. But that is not the way the Dead do the song. Vocal parts and sections of the lyrics are layered, in a way that mirrors the layering of the instruments. Alex Allan, on his Grateful Dead Lyric and Song-finder site, does a fine job of attempting to transcribe the lyric as sung:

Weir & Lesh
No more time to tell how
This is the season of what
Eight-sided whispering hallelujah hatrack
Weir & Lesh
Time of returning
Thought jewels polished and gleaming
Six proud walkers on the jingle-bell rainbow
Weir & Lesh
Time past believing
The child has relinquished the reign
Five men writing with fingers of gold
Weir & Lesh
Now is the test of the boomerang
Three girls waiting in a foreign dominion
{Weir & Lesh
{Tossed in the night of redeeming
{Riding in the whalebelly, fade away in moonlight
Sink beneath the waters to the coral sands below

Comparing this version to Hunter’s published words, several things become apparent.

First, the band made some changes just for the sake of available singing time. They left out the lines for seven (“Seven-faced marble eye transitory dream doll”), and four (”Four men tracking the great white sperm whale”). And the final lines of the counting rhyme are gone:

Fade away in moonlight
Sink beneath the waters
To the coral sands below
Now is the time of returning

It’s too bad, in a way, given the potential link, especially with the “moonlight” phrase, to link back to “St. Stephen” and the ladyfinger line.

But it is compact and layered. The words come at us almost as musical notes—more abstract than anything, and while we get a sense that there is some kind of profundity (“thought jewels polished and gleaming”) and counting going on, there is also the sheer profundity of the weight of the music itself, and the counting game in which we may or may not be engaged, musically, trying to figure out what the hell time signature this thing is in….oh: it’s in the title.

It’s a fun song to talk about. For instance, there is an entry in the conversation about the song on the WELL’s ”deadsongs” conference in which the author proposed that there is numerical unity between the meter and the lyrics, which, at one point, I mentioned started with eight, not with eleven. The correspondent, Joe Vanucci, wrote:

I wanted to offer the idea that perhaps there *is* unity in The Eleven. Hunter's counting starts at 8, not 11, but it could be thought of like this:

8 7 6 | 5 4 3


8 7 6
3 4 5

where the sums of the columns each equal 11. Like bookends. Or, as Hunter alludes "Now is the time of returning". Returning to 3, the closure for 8, if you will.

Clearly, there are many creative minds at work on this material!

Sometimes, given the fact that the band was recording Aoxomoxoa at the same time as they were performing the material on Live/Dead, I am tempted to try to create a suite of Hunter’s words, in which the repeated references to “the child” or “the baby” are of a piece. “What’s Become of the Baby?” belongs in this suite, as does “St. Stephen,” with its child wrapped in scarlet. The thematic motif extends outward, into “Friend of the Devil,” with the child that don’t look like me. And, just to take it a bit further—the lines addressing “mama” in “Brokedown Palace” seem to hint that, perhaps, the baby / child is the narrator. What’s become of the baby? Many many worlds I’ve come since I first left home.

But the band went to work on the lyrics as presented by Hunter, and once again, we are left with a fragment—intriguing, but not necessarily coherent taken on its own.

One last aspect I’d like to touch on is the role of numbers in Dead songs. For me, this comes up in a couple of ways. First is the use of non-standard time signatures, such as eleven, ten (“Playin’ in the Band”), or seven (“Estimate Prophet”) beats to the measure. These songs seemed to present no difficulty for the band, as musicians, nor for us as dancers and listeners. We just go for it, and so do they. But to me, that ease of playing in odd meters indicates a much deeper level of practice than the band is often credited with. Lesh speaks of his sense of the band as fingers, all on the same hand, and that level of cohesion is not easily achieved.

Another angle is the use of numbers in lyrics. Hunter makes fairly frequent use of numbers, as does Barlow, over the course of their writing for the band. But it never feels mystical, or numerological, to me. “Seven come eleven…” a gambling phrase, for example.

A search for the word “one,” however, comes up empty. There is no use of the word “one” in any Grateful Dead original.

So, searching for that “one.” Ah—there it comes! Nine, ten, eleven, ONE.


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Joined: Oct 4 2014
Transition to "The Eleven"

Jeffito and One Man get the transition right (on the Rhino CD reissue of Live/Dead, the 2 drum beats are at 3:14 of the 3rd track), but there's one other subtlety of the arrangement that nobody's noticed. After exactly 4 bars of 11 (counting the bar with the two transitional drum beats) there is exactly one bar of 12 before they settle permanently into 11. This is true of every 1968/1969 transition into the Eleven I've heard (at least 20, including, I believe, transitions from songs other than St Stephen), although Live/Dead is, to me, still the ultimate version.

That is on top of the hard-to-track shiftings of time that occur before that explicit drum signal. Interviews from that period (Potrero Hill rehearsals) say that they would practice having half the band play in one rhythmic cycle and half the band in another and focus on where they both came out on the One, so my guess is that the bar of 12 somehow normalizes multiple rhythmic cycles, but I haven't analyzed to that level of detail.

Pretty damned complex for a bunch of stoned hippies :-)

(I am also of the opinion that Greg Allman probably got the WP intro rhythm (at least subliminally) from The Eleven).

