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.
I remember seeing mention of Billy Sunday in John Steinbeck's book "East of Eden". Wolfman Jack, Mary Shelley,no doubt Robert Hunter has a great understanding of American writing, myth and history. I like the Kerouac link with "Mexico City Blues". Happy birthday Neal Cassady.
Nice to have a request. I would love to blog about Weather Report Suite next!
All I can tell you is that when the final concert does finally come where all is revealed to all, the true meaning and purpose of this song is going to blow your fucking minds. I can't say enough about this good song other than, "Thanks for channeling it in, Hunter." I play a whole bunch of your other songs, but as a carpenter and luthier I've found that the bridge in this song carries a curiously handy hammer like none other, sitting, also rather curiously, right atop an inverted pyramid D chord on the second fret, pointing to a now flattened A form D chord on the 7th fret after the most precise hammer strike, and the catbird seat's finally left empty in the next position with the chair-like E form on the 10th fret. Kinda makes you wonder sometimes what sounds like that might accomplish, if properly deployed...and also what a child with a rather curious hammer might do when confronted with a stack of blocks like a pyramid...
So what do we actually eliminate with this hammer strike? We eliminated the word 'take". Wonder how things might change or have developed differently if that one single word, thought or concept were either eliminated or had never entered the the human condition.... This word goes back quite a long way, you know, considering that the original sin was in the taking rather than in the actual eating of the proverbial apple.
I think the Weather Report Suite comes next in the line-up....if all are groovin' along nicely....and though that's now not even a remote possibility now I've mentioned it...
It's always reassuring to know that one's own particular brand of lunacy is shared by others. It means you're not quite as crazy as you may have feared.
The fact that Billy Sunday is described as being in a shotgun Ragtime band at least nudged my thinking toward music, as I had no idea that he was a preacher. Sunday as a Holiday. That's my story. Makes perfect sense.
I thought maybe the mondegreens thing would get a few people going, and it is nice to start the day laughing at the ones you've all been sharing. "I'll get up and fry an egg", and "That's right, you're living on slaughter." (!!)
A shameful moment in my own history of many many mis-hearings of Dead songs over the years came during my stint as a reporter for the UC Davis newspaper, the Cal Aggie, when I reviewed a Winterland show in the late 70's. It was the first time I had heard the song, so I guess perhaps I could be forgiven, and maybe there were some other factors involved, but from my vantage point up behind the band that night, I heard them play a song whose title seemed to be "Running on a Balance Beam." Turned out to be "Fire On the Mountain." Yikes. Immortalized in print, in the Cal Aggie newspaper, mouldering in some a set of bound issues in the Shields Library.
And I am intrigued by that point gratefaldean brings up about a correct hearing that gets somehow transposed in our head. I had that very same experience initially with Billy Sunday, too! After all, a Sunday is kind of like a holiday--it's a day off, right? So that resonated with me.
Keep 'em coming!
Don't get me started.
As for Ramble on Rose, the earlier comments say it all.
The last verse seemed to me to refer to the point after ones' first mind altering adventure.
Of course I didn't realize that until I was old enough to imbibe, considering the fact that I fell in love with this song
at the tender age of 10.
Being the youngest of six kind of spoiled me to some incredible musical influences at the perfect time in history.
It must have been the Mertz',
or Mrs. Trumbull
I always thought that Crazy Otto was a used car salesman. Could the "hundred verses in ragtime" be a slight reference to Kerouac's Mexico City Blues 242 Chrouses? I sometimes wished that as the song got older they would change the names, I often wondered how many of the younger fans knew who Wolfman Jack was or his effect on radio.
So what's a mondegreen called when you hear a lyric correctly but it translates to something only superficially related after it sloshes around your brain pan for a while? "Billy Sunday" has never sounded like anything but "Billy Sunday" to me, but when thinking about the song I'm always dead certain that Hunter was writing about Billie Holiday. To this day I can't shake the Sunday>Holiday link, as every time I hear the lyric I get a mental image of Billie Holiday belting out a song...
about by-gone america, the raw, heady days of anything goes and when it goes bad-clear out fast but live to tell about it? yeah, just maybe.
Thank you for pointing these out. I never knew who Crazy Otto was, only thinking that he was a part of Hunter's imagination, but all the rest I knew something about them.