Grateful Dead

Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Greatest Story Ever Told"

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!)

“Greatest Story Ever Told”

Any song featuring a 6 foot 10 inch Moses uttering a phrase like “You can’t close the door when the wall’s caved in,” deserves some concerted thought, don’t you think?

David Gans did an entire segment on The Grateful Dead Hour tracing the development of this song. You can listen to it here. Here’s what he says about that feature:

"Greatest Pump Song Ever Wrote" is the documentary I produced for my first appearance on the KFOG Deadhead Hour. "Greatest Story Ever Told" opens Bob Weir's 1972 solo album Ace, but an earlier version appears on Mickey Hart's 1972 solo album Rolling Thunder as "The Pump Song." I had interviews with Weir, Hart, and lyricist Robert Hunter talking about how this song came to be, and Mickey did me the gigantic favor of inviting me up to his studio, hauling out the multitrack master of "The Pump Song," and soloing up the individual tracks. The song began with a recording of a pump on his ranch, to which Mickey added some log drums; he then gave the tape to Bob with a challenge to turn it into a song. Hunter added lyrics, which Weir altered a bit (e.g. "Moses come ridin' up on a guitar" became "...on a quasar"). Bobby also changed the title; "That song was 'Moses,'" Hunter told me. I followed the documentary with a composite of the song edited together from four very different-sounding live renditions.

Gans’s feature contains some wonderful interview material with Mickey Hart, Weir, and Hunter. My favorite elements have to do with the evolution of the song’s title. Mickey states that for him, it was always “The Pump Song.” Hunter says that it was called “Moses.” Weir says he called it “Greatest Story Ever Wrote,” and adds that he doesn’t know how it came to be called “Greatest Story Ever Told.” Gotta love that!

(Similarly, Hunter notes that Weir changed “guitar” to “quasar,” and while at first he thought that was all right, he came to think that no, it just didn’t fit the atmosphere of the song, which is more “wooden.”)

And the other wonderful nugget contained in the feature that gives some insight into the songwriting process is Mickey’s suggestion early on that maybe the song that might come to be laid on top of the rhythm of the pump could be something like “Froggy Went a Courtin’”—so the line that kicks the song off bears some of that heritage, with Moses riding up instead of Froggy.

Here are just a few lines from that song, to give a taste:

Frog went a-courtin', and he did ride, uh-huh
Frog went a-courtin', and he did ride, uh-huh
Frog went a-courtin', and he did ride
With a sword and a pistol by his side, uh-huh

Well he rode up to Miss Mousey's door, uh-huh
Well he rode up to Miss Mousey's door, uh-huh
Well he rode up to Miss Mousey's door
Gave three loud raps and a very big roar, uh-huh

“Froggy” dates back to at least the 16th century, and was recorded notably by Burl Ives, Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, and Bruce Springsteen, among countless others. It was also in the repertoire of the New Riders of the Purple Sage in the late 1970s.

The eventual title that stuck with the song, “Greatest Story Ever Told,” has been used, generally, as a reference to the biblical story of Jesus. There was a 1965 movie by that title, and the movie, in turn, was based upon a book by Fulton Oursler, published in 1949. And now we have a blog on, carrying on the tradition.

“Pump Song,” as recorded on Hart’s Rolling Thunder album, was released as the B-side of a single, with “Blind John” as the A-side. I always loved the credits for the track, crediting Jerry Garcia with “insect fear.” The Tower of Power horn section also appears on the track.

The song entered the Dead’s live repertoire prior to its release on either Rolling Thunder or Ace, on February 18, 1971. (Both albums appeared in May 1972.) At that show, at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, NY, “Greatest Story” was joined by a number of other firsts: “Bertha,” “Loser,” “Playing in the Band,” and “Wharf Rat.” It remained fairly steadily in the rotation, with a hiatus between October 18, 1974 and February 17, 1979—207 shows.

I was at that 1979 show—it was at the Oakland Coliseum Arena, and it was a benefit for Tom Hayden’s Campaign for Economic Democracy—actually, specifically, a benefit to end “environmental cancer.” “Greatest Story Ever Told” opened the show, and it was greeted with mild pandemonium. DeadBase notes that the house lights stayed up during “Greatest Story.” At the time, and given the context of the benefit, I attributed great political significance to the line about needing a “left-hand monkey wrench.” Everything seemed politically-charged that night—“The Wheel,” with its lyric of revolution…the entire arena seeming to spin around like a giant carousel…but I digress. It also proved to be Keith and Donna Jean Godchaux’s final show with the band.

