Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Ramble On Rose"
By David Dodd
First, just a little background: “Ramble On Rose” was introduced on Tuesday, October 19, 1971 at the Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. The show is noteworthy for a number of reasons. First performances at the show, besides "Ramble on Rose," included "Comes a Time," "Mexicali Blues," "One More Saturday Night" (on a Tuesday!), and "Tennessee Jed." It was also Keith Godchaux's first show. "Ramble On Rose" occupied the #2 spot in the second set, following "Truckin'," and preceding "Me and Bobby McGee."
Numbering the song among his favorites, Robert Hunter stated in an interview in Relix that "'Ramble on Rose' is a particular favorite -- there's something funny about that song."
In David Gans's Conversations with the Dead, Hunter says: "I think ‘Ramble On Rose’ is the closest to complete whimsy I've come up with. I just sat down and wrote numerous verses that tied around ‘Did you say...’ “
“Ramble On Rose” also happens to be the song that set me off on my little adventure of annotating the Grateful Dead’s lyrics. When I first started the project, I was working as a reference library assistant at the Fremont Main library in Alameda County. I was living in Oakland, commuting via BART the 30 miles each way every day to Fremont, and going to as many Dead concerts as I could. Those were some good days — I was learning about what I wanted to do with my life (become a librarian) and at the same time, seeing the Dead or Jerry with his various bands on a regular basis. The Greek, Frost, Henry Kaiser, SF Civic, Oakland Coliseum Arena, Keystone Berkeley,Cal Expo….
Where was I? Oh yeah. “Ramble On Rose.” Something about that song… I still find new stuff in there all the time. One of my biggest revelations about the song was actually from a mis-hearing. It was at the closing of Winterland show, when I clearly heard Garcia sing, “Buckle up, and buckle down, do yourself a favor.” Not the real words (and not what Jerry sang), but definitely of some import to me at the time. Hmmmm. That would be a fun component in any and all of these blog posts and subsequent conversations — what did you hear, as opposed to what the words really were? American writer Sylvia Wright coined the term “mondegreens” to refer to these creative mis-hearings. Feel free to chime in at any time with your own! (“Wake up to find out that you are disguised as a squirrel...”)
So. “Ramble On Rose.” And I am rambling. It’s a predilection of mine, to go off on tangents, and I’ve found it serves me well. I like to make strange connections. I started making the connections in this song simply by trying to figure out who all and what all was being talked about by Robert Hunter. That guy! You could be standing there, innocently listening to a rock and roll song, and BAM — he hits you right between the eyes.
I think my first foray into this kind of fact-finding was when I decided to look up the names in the song, starting with Billy Sunday. I’m not going into the whole annotation thing here (just search online for “annotated Ramble On Rose,” except to say that I was pretty surprised by the cast of characters and who they turned out to be. I mean, a tent preacher who got his start as a professional baseball player? A ragtime piano player from the 1950s named Crazy Otto? The legendary DJ Wolfman Jack? This song, if you put images with all of it, would look something like the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. A highlight of my work on the song was receiving a phone call from Johnny Maddox (aka Crazy Otto), who was still playing ragtime for a living, at a place in Durango, Colorado. We had a great conversation.
The same is true for all of the musical references in the song. I did a medley once with David Gans for his radio show featuring snippets of all the various songs and types of music in “Ramble On Rose.” Amazing! Ragtime (100 verses thereof), Irving Berlin (“leader of a band,” from ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’), the blues (“Mojo Hand”), nursery rhymes (Jack and Jill), gospel (Jericho), country (“I Walk the Line”), jazz standards (“Ramblin’ Rose”), folk (“Green Green, the Grass is Green”), and more. Here’s a link to streaming audio for that musical collage, plus some verbal commentary… with thanks to David Gans:
Top left going clockwise are Mary Shelley, a “Crazy Otto” album cover, Billy Sunday, sheet music cover for “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” by Irving Berlin, Wolfman Jack.
So, here’s my question, now that I have run to ground all of the song’s references—historical, literary, musical, etc. And that is: can anyone get a handle on this song from a “meaning” point of view? I do love hearing personal interpretations, and Hunter has made it clear over the course of a number of interviews that he will not comment on a song’s “meaning” because that would shut down the ability of each of us listeners to construct our own meaning. It would be fun, and enlightening, to hear just what you take away from this particular song.
Is the narrator singing to someone who calls herself “Ramblin’ Rose”? Is the line about singing “a hundred verses of ragtime” a threat or a promise? Who is the leader of the band mentioned in the song? Or is that a metaphor? What is meant by the series of “just like” comparisons?
Or do you prefer to let the lyrics wash over you, invoking a mental kaleidoscope of images and music? I like to think that the curious structure of the music Garcia wrote for these words is an answer, or a complement to Hunter’s hodge-podge—it’s an unclassifiable amalgam of ragtime, shuffle, slow rock and roll, and who knows what all else—opinions?
