Grateful Dead

Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Rosemary"

By David Dodd

Here’s the plan—each week, I will blog about a different song, focusing, usually, on the lyrics, but also on some other aspects of the song, including its overall impact—a truly subjective thing. Therefore, the best part, I would hope, would not be anything in particular that I might have to say, but rather, the conversation that may happen via the comments over the course of time—and since all the posts will stay up, you can feel free to weigh in any time on any of the songs! With Grateful Dead lyrics, there’s always a new and different take on what they bring up for each listener, it seems. (I’ll consider requests for particular songs—just private message me!)


When my Deadhead friends learn that my daughter’s name is Rosemary, they sometimes ask—is she named for the song? And, while my wife can truthfully and vehemently answer in the negative, I have to wonder if the name might have made the final list of potential names for our possible daughter-to-be had there not been the song, “Rosemary.”

For one thing, I definitely had already done the research on the name, its history and meaning, the significance of the herb, the Shakespeare connection, and all that, before we had to grapple with creating our list of possible names. Some obvious ones never made the list, like, say, Cassidy, or Althea… Too obvious. But Rosemary is a beautiful, under-used, old-fashioned name, and it has good botanical associations.

Rosemary graduated from high school today (I’m writing this on June 7), and so, I want to write something in her honor, since she is on my mind a great deal. I promise not to dwell too much on my fabulous wonderful daughter, but I do just want to say how proud I am of her, and how I so look forward to following along as life goes forward. I am a lucky dad. So, she is not Clare, and she is not Grace, and she is most definitely NOT Iphigenia, but she is perfectly Rosemary.

Aoxomoxoa contains so much treasure to be sought and mined. Really, the whole album offers jewels to the sunset. The delicate tune and words that are “Rosemary” always seemed to slide into my brain sideways, almost as if sneaking in through a door that was shutting. The filter on the vocals, as with at least one other song on the album, does quite a bit to obscure the actual beauty of the melody, but in the case of “Rosemary,” I think the obscurity is an excellent effect.

Just listened to the (only?) live version from December 7, 1968, at Bellarmine College in Louisville, Kentucky. Extremely quiet recording—had to crank up my volume all the way on the computer to hear it. But wonderful. Delicate, sensitive performance.

I think this is one of those songs constructed intentionally by Garcia (and Hunter?) to be a fragment. They’ve talk in interviews about loving the old, collected songs that were fragments. But there is a story hiding in there. Or, more likely, a riddle seeking to be solved. The form is evocative of elaborate story-riddles, whose solution is always a surprise, but self-evident once revealed. I’m hoping that we can engage in a collective attempt at solving the riddle that is “Rosemary.” Or at least, have some fun trying.

It seems that what we have is only a roughly-sketched description of the “she” (Rosemary?) in the lyric. At first, it seems she is only the reflection of the garden itself, which, eventually dying, leaves a walled enclave that is destined to remain devoid of life henceforth. But the first line indicates that she has boots of leather—or, at least, that there are leather boots somewhere. Maybe they were not hers?

Reflections abound in Aoxomoxoa, which is, itself, a mirror-word. The album artwork, name, and imagery scattered through the songs speak to reflections. We encounter this motif throughout Grateful Dead lyrics and iconography—beginning with “Dark Star”: “Mirror shatters in formless reflections of matter…” So the mirror that is a window shows a reflection of the viewer that is really that which she sees through the window. I am reminded of the acid test saying: “Inside is outside. How does it look?”

I think that the object for which the riddle is trying to provide hints at identification is the “there” referred to in the final line (and the legend on the wall) of the song: “No one may come here since no one may stay.” So, what is the walled garden? It holds plants (perhaps even rosemary—the herbal symbol of remembrance), as well as colors (scarlet, purple, crimson, blue) and fragrances (a breath of cologne).

“She came and she went, and at last went away.” Hmmm…. In and out of the garden she went. We all were, by Judeo-Christian mythology, banished from The Garden, so we all went away at last. What was contained in that Ur-garden? Innocence, surely. A state of un-knowing, since it was by eating of the tree of knowledge that we were banished.

That space enclosed by the garden walls has been a riddle since the beginning of recorded stories. Maybe, actually, the greatest story ever told, since it seems, at its core, to relate to what it is that makes us human. What is our consciousness? What is knowledge? We cannot stay in a place of unknowing, much as we might try to empty our minds, through any number of spiritual paths, to reach—what? Nirvana, heaven, whatever form of enlightenment. Home, perhaps? In its deepest sense? A place to which we might try, but never really will be able to get back?

OK—I am speculating far too much here. I would really like to hear what everyone else might have to say. Is this a riddle? Does it have an “answer”? (And what would be the answer to the Answer Man, anyway?)

Mirrors within mirrors. Time to reflect!


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Joined: Sep 19 2015
songs meaning"rosemary"

i often wondered what this song meant.since i was very young this has always been my favorite.also my favorite book being THE SECRET has a very simple speaks of a neglected is neglected because the women who tended it has died.and the last flower that died was a rose.think.....her breath of cologne(a rose),the leather boots are the roses stem. and the tortured spirit of rosemary who could no longer care for her treasured garden.because she cannot leave the house.her mirror was a window.also referring to her in the spirit realm.but wishing she could return.the last flower of her garden that died was a rose that was roses that die first are scarlet,then purple,crimson,then eventually die and turn blue.when she sure someone who loved her dearly left.and her garden died as she watched from the window.unable to save seems it would be more complex.but i think its about a last rose that died from what was once a beautiful garden,planted by a woman that was loved.but died.

