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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hockey_john's picture
Joined: Aug 25 2012
Hot Fires of the past.

Not sure if I could blame global warming on the Fires threw out our earth I think the big guy upstairs has his way of needed regrowth and to burn the country side is away of rebirth. Yes it takes many years to grow anew just part of life. Some things come to an end some things need new growth and rebirth.
stoltzfus : Wrote of the 79 Fire at Nassua and then again of the march of 81 Fire at the garden, yes those are some very good Fire on the Mountains. I was lucky enough to be at most of the Fire's most have spoke of here in this blog. The First Scarlet - Touch at the Hult in 84 was a novelty then two more times before they brought it to Scarlet Touch Fire on 7 3 84 at one of my all time favorite outside venues. The Starlight Theater in Kansas City one of stops on summer tours. Very lucky to be there for the 3 times they played there. Then they did the Scarlet Touch Fire only one more time at the Greeks during the now famous Dark Star encore show. I gave up my youth to follow the band every where threw all of the 80's. Gave it up because in a way am still paying a dear price for the lost years. Yet I still am lucky because living the life taught me other life lessons. For instance learned to live and let live and to not put pressure on myself.

Joined: Oct 25 2008

The concert you're referring to was Ventura 7/15/85 and yes the hills really were aflame all that week. They actually opened with One More Saturday Night before easing into Fire.

marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007
that reminds me

of a product launch I went to years ago at the Sheraton Palace. It was some technology product, and its proud parents were sparing no expense, having even gotten Leonard Nimoy into the video to promote the space-age theme.

Unfortunately we never saw the presentation because, same story--for some reason they thought the fog/smoke machines would add just the right touch. Which they did, if you consider setting off the fire alarms and causing a mass evacuation the right touch.

Joined: Jun 26 2013
Get Out of the Door

Tonight I am heading out to Poor David's Pub in Dallas where Forgotten Space is playing so I want to share this story.

A While back the Boys got ambitious and brought a Smoke Machine to the Show.
It set off the Smoke Alarm and Poor David's had to be Evacuated.

We all gathered and waited as a Fire Truck came and sent a Team in to Investigate.

Bill of the legendary Bill's Records and Tapes came running out more than a Little Distressed.
He shares the building with Poor David, you see, and has an enormous collection of goodies.

Finally we all went back inside and "Fire on the Mountain" filled the air...but no more Smoke from the Smoke Machine.

ddodd's picture
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:

giantnerd's picture
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?

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.

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.

Joined: Dec 31 2008

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 and found it a bit underwhelming as far as Dark Stars go.

Joined: Jun 6 2007

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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