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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liketohike's picture
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Wildfire In the Smoky Mountains

From the Park Staff:

Many of you have heard that wildfires severely impacted our beautiful national park and the northern gateway communities of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Wears Valley last night. While information is still being gathered in the light of day, we know that tremendous destruction has occurred.

Hundreds of acres within the park have burned, including areas of Chimney Tops, Mt. Le Conte, Bullhead Trail, and Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.

As of this morning, GSMNP officials have closed all facilities in the park due to the extensive fire activity and downed trees. GSMA operations at our Sevier County, TN, visitor center locations, our headquarters near Sugarlands, and our mail order department are also closed at this time. Thankfully, we've heard from most of our employees, all of whom are reporting their well-being. We're still waiting to hear about the status of one staff member's home.

We are also saddened to report that many long-time friends of GSMA, including local businesses that support us and this park, have lost their homes and businesses. Our thoughts and prayers are with them.

liketohike's picture
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@ GSMNP Wildfire

There is fire on the mountain in Tennessee right now. Good vibes and prayers for the Smoky Mountains who are fully living up to their name right now.

mkav's picture
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burning bush

yes, this tune conjured the same vision for me early on. who knows, knowing RH, maybe that was intentional?

August.West's picture
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The Transition

One of the best parts of this sequence for me has been the transition between Scarlet & Fire. In April '77 it's very rhythmic, but weeks later, it becomes very dreamy with Donna humming along (May). Keith quit the organ he used in April and uses the piano to great effect.

77-05-21 Lakeland — first and fav.

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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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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?

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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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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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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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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.

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