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.
Joined: Feb 28 2011
Scarlet>Fire Anastasio and Furthur last night

My buddy dcdave was at Lokin last night and alerted me to the following:
-Trey Anastasio joined Furthur for the second half of their Saturday night performance at the inaugural Lockn’ Festival at Oak Ridge Farm in Arrington, VA. The Phish guitarist sat in with the band at the end of their highly anticipated Workingman’s Dead show. Anastasio came out for “Casey Jones” and then stuck around for almost an hour as the band jammed into “Bertha,” “Truckin’,” “The Other One,” “Viola Lee Blues” and finally, a “Scarlet Begonias” that played into “Fire On The Mountain.”

So it goes, on and on.
Anyone catch the show?

Joined: Jun 5 2007
Fav Jams

When I began collecting bootlegs I would always search out the Scarlet>Fire combo, or any variation there of Scarlet>Touch>Fire. There was one version from Maine back in 79,I think, where as the final solo starts there is a roar of feedback and Garcia just proceeds to shred the solo. It actually sounded like a dragon roaring.

tennessee john's picture
Joined: Jul 29 2013
Fire = Anti-Cocaine

Fire On The Mountain has some serious subliminal anti-cocaine messages in it. It doesn't matter whether you believe it or not, they were there for me. One night in 1995, I dosed myself really good, put Shakedown Street on the headphones, and ended a 15 year battle with cocaine addiction. It was a life changing epiphany for me that night.

hockey_john's picture
Joined: Aug 25 2012
songs about?

I have always thought the song Fire on the Mountain was written about those who follow the band from place to place, or maybe just about the particular night they were playing in general. " There is a dragon with matches loose on the town take a whole pail of water just to cool him down." I took that as the band comes to town and as we all know are smoking hot. Hence just to cool them/him down. " the flames from the stage have now spread to the floor " ?

Joined: Jun 5 2007

Dissapointing you fail to explain the most mysterious of hunter/garcias songs i think this is perhaps the definative dead lyric and it needs breaking down try again.

scarletfire65's picture
Joined: Jul 1 2007
Scarlet > Victim > Fire

Scarlet > Victim > Fire

Joined: Aug 21 2009

Actually, it was 7/13/85 (the 15th was a Monday.) That was a great show, we got in during Fire - and the first thing I noticed was the fire on the mountain across the freeway. This band always had some kind of synergy like that. (I remember Cal Expo 1993, when they ended a day long rainstorm with Here Comes Sunshine!)

foliage12's picture
Joined: Sep 3 2013
Scarlet Fire/ Mountain Begonias

I've always thought that there was an interesting connection between Scarlet and Fire lyrically, note "as I picked up my matches" from Scarlet contrasted with the "dragon with matches" from Fire. I think that the jam between the two represents a shift in the clarity of the story and feel of Scarlet into the hazy, uncertain, mythical feel of Fire. One goes from a kind of jazzy almost-love-song and slowly spaces out (lift off?) into the blazing, churning, introspective funk of Fire. You look down and instead of finding the same matches you picked up before, you find yourself soaring over the town breathing fire.

Also, and I'm sorry about this shameless plug, I just started a dead-related blog focusing on the experiences of post-Jerry dead heads. you can find it here, and i promise not to mention it again

Anna rRxia's picture
Joined: Dec 25 2009
Fire On The Mountain

Is a tune I find most beautifully composed not for the words, but the feeling involved by Jerry's composition. It just invokes fire.

The US Forrest professionals I have talked to for many years have all but one predicted the growth of larger and larger fires due to the poor condition of the forests. That poor condition may or may not have been contributed to by higher temps., but the higher temps. argument has just been thrown out the window by the scientifically observed observation that the mean temp. hasn't moved an iota in the last 25 years, averaged out.

As as Hetch Hetchy is concerned -- Muir was a famous protector of the place, but his efforts ultimately failed...

In 1906, after a major earthquake and subsequent fire that devastated San Francisco, the inadequacy of the city's water system was made tragically clear. San Francisco applied to the United States Department of the Interior to gain water rights to Hetch Hetchy, and in 1908 Secretary of the Interior James R. Garfield granted San Francisco the rights to development of the Tuolumne River.[42] This provoked a seven-year environmental struggle with the environmental group Sierra Club, led by John Muir. Muir observed:[3]

Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people's cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.

Proponents of the dam replied that out of multiple sites considered by San Francisco, Hetch Hetchy had the "perfect architecture for a reservoir",[43] with pristine water, lack of development or private property, a steep-sided and flat-floored profile that would maximize the amount of water stored, and a narrow outlet ideal for placement of a dam.[42] They claimed the valley was not unique and would be even more beautiful with a lake. Muir predicted that this lake would create an unsightly "bathtub ring" around its perimeter, caused by the water's destruction of lichen growth on the canyon walls,[44] which would inevitably be visible at low lake levels.

(You can read the rest if you care to at Wikkipedia)

hockey_john's picture
Joined: Aug 25 2012

Another very hot Scarlet Begonias Fire on the Mountain is from Alpine 8 8 1982. Jerry just smokes that Fire at the end its like a dog trying to catch his own tail around and around he goes till the poor thing gives up. Last 3 or 4 minutes of the Fire is intense. I recall trying to keep up the beat, but my feet couldn't keep up with my brain.


Comment viewing options

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