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!
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
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
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.
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.
Ripple was also Fred G. Sanford's alcoholic beverage of choice. The "G" stands for "grateful".
Ripple has always been a favorite and I have found both comfort and joy in the music and lyrics. I came across a version with Bobby singing the tune with the Perkins School for the Blind Secondary Chorus and was really moved. It was just a great example of how powerful a song it is, at least to me. The link is below. Cheers - Dennis
I also think that Robert Hunter is one of the greatest. Coupled with Jerry's music (mostly) one of the most-enduring bodies of contemporary music has been created. I know it has given me endless hours of enjoyment. It has caused me to exercise the old grey matter in efforts to parse the meaning behind the words. It has created a type of ethos or philosophy and it has served as a subtle commentary on the society around us and the experiences we all face. Hey, all that and endlessly entertaining-what more could you ask for?
I used to think Robert Hunter was very underrated too until I realized how things kind of work. I personally think Robert Hunter is the greatest lyricist of of of the 20th century...barely beating Bob Dylan. Only beating Bob Dylan because even Bob Dylan has turned to him for help on several occasions. Take in mind, I have every single Bob Dylan release but I'm still just speculating. Robert Hunter may not be widely known by the masses because he not front man, but he is widely known by Los Lobos, Bob Dylan, Jim Lauderdale, and many other people who have added great music to his great lyrics. His job is to be in the background and keep that genius perspective, it takes another kind of person to spread the word around the world.
The verses "Ripple in Still water where no pebble is tossed nor wind to blow" -- I just love -- because what then caused the ripple in the still water? If one wanted to be buzz killer, one might say some other type of almost infinite tangible obljects -- a wrench, a televeision, a brick, etc. -- but, no, this is not what the verse is alluding to -- it's alluding to (or at least this is they way I see it) that amorphus, intangible, ungraspable force of energy that moves through the universe and every being in it including you and me that causes the ripple in still water -- the pebble represents any one of those almost infinite tangible objects noted above, so w/out that and w/out the wind (i.e. the only other thing that could cause the ripple) what caused the ripple? . . . oh, Hunter, you are a Master poet indeed. Folks will be reading and listening to your words for centuries, long after were all gone.
I could go on and on about every single verse, image etc., but I'll spare ya'll -- and yes it's in top 5 Dead tunes (actually top 5 tunes of all time) if not on the very top. More than Beautiful -- indescribable. The song must be left to speak for itself and it does so well . . . .
hey there...thanks for the interesting discussion topic stuff.i think there is something at the core of the song ripple that has caused a lot of people to be dead heads.hunter really captured something with those lyrics.he is a very underrated lyricist and deserves more attention outside of dead circles.i'm very interested in the recent collaborations he has done with dylan and sort of confused as to why he is not being talked about more and why he hasn't been interviewed about his contributions.
as to barbed wire whipping party you really got my interest when you mentioned that "song" ha!it's been one of my fav. moments of dead weirdness for a long time.i listened to a hunter show on the internet archive where he talks about that piece and he said something about not being comfortable with it being released because of the part where he "talks to god" and "everything's dead"..any how please tell me more about this paper of yours. thanks again.
That song has gone through so many changes for me in my life. Before I was a parent it was liberating: That path is for [my] steps alone. After my daughter was born, I used to sing it to her as a lullabye (before she was old enough to realize her father can't sing worth a damn) and that same lyric took on an overtone of sadness -- for her path is for her steps alone, and I won't necessarily be able to be there to share it with her, help her along, etc. And now, of course, the song always brings to mind our loss of Jerry.
Pretty deep for such a superficially simple tune.