Grateful Dead

Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Ripple"

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!


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geomeister's picture
Joined: Jan 18 2015
etched in stone

Cuse-thanks for sharing that personal story with us all. The GD were more than a band, they were a large family extending love and acceptance as a mantra. Ripple is one of those foundational songs we can carry with us forever and then some. Peace to you and yours.

Joined: Sep 5 2018
On My Dad's Gravestone

My dad passed away suddenly at the age of 28. This was back on October 28, 1990. He was a huge Dead Head and had seen them play several times. My mom, who was only 25 at the time, decided to have lyrics from "Ripple" engraved on the back of my dad's gravestone.

These are the words she chose:

There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone

To this day, "Ripple" has always been a song that's held special meaning to me. My son, who is only three months old, is named after my dad... and has already heard several Dead songs (the actual versions and the Rock-a-bye Lullaby versions)

I know he will grow up to know his grandfather and one of his great loves-- The Grateful Dead.

Joined: Aug 12 2018
"Ripple in Still Water"

Just a thought

The idea of water remaining still while something momentous is happening right in it is part of the oral Mahamudra teaching lineage of the Gelugpa (Tibetan) tradition. It's a set of instructions for doing introspective meditations.

The idea is that your mind is made very still and stable first. Then you work on developing "pliability", the ability to investigate the mind's own nature without disturbing the stable platform you've built. The metaphor used is that of a minnow swimming around in perfectly still water without causing any disturbance.

Yeah, this is a bit different I know; here it's as if the water spontaneously knows what to do without the minnow --- or the water itself is like the minnow, since the minnow is clearly moving, but they're both manifestation of higher consciousness. There's something momentous swimming/moving around in the mind unsupported by conscious thought/elaboration

Joined: Oct 1 2016
It's been said

Still waters run deep. From the depth comes wisdom, understanding and meaning, in my opinion.

Joined: Jun 30 2017

The fountain not made by the hands of man refers to a yogic technique for ambrosia the nectar of the gods often alluded to as a well not made by human hands, The same can be said for the harp, this also refers to a yogic technique for hearing the music of the spheres. They are also spoken of in various scriptures using this language.
Ripple in still water without the touch of pebble or wind, for me, points to the abstract, the spirit, that mystery that pulls one from zero. Something particular, creation, from emptiness.

Joined: Feb 25 2017
More ripples

Bobby Burns is the mind of the dead and jerry was the soul and bob weir is the love and all the rest are the hearts of a many hearted band. Sometimes the soul leads and sometimes love leads and usually the heart follows and the mind stays backstage. The soul passed on and the music lives on as the mind had in mind all along

Joined: Feb 25 2017

Gods speaks with sunshine
She is silent
Can you hear her in the music?
Gods message is yours

God gave this song to mr hunter
He wonders if its best to pass it along
Not sure but ok
Let it be known

God is a ripple in still water
Nothing happens
Yet there is god

Should you be empty or full?
Gods fountain will fill you up
It is nowhere and everywhere at once

We all lead and follow
We all have our path to make
You can't get lost
When only you know your way

Joined: Jul 22 2014
another biblical connection

Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.

klparis's picture
Joined: Mar 19 2013
Deadhead Moment

It was Ripple that made me a Deadhead. I guess you could say because of my age I'm a "Dead again Deadhead" but listening to Ripple on YouTube a few years ago brought me back to the Dead and opened my eyes for real LOL.

slo lettuce's picture
Joined: Jul 20 2012
Lest we forget.......

Ripple was also Fred G. Sanford's alcoholic beverage of choice. The "G" stands for "grateful".


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