Is it worth noting that the final “Greatest Story” came during the same show as the final performance of “Bertha” (June 27, 1995, at The Palace in Auburn Hills, Michigan)? So these two songs debuted and were played for the last time at the same shows.

That line about the left-hand monkey wrench introduced me to the concept of the fool’s errand—in which a newcomer to a trade is sent off for a nonexistent tool. There are wonderful lists of these when you start looking. But what I notice now is the way in which Hunter brings the character of the Fool into the song, sideways. We have this set of biblical characters, including four heavy-hitters of ancient Judaism (Moses, Gideon, Abraham, Isaac), and it seems possible that the “fools” being addressed are Abraham and Isaac. They are, after all, sitting there on the fence, not getting much done.

No conclusion to draw, just food for idle thought.

Hunter’s lyric is, to say the least, sly. It’s slippery, and laden with little hints of wisdom. I love that he surprises us by choosing to conjoin “silver” with “bold,” rather than with “gold.” I love the line, “it’s one in ten thousand that come for the show.” I love the fact that the song’s narrator asks Moses for mercy, and gets a gun; that he asks him for water, and gets wine instead. (“We finished the bottle, then broke into mine…” shades of “We can share the women, we can share the wine.”) I’m amazed at the easy and subtle manner in which Hunter found a way to pay homage to the song’s origin by having Abraham and Isaac digging on a well.

Always a fun song in concert, the amazing snaky guitar line Garcia plays finds its way in and out amongst the words and the quirky rhythm. I’m so glad Mickey challenged his band-mates to write a song to go with the music he heard from the pump in his well. (Mickey does seem to find music wherever rhythm occurs throughout the various realms of experience!)

So, what are your favorite stories about “Greatest Story”? “Cool clear water where you can’t ever tell…”


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KoreaUltimate's picture
Joined: Dec 3 2012
Pump Man: Guitar --> Bar car --> Quasar

Before the tune debuts on 2/18/71 Bobby says, "Mickey wants to call this one one 'Pump Man' for whatever reason," to which [Phil?] adds "PUMP!".
That first night, the song opens with riding up on a 'Guitar', this becomes 'Bar Car' the next two nights, then 'Quasar' over the final three nights of the run. I wonder if this was the time when Robert Hunter told Bobby he was fed up with his lyric alterations.

One Man's picture
Joined: May 17 2011
Right On

I couldn't agree more, Chris Grand. Plus, those 1972-73 versions featured a hot, jammy center, something sadly dropped in later renditions. As an aside, I always thought the lyrics were kind of disposable. I don't care what is being sung because the performance and the music carry the day. Weir and Hunter's squabbles over the words add up to nothing, at least to this particular consumer.

Chris Grand's picture
Joined: Aug 20 2012

at the concertgebouw...
spacey, trippy, plenty of snaky garcia guitar and a thumping bass opener

my favorite version by far

this is one of the few songs in my opinion that peaked right off the bat, then never was as good as the years went on. 72/73 contains at least the top 10 versions of GSET, maybe even top 25.

one of those tunes that just wasn't the same without the nash stratocaster, and later without donna.

Gr8fulTed's picture
Joined: Jul 9 2007
Indianapolis 10/27/73

An exuberant fan(a BIG guy) crawled up on stage and a pregnant Donna kept on rockin' through a fantastic version of Greatest Story. Stage hands were ready to protect her, but the dude wandered off, thankfully.

Joined: Aug 17 2007
Greatest Story '73 Winterland rendition; & Feb 17 '79

That Nov 11 1973 version mentioned above is a strong one, spontaneously creative as much of their playing from '72 through '74 is--it sounds like Frankenstein's monster playing Mozart, check that out.

And Feb 17 1979's, in Keith's and Donna's last performance with the band, is one of the best.

Moses Quasar's picture
Joined: Nov 20 2011
What can I say?..... of my all time favorites! Europe 72 has the best versions(May 3) and 71 is pretty good too when they were mastering the song. Keith's piano really completes the song and it is a rocker! Enjoying the blog David and have always enjoyed your book! Keep up the good work!!

