Grateful Dead

Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Lost Sailor" & "Saint Of Circumstance"

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!)

“Lost Sailor”

“Saint of Circumstance”

“This must be heaven” pretty much sums up my life philosophy. As far as we know, it’s all we’ve got, and you have to admit, it’s a pretty amazing place, this planet we’re on, and these bodies we get to occupy for whatever amount of time we have.

This pair of Bob Weir / John Barlow songs manages to get at a number of major Grateful Dead themes and motifs within their space. Ambiguity (“Sure don’t know…); rainbows; cats (“tiger in a trance”); weather; gambling (‘odds against me…”); and I’m sure I’m missing something.

“Lost Sailor” and “Saint of Circumstance” were written in Mill Valley in July 1979.

The band first performed the pair of songs on August 31, 1979, at Glens Falls Civic Center, in Glens Falls, New York. “Lost Sailor” debuted earlier that month, on the fourth of August, at the Oakland Coliseum Arena, and was played four times on its own prior to August 31. “Saint” was played mostly (but not always!) in a pair with “Sailor” until March 24, 1986, at The Spectrum in Philadelphia, after which “Sailor” was dropped permanently from the rotation. “Saint” remained in the rotation thereafter. Its final performance was on July 8, 1995, at Soldier Field. “Lost Sailor” and “Saint of Circumstance” appeared on Go To Heaven, released in April 1980.

The pairing of the two songs may have been musically motivated, but there is at least one distinct link between them, lyrically, in that both refer to the Dog Star (Sirius). “Sailor” asks “Where’s the Dog Star?” and “Saint” answers “See that Dog Star shinin’.” And both songs feature a narrator who is unsure where he may be going, but seems willing to keep going nonetheless. Is it the same narrator / character in the two songs? Or is in one character in the first, and another in the second? If it’s the same character, what part of his story are we hearing in each song? Do they follow on each other?

It seems appropriate that there are as many unanswered and unanswerable questions contained in the lyrics as are asked or hinted at by the narrator. “Maybe going on a dream.” “Sure don’t know what I’m going for…”

Reason is no help—the line in “Saint,” “Holes in what’s left of my reason” harkens back to “Playing in the Band”: “Some folks trust to reason…” And likewise, the lines echo “Dark Star” (note the pun-like similarity to “Dog Star”) and its lines: “Reason tatters, the forces tear loose from the axis.”

So, forget reason. Just head off and move forward, right? (“I’m gonna go for it for sure,” and “Go on and drift your life away.”)

In live performance, “Sailor” frequently ended with a largely improvised Weir-style rave-up (with Garcia’s guitar lines dancing in and out) that included some strong philosophizing about the difference between “freedom from” and “freedom to.” I’m pretty sure this song introduced me to that concept, and I’ve been grateful for the distinction, which comes in handy, actually, in daily life. You can ask yourself, in any given situation where you are aching to be free, whether it is moving towards something, or away from something, that you are longing for. One is a negative motivation, the other, positive. Not to say that it’s never necessary to get free of something—that freedom from cannot be a positive thing. One article on freedom delineated “freedom from” as corresponding to safety or security, while “freedom to” would be characterized as liberty.

The more I look at the two sets of lyrics, the more correspondences I can pick out. Is it possible that Barlow originally wrote them as a single lyric? The reference to “sirens” in “Saint” (“I can hear the sirens call”) makes us think of Odysseus and his journey as a lost sailor. In fact, maybe that’s a key to the song(s).

In “Sailor,” a line that never made much sense to me is “Ooh, lash the mast.” But if we think about the Odysseus story of his encounter with the sirens, he had his crew lash him to the mast so he would not succumb to their call. (“You can hear her calling…”) Hmmm. Maybe…

I love the musical hooks in both songs. In particular, “Saint” has two very strong ones—the “Holes in what’s left of my reason, holes in the knees of my blues,” and, cheesy though it may be, “Sure don’t know what I’m goin’ for, but I’m gonna go for it for sure.” The manner in which both of these strong hooks emerge from the drifty “rain fallin’ down…” jammy sections only adds to their punch. “Drifting and dreaming,” indeed.

So if you’re on a journey (and who isn’t?), and you find yourself adrift, or pursuing the call of the sirens, and the compass card is spinning around, well, the weather will change eventually. And if you’re still walking, then, hey! You’re sure that you can still dance.


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Joined: Jun 26 2013
Crossing the Line

One thing I Love about
Dead Songs in General
and Lost Sailor/Saint in Particular;

is how it Starts off Slow and Easy...
then Gains more and more Momentum...
then hits a Plateau...
then starts Gaining more
and more Momentum and hitting
Higher and Higher Heights.

