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.
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.
1st off...this is just one of those songs that nobody ever says a bad word about (if they don't love it). And I love it, so good choice Mr. Dodd!
I never thought of "100 verses in ragtime" as a negative thing. I always took it as a very comforting statement. Especially with the chorus, "ramble on, settle down" Take a walk and cool your head. This song ain't never gonna and neither are the good things in life so ...settle down easy.
My mondegreen for this song- "down the local county line" = "in the Cadillac"
Ramble On Rose is special to me because it was the very first Dead song I ever heard! Tuning in to WMMR's program, The "Psychedelich Sunday Supper," (Easter Sunday, April '85) on night two or three of the Dead's Spectrum run that spring. The show kicked off with the tune and I have yet to find that show. The lines which over the years has run true for me are "Goodbye mama and papa; goodbye Jack and Jill. The grass ain't greener; the wine ain't sweeter on either side of the hill." Today, my wife and I chuckle when we hear the line, "Just like crazy Otto." We adopted a kitten whose given name was Otto; and yes, he's a crazy Otto! Are we not all a bit like him?
A funny mondegram to share was from a friend who came back after her first show to say, "The Dead sang that 'vegetarian song.' I had no idea what she was talking about. She said, "You know the one with the words, 'That's right; you're living on slaughter..." Still to this day I can hear it in there whenever I hear Man Smart, Woman Smarter. That's right!
"Disguised as a Squirrel" is one of my favorites - love it!
Don't ask me what I thought it meant but that is what I heard.
As for Ramble on Rose - I always took it as you described: a collage of distinctly american imagery.
I picture an old time can can girl or prostitute in an old west setting telling big stories to an enamored kid who buys it hook line and sinker and wants to have an adventure with her.
This was one of the songs from Europe 72 that I warmed to immediately. And, as it happened, I knew who Billy Sunday was. My father's parents both were teachers, and (I was told) my grandpa would do an imitation of the Rev. Sunday's preaching style - presumably at instructionally appropriate times!
I guess it isn't a mondegreen that was cleared up for me when I read Hunter's "Box of Rain" book; I just never heard the word "local" before the words "county line." I've sung that song so many times as "...along the oog-onl county line..." that I don't remember the correct lyric without looking it up. Amazing what goes on between the ears!