Grateful Dead

Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Fire On The Mountain"

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!)

“Fire On The Mountain”

“There’s a dragon with matches that’s loose on the town...”

The Yosemite Rim Fire has me thinking about this song these days. Growing up in California, I have taken for granted that the high country is there for me, whenever I need to get re-charged with a strong dose of natural beauty and wonder. I’ve backpacked in Hetch Hetchy, out of Tuloumne, and up into the High Sierra camps. And now, a good portion of that landscape I love so much has changed for the long term. As climate change becomes more evident through the new kinds of wildfires we’re having throughout the West of late, perhaps we can promote some awareness, through whatever means, even through music, right?

At a Ventura Fairgrounds show—I’ll have to look up the exact date—I remember the band opening with “Fire on the Mountain” as the hills blazed within sight of the crowd. This is one of those songs, akin to the many weather-oriented songs, that has, for good or ill, come in handy as a ready commentary on reality. (Mount Saint Helens erupted as the band played “Fire,” or so the legend goes. Were any of you there for that one?)

This is another of those songs with a long and complicated genesis story, perhaps not worth getting into too much detail about here, but the rough outlines at least are important to note. The lyrics, according to Robert Hunter in Box of Rain, were “Written at Mickey Hart's ranch in heated inspiration as the surrounding hills blazed and the fire approached the recording studio where we were working.”

Hart, credited with the music for the song, recorded a proto-rap version of the song for an unreleased album entitled Area Code 415, recorded in 1972 and 1973. It was also included on a Mickey Hart album entitled Fire on the Mountain, recorded in 1973-74. It appeared as an instrumental entitled “Happiness is Drumming” on Hart’s 1976 studio album, Diga. And it finally began showing up in the Grateful Dead repertoire, sung by Jerry Garcia, in 1977, undergoing a number of variants of the lyrics until it settled into the form that was eventually recorded and released on Shakedown Street, in November 1978. There’s a lot of other detail I haven’t mentioned—possibly worthy of some historian taking it apart piece by piece, but you get the rough idea.

On March 18, 1977 at Winterland Arena, San Francisco. "Fire" appeared for the first time, closing the first set, following its eternal partner, "Scarlet Begonias." This combination of tunes, which frequently enclosed some wonderful jamming, came to be known as "Scarlet Fire." There were a handful of occasions on which “Fire” appeared without “Scarlet Begonias,” but not many. I count 15 out of the total 253 performances. It remained steadily in the repertoire from then on, and was played for the final time on July 2, 1995, at the Deer Creek Music Center in Noblesville, Indiana.

The I Ching contains a hexagram, #56, titled variously “The Traveler,” “Travel,” “The Stranger,” and so on. It is represented by the two trigrams of fire and mountain, with fire resting on mountain. I have received quite a bit of mail over the years with convincing interpretations of how this applies or might apply to the Dead, or to the scene, or to world politics, or to the individual spiritual journey of the person writing the email, and truly, I think these are all valid ways of looking at the hexagram, in the context of “Fire on the Mountain.”

On the other hand, “Fire on the Mountain” is also a line from a nursery rhyme (a frequent source for many lines in Grateful Dead lyrics); a fiddle tune; the title of a book by Edward Abbey, and so on.

I will tell an embarrassing story on myself — definitely not the greatest story ever told.

The first time I heard this song was at Winterland in 1978. I spent most of the show up behind the band—one of my favorite places in Winterland. The song was completely new to me, and I wrote about the concert in an article published in my college newspaper, The Cal Aggie, at UC Davis, shortly after the show. In that review, I stated that the band played a new song, and I gave the title as I heard the refrain, which was… “Running on the Balance Beam.” Yes, that is what I heard: “Running, running on the balance beam…” Whew. Not sure at all where that came from. I will blame it on the bad acoustics, for want of a socially-acceptable way to place the blame. It stands as the most egregious mondegreen ever, without the redeeming quality of being close enough to resemble the misheard lyric. And it’s preserved for eternity, or as long as newsprint lasts, in the library at UC Davis, in their bound volumes of the estimable Cal Aggie.

