By David Dodd
Is it possible that “Ripple” might be in every Deadhead’s top five favorite Dead songs list? It is definitely on mine, when push comes to shove.
Garcia was quoted once, when talking about “American Beauty,” as saying something approximating: “Yep—every song on that album is a winner.” Side two (and I will always think of albums as having two sides) starts with “Ripple.” Side one starts with “Box of Rain.” What a nice pair of opening songs for album sides those two are!
Robert Hunter wrote the lyric for “Ripple” in London in 1970—a prolific period for him. The Dead first performed it in an acoustic set at the Fillmore West on August 19, 1970, along with first performances of “Brokedown Palace,” “ Operator,” and “Truckin’.” (Yes, “Truckin’” was played in the acoustic set.) Following an initial period of not too frequent performances in 1970 and 1971, “Ripple” disappeared from shows until the shows in 1980 commencing at the Warfield on September 25, and continuing for a run of 25 shows, during which it was played every show at the conclusion of the first (acoustic) set. After that, it was only played twice more in performance by the Dead, with the final “Ripple” played at the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland, on September 3, 1988. “Ripple” closed the show, and was played electric for the first time since 1971. An interesting performance history, no?
After all these years of thinking about the song, even now, when I put my mind to it, new things surface. I realized, just now, that despite the song’s American folk song quality, I think of it as something from the Far East. Something inherently Asian, and I think that’s because of a couple of things. Early on, I read somewhere a description of “Ripple” as having a gentle, Taoist bent. And then there’s the fact that the chorus is a haiku. Vaguely Buddhist / Asian imagery is conjured by Hunter in a number of his early songs, especially. Think of “China Cat Sunflower,” with its copperdome bodhi. That simple reference to Taoism long ago sent me looking for information about the Tao, and it has proven to be a very rich vein indeed. Same with haiku—I have written dozens of haiku over the years, and without “Ripple,” my experience with the form might have remained at the third-grade level.
But the poetic allusions in the song are not entirely from the East. Perhaps the primary source for the song comes from the 23rd Psalm, with its reference to “still water,” and to a cup that may be full or empty. The deceptively simple language of the song leads us to contemplate sources beyond our immediate knowing—whether human or “not made by the hands of men”—as well as the interplay of life and death. This song has comforted me through the death of both my parents, with its lines about the road between dawn and dark being no simple highway. Each of us has our individual path, for our steps alone. That might seem like a frightening thought, but I find the universality of it a comfort: we’re all in the same boat.
There are lessons about leadership in this song that I wish everyone who aspires to that role would take to heart: “You who choose to lead must follow, and if you fall, you fall alone.”
I had the honor and pleasure of being in the backing chorus for the First Fusion concerts Bob Weir collaborated on with the Marin Symphony Orchestra a couple of years ago, and got to sing “Ripple” with him in a small group as part of the encore set, followed by “Attics of My Life.” I love to play the melody and changes on the piano, and on banjo. It’s part of my small repertoire of songs I think I could play in my sleep.
What place has “Ripple” had in your life? Has it helped you through anything? Have you sung it to your children as a lullaby? Have you played it around a campfire? These are just a few ways the song has lived in my life.
There are mysteries in the song. I’ve had emails from many people over the years, proposing ideas about the ripple of the title—where does it come from? How can a song be played on a harp without strings? (And I don’t think it was actually a harmonica…) What is the fountain? Who made it? (A girlfriend once joked with me that clearly, since it wasn’t made by the hands of men, it must have been made by women.)
Your thoughts? Feel free to offer some interpretative speculation! It doesn’t matter if your thoughts are broken—let there be stories to fill the air!