My online annotation of the song includes an actual analysis of the lyric’s prosody—its rhyming and metric components, as follows. Useful? Perhaps not, but kind of fun:
The song lyric is structured in trochaic rhythm, with paired verses consisting of two lines of triameter, one of quadrameter, and another of triameter, for a total of 13 strong feet (!) per verse. The verses' rhyming pattern is A, B, C, [C], B; with the bracketed [C] being an optional internal rhyme: halls, walls; chains/change; and plush/flush. There are seven verses, with the first six in pairs. The final verse stands alone, carrying into the final chorus.
The chorus' rhythm stays in trochees for the first line of five beats, then switches to dactylic quadrameter for the second line, and a punchy single dactylic line of two beats to wind up. The chorus contains no rhymes. It is repeated three times.
The bridge is less easy to pin down, moving from iambic to trochaic to dactylic rhythms. It similarly dispenses with any firm rhyming pattern, relying solely on the assonances contained in "ragtime" and "county line." The bridge is repeated twice.
This is one of those Grateful Dead songs that generates a lot more questions than answers. And I look forward to hearing everyone’s thoughts! Chime right in.
you have to remember, robert hunter was not researching these factoids to drop into his tunes. he had an arsenal of literary knowledge that he deployed seemingly effortlessly. it's only to us more feeble-brained individuals that have to strain for these references.
Yes, it does seem like analysis can get too nerdy and picky and all that a lot of the time, and I generally try to avoid it myself. I'm interested in the reaction, the hit we get off things, the way what we hear connects disparate parts of ourselves and of the way we perceive the world. Hence my work on the annotations, which do not get into interpretation, but simply try to take a factual look at what might be being sung about or alluded to. Nice post--thanks!
"Just like Cherry Coke!".
From another song, I always heard "There's a train in Wenatchee that's loose on the town, takes a whole pail of water...." In that case, in my opinion, it's almost as good as the real lyric, fitting in nicely with the Grateful Dead's archtypes.
I googled "mustard bean neurosis" and got nothing, then I said it aloud and I've been grinning about it ever since. Thanks, David.
I have no doubt that Robert Hunter is a genius and a wordsmith and all that but it seems a little odd sometimes if you take it too far. For example...not having the word "the" in their and implying this or that, adjectives, nouns, etc...you could spend your whole life trying to figure out what it meant to him but it only matters what it means to you. His whole thing was ambiguity. I think its pretty easy to be vague but its not easy to do what he did. He writes with such eloquence and grace but still often leaves open for discussion. I am die hard Dylan fan but my favorite wordsmith is Robert Hunter, but not because of his songs believe it or not. In the Anthem to Beauty documentary, he speaks of writing To Lay Me Down, Brokedown Palace, & Ripple on the same day. He says something along the lines of "I hope these days would come again...oh they will...but not for me" Of course he wrote many many great songs after those, including Ramble on Rose, but I think that really sums up who he is as a person and a writer. A humble guy with a great deal of insight of whats going on around him. Of course, I dont know him personally...
Thanks, Mike, for that comment about the shift from adjective to verb. And I might add, to proper noun. Your allusion to "Must've Been the Roses" reminds me of a long shaggy-dog story told by the Flying Karamazov Brothers in which a man goes to the doctor and is diagnosed with "mustard bean neurosis." Is there no end to this madness?
That's a good one, fourwinds! I never caught that idea before, either. Now, I need to find my Hunter lyrics book.
I've heard the lyric for years, "back to back chicken shack", and just thought of it as a non sensical rhyme, but now I see it's somebody's been real down on his luck and the last two pads have been in chicken shacks. Geez. It only took me almost 23 years till I heard it right.
What I always found interesting about this one is near repetition of "Ramblin' Rose" as "Ramble on, Rose" in the chorus. In most readings of these lines, there's a functional shift between the two terms; "Ramblin" is understood to be an adjective, while "Ramble" is understood to be a verb. Along with this adjective > verb reading also comes the question of person: "Ramble on, Rose" then is an implied second-person; this is direct address, even though the word "you" is not spoken. But this line can also be read without the functional shift; "Ramble on" can be interpreted as an adjective, in the sense that the Rose in question has been rambled upon; at least that's how I remember hearing it a few times back in the day. I don't know; maybe it was the doses, but then there's the etymology of the word "ramble" to consider:
Like many of Hunter's songs, Ramble sounds to me like a kaleidoscope of Americana. I don't hear so much of a "meaning" here as in a linear story but a jubilant stew of American cultural references. It's designed to feel something like flipping through news channels detailing different points in American history. Most (if not all) the characters in the song have some importance in the history of American culture, and Ramblin' Rose herself seems about as independent and free-spirited as they come (Ramble on Baby!) and what exemplifies most people's perception of what it means to be "American." (Although I must note that Mary Shelley was English, but Frankenstien had as much impact on American fiction as that of any other country.)
That's not to say that it's supposed to be patriotic or anything like that, just a stream-of-consciouenss tour of different facets of the American cultural experience. It encapsulates some of the same themes used in U.S. Blues, albeit with fewer metaphors. (Billy Sunday, P.T. Barnum, Crazy Otto, Charlie Chan)
Speaking of misunderstanding lyrics, in Loser I've always heard "Don't you push me baby, 'cause I'm all alone." I interpreted it as an expression of the character's desperation but "holding low" reveals much more about his posture int the card game.