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.


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
unkle sam's picture
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
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.

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 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"


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

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."

Joined: Jun 15 2007 formless reflections of matter...

There were times when I was ready to smash that wah-wah into formless reflections of matter. Tuscaloosa in '77 comes immediately to mind, but there were others. Interminable also comes to mind whenever I think of this song, but I was with Annie, so it worked out pretty well. Bobby was also learning the slide 'round about this time and it was an equally dubious candidate for the appropriate application of aforementioned left-hand monkey wrench.

Yitoshi's picture
Joined: Nov 25 2011
The Fire is sweepin the mountain

Now I am a much younger deadhead than all of yall, or at least I would guess considering my first show was Furthur at Allstate two years ago, so I won't bother to talk about the shows I have seen with Fire. However, as an environmental biology major, I just wanted to let you all know that if the fires sweeping yosemite are frightening to you then there is no reason to be scared. Yes the landscape is going to be decimated for a few years, but on an ecological standpoint there is nothing better to recycle the forests nutrients than a wildfire. Most of the energy potential that is existant in the forest is being consumed by the already enormous trees and it doesn't allow anything new to start growing. This is mother natures way of taking out the trash. Although the increasing rates of wildfires due to human activity is a problem that needs to be addressed, and yet we all still go through the same routines. This song seems to be pretty spot-on in face of all the climate-related issues coming our way in the future.

Gr8fulTed's picture
Joined: Jul 9 2007
Fire at Red Rocks: July 7,1978

.... was my first impressionable memory of this song, coming out of Scarlet. I really like this combination, and with the magnificent Red Rocks as the venue overlooking the high plains to the east, it's unforgettable. 5 months later, it sizzled in Jackson MS, too. Jump ahead another 13 years to 9/4/91, and Scarlet > Fire was still lighting up the crowd!

The mention, below, of the towering redwood trees along California's Pacific coast was televised last night on National Geographic Wild. A climbing scientist from Humboldt State University spent several months measuring redwoods, climbing up into the tree crown, then dropping a tape, much like my former occupation figuring grain and rice inventories in bins and tanks. The tallest tree found was 379 feet tall!! I'm very glad the Yosemite Rim forest fire is 80% contained, as many old redwoods are threatened there. Check these 2 links out >>

Joined: May 9 2012
Yosemite is Native American for "they might be killers"

Per National Geographic Magazine, "Yosemite" is Native American for "they are killers". I am an Appalachian Cherokee. Follow the "Trail of Tears" to the left coast. I long to see the great Red Woods. I have been to one New Years run, and can still see the powerful cliffs off the Pacific. I have marveled at the unique trees in Golden Gate Park. Oh how I ramble... Fire is a B to A octave dirge/jam. One can really jam the B to A. Not quite as easily as "A"iko. The lyrics of the fire say to this Cherokee; look you gave it your all, they want more. There is a thin line beyond which; really..could you fake? It IS just more than just ashes when your dreams come true. well. Anywho you will all return to dust. YOSEMITE>They are killers..nuff said

Joined: Jun 19 2007
Fire On The Mountain

Thinking about Jerry's and Hunter's bluegrass background, there is also a bluegrass standard titled "Fire On The Mountain" as well as the totally different Marshall Tucker Band and Rob Thomas songs of the same name. The original version is a traditional bluegrass fiddle tune dating to at least the early 19th century. According to the Library of Congress' American Folklife Center Traditional Music and Spoken Word Catalog, "The tune seems to be associated with a cluster of playful rhymes and jingles used in children's songs, play-party songs, and courting songs across the early frontier." []

iNoURdr's picture
Joined: Feb 10 2011
First Fire

During the infamous Spring tour of 1977 the band aired a live FM broadcast on WNEW (102.7 ... I remember it well...) from The Capitol Theater in Passaic NJ - 4/27/77. Being a high school kid and it being a weeknight - I had no chance of attending the show. So, I tuned-in and had a tape machine spinning.

In those days there were no internet archives (heck the internet couldn't have even been imagined...), and tape trading was in its infancy. So, our source for learning what the band was up to or was playing was limited to word of mouth and print (newspaper articles, Relix magazine... etc.).

The show - as all of Spring '77 - is outstanding. The band's playing is so inspired and the vocals are impeccable. (Donna Jean naysayers - listen to this tour - she sounds fantastic). The playing on that entire tour is edgy, funky, exploratory, TIGHT. Anyway, I was listening to the show and they opened the second set with 'California' (or so we thought that was the name of Estimated Prophet when hearing for the first time), then comes a real soulful and edgy Scarlet into Fire on the Mountain. What is this stuff? I was blown away...

They ended the second set with Terrapin (another newbie) into a Morning Dew that rivals any I've ever heard - including the legendary Barton Hall version.

To say I was primed and looking forward to seeing my first ever Dead show on Saturday night 4-30-77 at the Palladium in NYC is an understatement...

That is when I stepped on the bus... And, have never gotten off...


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
Listen on Spotify