The song is another in the long line of Grateful Dead cautionary tales — it’s fun to think of what all could be occurring in the song. Given Hunter’s explanatory note about the circumstances of writing the lyric, it could be seen as a pretty straightforward commentary on the bravery or foolishness of making music while a fire is coming at you. But, of course, Hunter re-contextualizes everything on the fly, and wham! — the song becomes something directed, uncannily, at each of us, or at us collectively: how come we’re doing the same old same old when disaster is at hand? Or, the song becomes directed, once again, as discussed in an earlier post about “Wharf Rat,” to Garcia by Hunter. “You gave all you had, why you want to give more?”

The song’s catchy rhythmic figure is a perfect foil for Garcia’s playful guitar work, as it winds in and out of the beats. The solos between the choruses might find Garcia screaming, dancing, or both simultaneously. And I suppose we were all doing the same, right along with him. And his delivery of the lyrics seemed pretty much deadly serious. The entire performance can seem like a prophet delivering some pretty dire news. And yet, we dance. And dance.

So, listen up — I think the band is trying to tell us something.

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Joined: Apr 16 2014
first of many life changing dead experiences

one of the first times that i really listened to the barton hall fire, i had recently been blazed. i had to put my ear up to the speakers in my car and each instrument was indistinguishable from another. they're like one big machine! i could almost visualize what that musical machine of the grateful dead looked like, pumping out the most funky, exploratory tunes i'd ever heard

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Joined: Oct 17 2013
FOTM

This probably sounds silly, but when I first heard this song(and I'm not super-religious),
the main lyric (taken out-of-context) conjured up visions of Moses and the Burning Bush-
that was on a mountain, right? Anyone else?

StgrLee's picture
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Joined: Jul 16 2009
DWM

The name of our Grateful Dead tribute band is:
Dragons with Matches.
Been around since 2000.
I know the lyric is dragon with matches, singular, and since there are 7 of us it should have an 's, yet in-any-case, we love this tune and I love my band. Scarlet Fire... YES please.
Long live Grateful Dead music.

Strider 88's picture
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Joined: Jun 20 2007
Fire Tower Lookout work

I forgot to mention I did two relief stints on fire towers when the lookout personnel were sick. Was on Signal Peak above Silver City, New Mexico for a week back in 1999 and then two nights on Escudilla Lookout above Alpine, Arizona in 2001. Was able to call in several fires to dispatch. Normal procedure is for the lookout to call in fire location by range, township, section number then down to quarter section if possible. Then the lookout names the fire after a nearby landmark, creek, mountain ect. Now and then the lookout can name the fire after a person or other animate object. We used to have a pack-mule named Scarlet on the Gila that I worked trails with for seven seasons. I sure wanted to name a fire the "Scarlet-Fire". While I was on Signal Peak I reread three classic books that some of the story takes place on fire towers. Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels by Jack Kerouac and Black Sun by Edward Abbey. Gary Snyder also did fire lookout work in the early 1950s.

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Joined: Jun 16 2010
Lockn' Scarlet>Fire

After a blistering Truckin'>Other One>Viola Lee, I figured the show was done, and it was time for a little Phil rap and encore. But instead, the opening notes of Scarlet emerged out of the chaos of Viola Lee (it was 12:45 am for those keeping score). I literally blurted out "Really?" I then proceeded to lose myself in 20 minutes of musical bliss. The band must of exceeded curfew since there was no Phil rap or encore.

I was blessed with many great Scarlet>Fires over the years, but 2 that really stand out are 9/2/78 (Giant's Stadium) and 6/18/83 (SPAC).

Strider 88's picture
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Joined: Jun 20 2007
Happy Birthday Mickey Hart

The version from Diga Rhythm Band is wonderful. Great old album also. I've worked in the mountains most of my adult life and on more than a few wildland fires over the years. My first season with the Forest Service was in Montana back in 1977. That September we were flown from Missoula to Monterey on a DC-3 for a month of mop-up and rehab after the Marblecone Fire of Big Sur. We flew in helicopters all over the Santa Lucia Range and based out of Arroyo Seco for the first two weeks and then at Tassajara Monestary for the last two weeks. At the end of the work season I had the cash to make my way down from Montana to New Mexico then out to San Francisco to see the Dead for my first time since October 1974. It was fantastic to check back in and see Mickey Hart back in the mix. To see the Dead on 12/29/77 and 12/30/77 was absolute bliss. Over the years Fire on the Mountain was a high point of many a Dead concert. In recent years I've been witness to the new mega fires in the west. I've not done any fire related work since 2002 (age limits) as trail work is my real career.(29 years)Some of the bigger fires I've seen this century (as a non fire fighter) have been the Rodeo-Chediski fire of 2002, the Wallow Fire of 2010,the Horseshoe Two Fire of 2010,the Whitewater Baldy Fire of last year and the Silver Fire of this year. Fire scientists are saying these fires show more aggressive behavior then any known in recorded history. So back to the Grateful Dead, A great big happy 70th birthday to Mickey Hart. By the way the book "Fire on the Mountain" by Edward Abbey is a masterpiece of Southwestern literature. The very obscure movie based on the book with Buddy Ebsen as the grandfather is also very powerful. Takes a whole sky of water just cool it down. Monsoons extra big this summer, Hopi friends say more rain than anytime in memory.