Joined: Apr 2 2013
The Eleven Radio City Music 3/27/11

In this Eleven, the band goes into a jam after the initial countdown lyrics are completed, but unlike any other Eleven I've ever heard, Weir comes back and sings the first verse, and then repeats, "This is the season of what now, this is the season of what now, what now, what now..."
It's a great version, and comes out of a hypnotic What's Become of the Baby. I was in the second row, right in front of Bobby. This was the show with Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, and Larry Campbell.
But I've always been taken by how Weir keeps repeating and therefore emphasizing What now, what now. Indeed. One could say that every moment of ones life is the Season of What Now.

Joined: Nov 6 2007
The transition...

Songs in 3/4 time are not that hard for non-jazz trained musicians to figure out -- it's just a waltz, after all. Clementine does exhibit a 6-against-4 polyrhythm that you get from Coltrane on some songs, probably most notably My Favorite Things.

The Eleven also retains some of the 6 against 4 feeling, available for the musicians to refer to if/when they want. Straightforward and driving, phrased mainly as 3-3-3-2 as noted towards the end they slip into something more ambiguous, though still 11, before they drop into whatever comes next (think the Eleven --> Lovelight transition on Live/Dead).

The St Stephen --> Eleven transition: 'swirl' is very apt. When I first heard Live/Dead, and didn't know 11/4 from a hole in the floor, I just felt the transition as a descent into a chaotic celebratory maelstrom. Unanalyzed, it was a great ride. Later on I got to know about meters and could break it down to understand what they were doing. The first bit after "William Tell", to me, is St Stephen. It has that same feeling as the normal St Stephen instrumental section (Bam-ba-dum! ba-da-dee-dah, etc.) all 4/4, but then Phil starts playing triplet-based lines across/underneath the 4/4 and gradually everyone picks up, and they're all in 12 then, Jerry starts playing that figure atop it all, and they build up and then kick out the last beat of the 12, and bam!, they're straight out into 11-land, while Jerry keeps on playing that figure which now goes in and out of cycle as he crosses the 11-bar lines. Great stuff when it works -- it doesn't all the time. Being able to hear the changes as they occur doesn't dim the experience for me, either. Just makes me appreciate them all the more as musicians.

BTW, more people would probably be familiar with Playin', which is in 10, but even more would know Uncle John's Band which is ostensibly a nice little 4/4 ditty, except that occasionally they drop a beat out of a measure, and the last instrumental bit is in 7.

Oh, and how could Jerry forget the words to, say, Casey Jones, but yet nail Tangled Up in Blue? Bob isn't alone in this game...

alexallan's picture
Joined: Jun 2 2007
"one" in GD lyrics

Rather belatedly, I've deleted "one" from the list of small words that aren't in the searches on my site. So if you go to and search for 'one', you'll now find all the (many) occurences.

Strider 88's picture
Joined: Jun 20 2007
12/26/81 The Eleven Jam

The only time I saw the Dead perform the Eleven. Have listened on and also have an old cassette from that night. My first time to the Oakland Auditorium. Strange that all the times I saw the band with Pigpen no Dark Star-St. S.- Eleven-Lovelight classic Live/Dead stylie. Was at 9/17/70 and 9/19/70, so I'm not complaining for lack of seeing a full bodied Eleven.
How about that goof ball movie "10" with Bo Derek. Not sure if I made 10 minutes or 11 minutes through it.

A.Cajun.Head's picture
Joined: Jun 3 2014
Whipping Post

I wonder if Greg Allman was thinking about The Eleven when he came up with the Whipping Post intro. I always thought of The Eleven the same way he describe the three sets of 3 with 2 for the 4th set to make the turn around. I find it much easier to break it down than counting out 11.

From wiki..

"I didn't know the intro was in 11/4 time. I just saw it as three sets of three, and then two to jump on the next three sets with: it was like 1,2,3—1,2,3—1,2,3—1,2. I didn't count it as 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11. It was one beat short, but it didn't feel one short, because to get back to the triad, you had two steps to go up. You'd really hit those two hard, to accent them, so that would separate the threes. ... [Duane] said, 'That's good man, I didn't know that you understood 11/4.' Of course I said something intelligent like, 'What's 11/4?' Duane just said, 'Okay, dumbass, I'll try to draw it up on paper for you.'"[10]

KoreaUltimate's picture
Joined: Dec 3 2012
Clementine short shrift

Although The Eleven is the band's most well-known tune in an "odd" time signature, it seems like Clementine (in 3/4?) was an earlier original composition done front to end in what many non-Jazz trained players would likely find a challenging meter. Apparently Lesh modeled the music on a few Coltrane numbers (Greensleeves, etc.), which opened it up to interesting jamming possibilities, too bad the boys didn't keep it in the rotation longer.

marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007

at the time we had the conversation, the technology was just around the corner. A few years later I realized that one could generate a quick, dirty, but effective concordance by typing all the lyrics into FileMaker, by song, and then searching on whatever word you liked. I think that would still work, but there's probably a better way now. I don't know if a print concordance is the kind of thing people go for any more, but an online one would be great.

ddodd's picture
Joined: Jun 6 2007
Yes, well...

Oh my. Mea culpa. Interesting to think that a concordance might still actually be useful as a printed or separate online object.

How weird that "one" is just too frequently used to be caught by Alex's wonderful search engine! It did seem a bit unbelievable when I got zero results. I should clearly have spent just a wee bit of time actually thinking, instead of relyng on computing... Sigh. But I love the corrections!

ddodd's picture
Joined: Jun 6 2007

Well, I've done 81 blogs so far, but three of them were devoted to Terrapin Station. So, there should be 78 listed. I have them in a spreadsheet... Thanks for the fun listing, Poncho Bill!


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