I Love jumping on board with the Lost Sailor and taking the Ride with Him
Head off for the Horizon
that is always Way Beyond our Reach

Then when we Cross the Line into
Saint of Circumstance
We are Suddenly going Vertical

Its like the Rocket Boosters Kick On
and we are Blasting into Hyper Space
with Jerry's Guitar whipping us
Higher and Higher
like Lightening Bolts

I Love how these Songs can carry us
Across that Line
from the Temporal Realm into the Spiritual
where you Got no Signs
and no Dividing Lines
and very few Rules to Guide

Then Safely Home Again

Joined: Dec 23 2013
Related Tale.

Prior to closing acoustic 1st set played in Wilkes-Barre, 2012 Mr. Weir explained his situation in the mountains of Wyoming, or somewhere like that, when confronted with an approaching storm of immense proportions; billowing dark clouds, wind, and in particular lighting bolts striking everywhere, with no where to run and no where to hide, with survival in mind, running up the hill, not knowing where he was going, but going to go for it, for sure! Listing to the seabirds cry is pure inspiration for imagination. Vivid.

Joined: Jul 5 2009
Overplayed from 79-82, but still a strong paring

Sure Garcia called it "Weather Report Suite" in a blender when interviewed about their new songs in 1980, but I feel like the pair really resonated with certain Deadheads that gave it a chance. I'm sure for many it got old, considering they played it at pretty much every other show in 1981.

And perhaps the lyrical motifs are a little obscure and maybe occasionally ill structured. I still think that after they dropped Sailor, Saint immediately became less powerful. Certain later renderings around 90-91 are fun, but really its all about 82' and 85'. Listen to any Sailor->Saint from 1982 and usually its power-packed jamming where allotted and high energy contributions from everybody. To me more than just a "Bobby Song."

Also, second only to "Althea", it was perhaps their strongest brand-new material since the 1977 Breakouts of "Estimated Prophet" and "Terrapin Station". (I know we all love Shakedown Street, the song not the album)

It's really inspired.

Joined: Feb 28 2008
Bob Weir's Rave Up

My favorite rave up is the 'Sure Don't Know What I'm Going For', one year at Stanford when Bobby asks "Just exactly what the fuck are you going to do now"?

Underthevolcano's picture
Joined: Feb 6 2008

ruminations, a hidden story out there on the sea with a great musical progression to the chant of determinism-I love these songs and loved the Jerry raves. The drifting part of the song sort of gets me to thinking of Procol Harum's "A Salty Dog"-a masterpiece of an album. Melville's ruminations in "Moby Dick" while pursuing the unobtainable and perhaps, little understood goal of the White Whale. The Oddysey and don't forget James Joyce's take on it all.

Joined: Jan 13 2010
3/10/81: magical LS>SOC

I still remember "hear the seabirds cryin'": I imagined a psychedelic subterranean ocean. It was a very special moment. (this was listening to a tape). The jam out of SOC was reeeeaallly cool.

Charbroiled's picture
Joined: Jun 19 2007
Frost 82/Richmond 85

Had the pre drums Frost 82 Second Set on tape, we must have listened to it 5 times driving from NY to Alpine in 87. That 82 Sailor is my Favorite Sailor. The Space> Saint from Richmond 85 is my favorite Saint.

Between 79 and 81 it was just about an every other night paring, yikes.

Yes there is a price for being Freeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!

marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007
the version from the Greek, 9/11/81

was pretty darn brain-exploding in real time.

jbxpro's picture
Joined: Dec 4 2012

I agree with both David and Anna: great hooks but overplayed. These both can really be enjoyable songs, especially when paired together with a good transition and the crowd starts jumping on "go for it for sure." But on the other hand this epitomizes Bobby cheesiness and gets old quickly.

I have to think that a reason for them getting old fast may be that the lyrics have all the Dead themes and motifs, as David says, but they don't go anywhere. And it's kind of sloppy: you lash the person not the mast, and why is the helm "swinging to and fro?" Is the sailor lost because he forgot how (or it too stoned) to sail the damn boat?

I think the two songs shouldn't be linked, because they're different settings. Dust doesn't blow around if you're at sea, and you don't need to know how to read a road-map when you're sailing. Or maybe they *are* linked and these are just further examples of sloppiness.

Anyway, a fun pair of songs. Merry Christmas everyone!

Joined: Nov 12 2007
10/2/80 Warfield Theatre show

Drums>Comes A Time>Sailor>Saint

10/2/80 Warfield Theatre show has a great version of Sailor/Saint, but you have to back it up a bit. The second electric set started with a cool rhythm devils improv that lasts a couple of minutes, before "Comes A Time" starts up. One of my favorite versions of that song, and it seques perfectly into "Lost Sailor." The momentum continues to build, and the obligatory "Saint" keeps it going.

A fine soundboard exists of the above sequence, worth checking out. One of the highlights of the famous Warfield '80 run.


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