unkle sam's picture
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Joined: Oct 3 2008
drug references in Dead songs?

say it ain't so.... Sometimes getting "high",like in the lazy lightin' reference, could mean that it just really feels good, "I felt so good it was like being high". Just heard a real good fire from 5-15-81, entire second set is smokin'.

One Man's picture
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Joined: May 17 2011
Caught in Slow Motion

Reading previous comments is fascinating. I never thought of this song as a dream, but that makes perfect sense. The imagery is dreamlike. Jerry intentionally played around with the words here and there, and sometimes frustratingly mixed up what seemed like easy verses to remember once they were established around 1978. The auto-wah could be overwhelming if you didn't surrender to its powers. I never got there with MIDI -- too plastic sounding, trying to be something that it's not.

I had not considered there could still be heavy residual bitterness among our native inhabitants. That guy's post is a good reminder of how we got here. His ancestors paid the price (or one of the prices). I do think about the residual effects of slavery, because I live in a very integrated city. How do we get past these things? We're caught in slow motion, for sure. I hope it's getting better.

And just for the record, "chasing the dragon" refers to smoking the stuff as it vaporizes and slides across a creased bit of foil, not to injecting it. Ewww.

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Joined: Jun 26 2013
When Your Dreams Come True

I have to say (having woken up in the middle of the night and unable to get back to sleep) that Fire on the Mountain is just a bad dream that will hopefully serve to steer us away from impending disaster.

Its about a Long Distance Runner playing music in a Bar in the middle of a Fire that he doesn't even Notice. Then when he does notice all he can muster is a Slow Motion Dash to the Door.

He is also as good as Dead... to the Core.
He's not just "drowning" but already "Drowned" in his laughter.
The thing he enjoys is a total Killer

What a Nightmare.

I could tell this song is a Dream when the Dragon with Matches appeared.
That's just the sort of thing that doesn't exist in the real world...does it??
This has to be a Dream!

Have you ever gotten to a point in a dream where you realize its only a dream?
There's that sense of Relief to know this isn't really happening.

Then you can make a Note to Self to be sure this doesn't happen in Real Life.

This is only a Dream

The Scarey Dragon isn't so Scarey any more.
What sort of Dragon needs Matches any how?
Why Can't He Breathe Fire like a Real Dragon??

the last line suggests its a dream and challenges us to benefit from its warning...
"More than just Ashes when you're Dreams come True."

Who do you suppose the "Long Distance Runner" is?
Garcia?...The Band?...a Drug Addict...?

I don't know exactly, but whoever he is He is Playing with Fire.
Fire can be very destructive when it gets out of control.
Its great to view it at a safe distance when its Up on the Mountain.
Watch Out that it doesn't come into your House.

Fire is also purifying...as has been mentioned in regards to the long term benefit of forest fires.

There's lots of other references to fire in Hunter's songs which I find interesting.

Like Althea's " Loose with the Truth-Baby its Your Fire-Baby I Hope You Don't get Burnt"

well

If Mercy's in Business...and I believe it Is....what remains after the Fire will be more than just ashes...it will be the enduring and most valuable and incorruptible elements of life.

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Joined: Jul 7 2013
Chasing the dragon

I have thought this for many years too. Never even occurred to me that it had anything to do with an actual mountain.
In fact, Steely Dan has a song called Time Out of Mind which specifically references the practice of injecting heroin: "Tonight when I chase the dragon, the water will change to cherry wine." Same elements, water and dragon.
Lazy Lightning has some pretty druggy sounding lyrics too:
"Must admit you're kinda fright'ning/But you really get me high."

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