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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Frankie Lee's picture
Joined: Nov 15 2010
Thoughts on Ripple

upon my spiritual journey, Ripple has had a very special place. As a devout Christian the "ripple" in the still water is caused by a fish for me..and to state the obvious...the fish is an international symbol of Jesus Christ. An earlier commenter mentioned the Tao (or The Way) what a great observation. The poster who mentioned the 23rd Psalm references gets a hug and a song from me whenever weshall meet ...either on the street or at His feet. For me, Christ is The LIght, The Life and The way..... home....YES I did find someone to follow...and it has been a superior way to lead.

Notice how the story teller speaks,,,,sheds light....but leaves you,,,the listener to make the choice.

Thank you Brother David

Frankie Lee

Forevery Family
Forever Grateful
Unity is possible.

Joined: Jan 13 2012
'Ripple' Sung to a Different Tune

Now this may well strike people here as sacrilege, but I have occasionally found myself singing the lyrics to 'Ripple' to the tune of 'Wayfaring Stranger'.

The verses fit nicely, but I had to twiddle a bit with the chorus, which I sing after each verse, to make it fit, thus:

Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Ripple in still water
When there is no wind to blow

I'm not sure how or why I first thought of matching the lyrics with the music, it wasn't a conscious thing, but, having done it, I rather like it. Have a try, and see what you make of it.

Joined: Jun 10 2007

i got married to it
i names my dog after it
words to live by!

Bach 2 Bach's picture
Joined: Jun 5 2007
Robert Hunter

**I have posted this in the GL1 thread, but feel it may also have some relevance in David’s blog.**

I have been extremely busy lately, moving my stuff into a new-old place. New in that I’m leaving my current abode, yet old in that it is the house I grew up in. It’s a homecoming of sorts, tempered with a bittersweet sense of coming full circle. So much to do! Stuff is everywhere, I’ve already made a million trips, my arms feel like they’re gonna fall off, and I’m still not done- I am truly amazed at the vast amount of dusty crap I have accumulated in just 20+ years! I swear, the next time I move it will be to the cemetery down the street!

Because of my hectic schedule, I haven’t had a chance to listen to all of GarciaLive1. Sunday morning proved to be the perfect opportunity to play catch up. So, armed with my one hitter and a nice hot cup of coffee, I went straight to disc 3 and cherry picked the two songs with Robert Hunter.

And I could not stop smiling- not just at his wonderful performance, but also in marvel of the sheer beauty and genius that is Robert Hunter. God bless you, sir- I feel as if I owe you a debt of gratitude- I sincerely hope that someday that I may be able to do something for you, to repay you for the many kind favors you have bestowed upon me- especially with all those wonderful lyrics to that sweet music that keeps my sanity intact (somewhat), and helps guide me on this journey of life.

taphedfrek's picture
Joined: Apr 18 2009

During the mid to late eighties there was a popular street performer in harvard square, luke, who used to play ripple. It always got everyone dancing. My brother and his friends who were "new wave" always loved it and referred to it as the dancing hippie tune. Some things are universal. Does anyone out there remember luke?

Joined: May 26 2007
sailbystars' mom

LOVE that story about your mom, sailbystars!

ddodd's picture
Joined: Jun 6 2007

Ah yes, the photo has been removed--maybe something more apt will be located and posted. Meanwhile, here's the URL for a cool photo showing the original single "Ripple."

Nice anecdote, sailbystars--and yes--it does seem like Ripple is a good one for introducing people to the band. I don't think I would ever play Barbed Wire Whipping Party for anyone, much less a newbie. Only at an academic conference...where I did, in fact, give a paper on that particular piece of madness.

mustin321's picture
Joined: Aug 12 2011
Your words Do glow, Mr. Hunter, not if...

...and we will always hold it near as if it were our own.

Recently, my sister had twins and I quickly found out some Dead songs make great lullabies. I often play Ripple, Bird Song, & It must have been the roses for them. The words are colorful and the melody so sweet, they just eat it up.

Why do I have no idea what picture you are talking about?

Joined: Aug 10 2012
Early guitar lesson

Ripple is one of the first songs I ever learned to play on guitar 16 years ago. To me, it defines the essence of the band. Simple chords-moving lyrics-very pure music and very accessible. A total campfire tune. Cheers. Jay

uponscrutiny's picture
Joined: Jan 18 2010
Robert Hunter

Brain therapist extraordinaire.


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