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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ddodd's picture
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Joined: Jun 6 2007
Climate change and fires in the West of late

Thanks for the note. I realize there is no consensus yet, but one is building among fire and forestry professionals. Recent article in the Bay Guardian, and plenty of other recent articles, will get you up-to-date on this: http://www.sfbg.com/politics/2013/09/04/rim-fire-and-climate-change

giantnerd's picture
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Joined: Jun 24 2007
Chasing the dragon

I always thought the dragon loose on the town setting fires that must be put out was an allusion to Jerry's new problems with heroin. You know, chasing the dragon?

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Joined: Jan 13 2010
FOTM is very tribal to me

I love the version on 11/1/79.

3/10/81 is also very sweet.

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Joined: Jan 13 2010
I was extremely fortunate to be at 7/13/84

S>T>F was spectacular. Very magical.

Dark Star was absolutely amazing. The highest I have ever been.

"I peaked at the Greek". Yes, indeed.

Having come on board in 82 (first show was awesome), I won the jackpot with this one.

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Joined: Dec 31 2008
7-13-84

Always one of my favorite tapes, Blair. One of those speed Jerry shows, but mine did not have the "Dark Star" encore. My audience tape had some interesting audience talk during Fire-- some dude saying "Oh my God!" or something of that sort. Sounded like he was having some kind of mind melt. I have listened to the Dark Star at archive.org and found it a bit underwhelming as far as Dark Stars go.

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Joined: Jun 6 2007
Scarlet-Touch-Fire

Greek Theatre 7-13-84. Not quite as great as maybe it should've been, but still cool. The "Fire" is really good. I believe they had already done it once before a couple/few weeks earlier, too. What most people remember about 7-13-84, of course, is the "Dark Star" encore. Quite a night all in all..

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Joined: Jan 13 2012
Scarlet > Touch > Fire

I had a tape of a gig, from the mid-1980s, where the band wondered from 'Scarlet Begonias' into 'Touch of Grey' and then into 'Fire on the Mountain'. Over half-an-hour of real fun. Was anyone at a gig when the lads did this?

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Joined: Dec 31 2008
Alpine 89

As a novice fan who went to his first show at Alpine 88 and then bought more commercial releases until I could find some tape traders, my first favorite tune was Fire on the Mountain, specifically the Dead Set version. Obviously I have discovered better versions since. Scarlet-Fire remains my favorite one-two punch.

So, I get tickets to Alpine 89 and night two second set kicks off with Scarlet (by now I have some tapes and am aware of the Scarlet Fire combo) and expect to get my first Fire on the Mountain. Instead they did a quick turnaround into Sugar Magnolia and still not understanding the rarity of this combo, I was disappointed to miss out on Fire. I got a Scarlet Fire a year later at World Theater.

I have gone back and forth on this particular show sequence at Alpine 89. First the disappointment of no Fire, then fine with Sugar Mag. Then I came to appreciate the rare song sequence we caught that night. But then I got a SBD of that show and now I once again feel that I missed out on both a Scarlet jam and Fire. That Scarlet clocks in around 4 minutes and quickly goes into Sugar Magnolia. Listening to that show today leaves me wanting so much more out of Scarlet, including a Fire afterwards. Alas...

I know many appreciate that changeup and that Alpine run is amazing, but I can't help but wonder how high a Scarlet-Fire during those three amazing nights of music would have soared. Just my two cents.

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Joined: Oct 6 2009
Greatest Story

At the start of the second set Bobby stepped to the mike and stated "True to form, she did it again, St. Helens is erupting." (or words to that effect). This was followed by Scarlet-Fire. When we came out of the show, it appeared to be snowing, but it was ash. We tried to find a restaurant across the river to get a bite and cool out, but they were running everybody out, so we had to book it back to Coos Bay. The poor Subaru never ran quite right after that...

Anna rRxia's picture
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Joined: Dec 25 2009
If Mercy's a Business

As well as Fire being sung about 15 times without Scarlet, Scarlet is done at least 30 (and more probably 50) times without Fire. Granted, it was around at least 4 more years to get played.

I don't know that the fires being experienced in the West are climate-change related (I'm farther to the left on this issue than most deadheads, just not this thread of it). I've heard deadhead forest rangers, not an uncommon deadhead profession, say that the condition of the forests is the biggest contributing factor, not the temps..

As far as the history of the Hetch-Hethcy there is a lot of bad karma there. The place was bound to burn sooner or later considering what happened around the issues there.

~I wish it for you
More than just ashes
When your dreams come true ~

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