Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Estimated Prophet"
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!)
“Estimated Prophet,” words by John Barlow, music by Bob Weir, has always worked a special kind of magic. Barlow captures that whole slightly (or very) deranged or tripped-out Deadhead vibe so well, but the song’s character transcends that little box over time—both over the time the particular rendition might take, and over the time from when we may have first heard it played or performed to the most recent rendition we have heard. That character stands there in my mind’s eye, calling down the thunder, and he seems so sure, so devoted to his vision, that he stands for everyone who was ever caught up in a transforming belief, who gave in to delusions of grandeur, who believed himself the center of the universe—but wait—haven’t we all done that, at least to some degree? It’s human nature to consider oneself the center of the universe.
“Estimated Prophet” was first performed by the Grateful Dead on February 26, 1977, at the Swing Auditorium in San Bernardino, California. The Dead also premiered “Terrapin Station” at that show. They played it 390 times in the years that followed, with the longest time between performances being 15 shows—mostly it stayed at the every third or fourth show rank. Its final performance was on June 28, 1995, at The Palace in Auburn Hills, Michigan. It appeared on Terrapin Station, released July 27, 1977.
Blair Jackson quotes Weir, discussing the song, in his biography of the band: “According to Weir, he and Barlow wrote the song from the perspective of a crazy, messianic zealot, a type which one invariably encounters in Deadhead crowds now and again. As Weir explains: ‘The basis of it is this guy I see at nearly every backstage door. There’s always some guy who’s taken a lot of dope and he’s really bug-eyed, and he’s having some kind of vision. He’s got a rave he’s got to deliver.’ “
Barlow calls on plenty of biblical imagery for the lyrics, with the sea parting before the singer, and fire wheels burning in the air, etc. Pretty much your average run-of-the-mill vision for an experienced Deadhead. The interesting thing, for me, is the notion that this character is a prophet. And therein lies a more subtle biblical reference, not at all overt, but hovering in the back of our minds, perhaps, if we have any biblical training. Namely, the notion, expressed by Jesus in three of the four gospels, and therefore likely to be something he really did say, that a prophet has no honor in his own country. The very role of a prophet is to be reviled in his or her own time—look at Cassandra, cursed by the god Apollo to have her prophecies disbelieved. Kind of makes you want to look around and see who is being dishonored and reviled and disbelieved, and maybe give them a second chance.
This image depicts the prophet Ezekiel's vision of the heavenly throne room, with Ezekiel receiving a scroll from a hand that emerges from heaven. Note the wheel of fire burning in the air.
Weir’s 7/4 groove gets deep right away, with Garcia’s big fat notes plopping along in a very satisfying manner, and this weird time signature, as with the 10-beat “Playing in the Band,” and even the eleven-beat “The Eleven,” becomes eminently danceable.
This is one of those songs, and there are quite a number of them in the Dead’s repertoire, in which a not-entirely-sympathetic character is brought to life, and, in the course of being brought to life, is made more sympathetic. I’ve always thought this was a big strong suit of theire songs, whether in “Wharf Rat” or in “Jack Straw”; whether in “Candyman” or “Friend of the Devil.” Not only is it a recurring trope in the lyrics, but I think it is key to understanding the whole body of the songs, and perhaps literature generally.
“What is fiction for?” is a question asked of many a student of literature. My best college literature professor, David Robertson, asked this of us. And he had an answer. “It’s to practice living.” That seems like such a simply statement, but it has proven extremely useful to me over the years. We don’t have to go through the entire possible range of human experience in order to gain an understanding of our fellow travelers on the planet. We can read. We can sing. We can, for a little bit, become the other person. We can become the unsymapthetic weirdo, the criminal, the drunk on the street. And by doing that, we can become more connected with each other, which, for me personally, is the highest value. Oh well, now I sound like I’m preaching. Sorry about that.
But I would love to hear from anyone who reads this who may have felt connected in unlikely ways to his or her fellow humans beings via Grateful Dead songs. Does it make a difference in how we treat each other? I guess I would hope so.
“Estimated Prophet” has a couple of those moments that occur in Grateful Dead songs in performance, where the crowd plays a role—particularly in the first mention of “California.” Maybe it’s because most of the shows I heard were played in California, but that always got a big cheer. And then, at the point where the first solo starts, and Garcia’s guitar leaps into the fray, I always get that very special feeling of magic occurring. This is the piece of music, somehow, that epitomizes Garcia’s tone and approach in just a few bars, and which still sometimes catches me unaware and makes me so very sad that I won’t be hearing him play in person ever again.
So: time for you all to leave your comments. Tell how (or if) Grateful Dead songs made you feel connected to other people. Or maybe tell how, as a musician or dancer, having a song swing in seven made a difference to you. Or something I can’t possibly imagine—there’s always something!
my own interpretation of this song:
What I remember most about this song is that it taught me a 7 count.