Strider 88's picture
Joined: Jun 20 2007
Monkey Wrench Gang

Some of us southwestern Dead Heads used to pick up the line "the one thing we need is a left handed monkey wrench". Hayduke Lives!

Joined: Jun 26 2013
One in Ten Thousand

David...I love to read the incredible insights you have to share and then how you then sit back and listen-listen-listen as more incredible points of view are presented.
So Thanks!

I personally love the stories of the bible and how the Dead have a way of stretching my imagination with the way bible characters show up in their songs.

I like to think that we are all characters in The Greatest Story Ever Told which is in the process being written by our Creator. I hope someday I can watch the movie and see what exactly was happening and how it all ends.

Its very interesting to me that Hunter calls this the "Moses" song.

God Revealed His Glory to Moses.
No one gets to see the Glory unless God chooses to "show" it
Moses was one in the Ten Thousand who comes for the "show"
That 9,999 may have missed "IT".

What would you say IT is
being Shown at the Show?
I think there are maybe ten thousand answers to that
and none of them are wrong.

What is it you are Looking for at the Show?
What have you Found?
"You can't Never Tell"...
but I sure enjoy hearing about these discoveries.

There is the amazing story in Exodus when Moses makes several climbs up the Mountain to meet with the Lord God Almighty.
There was all kinds of smoke and lightening and shaking and thunder.
Quite a fearsome spectacle.

The children of Israel shied away from the opportunity to climb the mountain.
They were so freaked out about this super-natural encounter.
They said-"Moses. You go ahead and then come back and tell us about it."
They really missed out in a Big Way.

Its like a Grateful Dead Concert.
Its something you have to experience for yourself.
It defies explanation or description.
Its also a very personal thing that is uniquely delightful to each participant.

There was something about Moses that made him want to climb that mountain.
He was a bold soul with a "little less concern about the deep unreal"

And then the Rhythm of the song really propels the ride!
This is one of my Favorite Rockers
much like "Saint of Circumstance"

"I sure don't know what I'm going for
but I'm going to go for IT for sure"

Joined: Jan 13 2012
Plotting Its Changes

It's interesting to hear via the band's releases how this song changed over the years. There's the formative version that recently emerged on the third Vault set, which shows the song when only partly written; the original complete song, first appearing on Ace and then on many 1970s live recordings; and then there's the later version that first appeared on Dead Set and on live recordings from the 1980s.

I like the way the bass is used on this song, with the thunderous build-up at the start on the original version and the almost Chuck Berry riffing on the later rendering. Does anyone know when the latter was first played?

A great melody and delightfully silly lyrics -- one of favourite up-tempo GD numbers.

Joined: Jun 15 2007
"And now the icepick through the forehead...."

The Grateful Dead, like CSN and a few others, had a knack for starting their shows with an existential bang, and this song packs all of the Grateful Dead’s artillery into one tight package: “Moses comes a’ridin’ up on a quasar…” The name itself first gives everyone of our generation the Charlton Heston image of Moses from the movie, and then the lyrics arrive to slap you right across the face. When used as a show opener as they did a lot during ’72, you’re immediately transported into a religious experience frame of mind and with the addition of psychedelics and/or a little imagination, you’re know you’re off for an interesting ride. The Promised Land by Chuck Berry also packs the same kind of wallop and the Dead opened many shows with this one to the same effect.

Others who use this little show-opening trick are CSN with Woodstock: “Well, I came upon a child of God…” They opened with that one a few shows back when I saw them, it’s a pretty darn powerful image and Stills' voice just nails it. Don’t know if Joni ever opened her shows this way.

I’ve also seen Dylan open with Highway 61 Revisited: “God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son!”” And existential images just don’t come much more powerful than that!

So we’ll now combine those images with the Fool’s Errand so nicely noted above (What other kind of errand would we possibly be on?!) and we get straight to the heart of everything embodied in what you might call transcendent sixties hippie philosophy: We just want to know...everything...and exactly how it all fits we’ll just include everything in our philosophy we can possibly stuff inside or tie on to the frame, from Gideon to water witch spells to left-handed monkey wrenches, and see what happens: Hey, “…cool, clear water where you can’t never tell!” Well, what do you know?! Good thing it worked too. You don't even want know what we were ready to try with the left-hand monkey wrench...


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