>>But I would love to hear from anyone who reads this who may have felt connected in unlikely ways to his or her fellow humans beings via Grateful Dead songs. Does it make a difference in how we treat each other? I guess I would hope so.<<
Isn't that what it's all about? How many times did you go to a show and some random guy shows up when you arrive, welcomes you to the event, helps you set up the tent, wishes you well and moves on? Does that happen at other rock shows? I went with my 21 year old niece to a Further show at All Good this year. First time for me to be back since Jerry left us. She wanted to know if it was the same in terms of people. I said, yeah, pretty much! It was all good. People were good to each other. I made sandwiches for the neighborhood and gave someone 5 gallons of fresh water when I left. How many stories and fun experiences in between were perfect? Many! It was Dark Star Stella(r). Glad to pass along the experience and glad that the next generation was taking it on so well. Missed Jerry and I felt like a stranger, but there was some good lovin going on for sure.
Yeah, but hearing this song at the shows was all about learning a 7 count for music as a non musician. I loved the musicality of it.
Edit: without quoting Mr. Dodd, regarding googley eyed persons that you said part of the song was written about...yeah, you'll have that. Sometimes, (more than often), the Grateful Dead opens your mind to bigger picture ideas, and sometimes there is a person that just feels the need to thank the prophet that helped him get there. He just forgot that he could do that with 20,000 other people and had to tell the estimated prophet that in person. That's my take on that comment anyway.
Oh Yeah, I have seen the Whole universe open up here, I have lived this power, there is nothing taught by society that comes even Close to this Power, and Thank GOD... and You Bob and John, my hero's for eternity, along with your Bandmates!!!
There is the Power of GOD here folks, You know, it's Why your here! I LOVE YOU, everyone of You here on this Planet and we have a job to nurture this living beauty spinning around the LIGHT! Have Beautiful Days ... and get your Good rest Too.
Estimated Prophet definitely had one amazing process of evolution over the years. Since its 1977 debut, it has changed quite drastically; performance-wise and Bobby's singing.
Throughout 1977 (including the Barton Hall version), the first jam (right after "light my way") was very short. However by late 1978, this particular jam was extended drastically, becoming the absolute climax of the number. Also, in th early days, the song was driven by Jerry's wah-wah guitar. Following the addition of Brent Mydland, there was more keyboard injections within. By 87-90 the wah-wah feel of the song had vanished (more or less).
If you listen to Bobby's vocals in Estimated Prophet over the years, you can hear how much his enthusiasm changed. He sounded quite enthusiastic in '77-79. By '81-82 the song started to become a bit stale due to overplay. Listen to how he sang "no..no...no" By 1982 he was sort of getting tired of singing it!!!
I always thought of this song as a reggae in 7/4. And lyriclly they take the concept of a lot of reggae songs, "Jah", and turn it on its head with the context of a crazy prophet seeing wheels of fire, which clearly to me, represent the idea that the biblical period of time was actually based on extraterrestial visitation. But being Barlow/Weir, they threw all kinds of little twists in it. This is a great tune, I love that super stretchy bass line of Phil's and somehow like only this band can do, the lyrics fit the puzzle of the beat and feel.
If I am not mistaken, David Murray played on a monster version of this song that sticks out.
For sure one of Weir's top 3 songs.
the 5 shows are from St Paul to Tuscaloosa.
Speaking of Estimated in He's Gone. Im listening to the June 7, 1977 show right now and that transition was perfectly smooth...
With alll the great Estimated out there from this tour. Does anyone know what the five shows that are being released are?
As with most new songs, It finds heavy rotation, in 1977....51 of 61 shows
Estimated was also a great for providing some great transitions into Eyes, He's Gone, Terrapin, Other One and St. Stephen
That "Estimated" was written about deadheads who thought they were in telepathic communication with the band. If you went to enough shows I'm sure you ran into the Estimated Prophets. They were all-seeing and all-knowing and couldn't be trifled with. They had the last say, mostly because they were absolutely crazy and you ended up walking way from them at a faster or slower clip.
Reading what Blair said Bob said the song was about was revealing. Right along that same track. You know, playing in this band had to be one of the strangest experiences in the world.
"I call down thunder and speak the same
My word fills the sky with flame
Mike and Gloria gonna be my name"
(that last line is not in the song, of course, but so funny I had to include it)
On a more serious note, if the words didn't grab you then the song could become very tedious as it was played so much.
On September 26, 1981 in Buffalo NY I experienced Estimated Prophet from the fourth row. Close enough to see into Weir's eyes. Close enough to know that he Meant It. For 10 glorious and terrifying minutes he was a prophet on the burning shore, and the band poured divine fire.
A more typical portrayal of an unbalanced nutcase involves distance, irony, or judgment. Estimated Prophet is a direct connection to a thousand volts of pure Zang. Hold on the for ride or fly into the vision. Great art is not necessarily safe.
I think the Dead played Estimated Prophet best in the second half of 77 straight through to the end 79. Really one of their very best tunes in that era, though Whatf Rat is currently my favorite from that time. Weir's best singing and connection with the audience I think.