Joined: Aug 17 2007
blocked from life

My own, simple sense from the song has ever been: Rosemary is a person who blocked her engagement with life from her fear that in life seemingly nothing lasts. And the flowers decayed.

That may be a quick and most ready take on it - though not much of the drift of David's post and people's comments has run that way here so far (share-the-light's likening her to Dear Prudence gets near to that). And I think jbxpro's June 25 comment has a good differing line on it, expanding what David also noted re banishment from The Garden: that human consciousness has left the garden.

David, your penultimate paragraph reads out from the song something more sophisticated than I've ever drawn from it - I thought, Well, that's a bit much of reading INTO the lyric (and I do tend lately feeling that some of these posts try, and invite our trying, to draw meaning out of [or rather too purposefully put meaning to, or shine a light of "meaning" onto, it has seemed to me] some lyrics that I'd prefer let be on their own), but - your notion there is a sophisticated questing that should come from the good fragmentary song "Rosemary."

Joined: Nov 14 2010
Do yourself a favor...

I have no idea what the song may mean and really dislike the vocal filter on this too short of a gem.

Treat yourself and listen to Furthur's 3/18/2011 interpretation of this great song, Phil has the perfect voice to sing and Jeff's piano is amazing. And it goes 4 minutes !!

Mr.Dc's picture
Joined: Apr 7 2014
One Interpretation

This is s beautiful song that I always thought was kind of sad. It seems to me that the girl was trying to escape through the mirror(referring to the mirror as a window, meaning she is using the mirror as a window and staring into it), while not being able to appreciate the beauty around her(the various colors and flower of the beautiful garden) she instead is focused on how life will eventually come to an end. I think the message is that death is also a beautiful part of life. And also that death is only one PART of life, so that means that there is so much more. (many PARTS). Its easy to become saddened by the concept that it will all end someday, yet this is just a distracting thought that keeps you from living. AOXOMOXOA is a masterpiece, IMO the 1969 mix is the definitive.

jbxpro's picture
Joined: Dec 4 2012
Another One

David challenged us to address the riddle(?) of the song, and there haven't been a lot of responses in this thread. Oh well, that could be because of a lot of things, like summer at last!

Here's another one. Maybe this *is* a fragment, and Rosemary is what Eve has become after "the fall." There was a long story before this, that we're all familiar with, but then Eve became Rosemary and now wears boots and cologne for the end of the tale. The mirror (nothing exists besides me/us and the garden) has become a window into the wide world, and now she must face the fact that she's an individual, all alone. And still all around her the garden (of Eden) grows ... for this moment.

Finally, she had to get out of there. The garden didn't talk to her any more like it used to. It lasted perfectly before human consciousness intruded, but now must die and be sealed. No human can come to the garden, since none may stay.

ddodd's picture
Joined: Jun 6 2007
Grateful Dead Guide essay

Wonderful essay--I should've dug around on that site, which frequently yields gems, before trying to write anything myself, since it says everything I would've tried to get at. Who is "Light Into Ashes"? That's what I want to know. Does anyone know? Thanks for posting the link, Printknot!

Joined: Jun 26 2013
Blooming Like a Red Rose

Congratulations David
and God Bless Rosemary
as She moves on to the next
Season of her Life.

Rosemary is a Very Lovely Name.

May She Bloom Bright and Beautiful.

As for this Song...the subject seems quite Reclusive and Unapproachable.
Having a Mirror for a Window suggests Self Conscious Vanity that
is too Absorbed in its own Appearance to ever Engage the Beauty of the World Around Her.

Sort of Like Dear Prudence needing to be coaxed to Come out and be a "Part of Everything."

at least that's my take on this Rosemary Riddle.

and a Happy Birthday to You Mustin 361

Joined: Mar 28 2014
Daughter's name

My daughter Annie just graduated from high school on June 19. While she was named in honor of my mom, she was born exactly one year to the day after Jerry died. Because of that anniversary, there was Dead and Jerry music on the radio all afternoon in the delivery room, thanks to Scott Muni on WNEW-FM. I've always told Annie she redeemed that date forever. It Must Have Been the Roses.

mustin321's picture
Joined: Aug 12 2011
Skeletons From The Closet

When I was 12, I think, I got Skeletons From the Closet. I remember being really intrigued by this song. It was just this little, beautiful, riddled song with some very interesting vocal effects. That album was basically my first glimpse into the Grateful Dead and I loved it but this song really stood out to me. It was many years later that I realized this song was hardly played live at all. --- Ok, so Im really bored at work on a Saturday morning, So I had a really bad idea for a Grateful Dead Compilation album. 1 song from every studio album that was rarely played (or never maybe) I didn't spend a lot of time on it, just bored. Happy birthday to me!

1. Golden Road
2. Born Cross-Eyed
3. Rosemary (or Whats Become of the Baby)
4. New Speedway Boogie
5. Till The Morning Comes
6. Let Me Sing Your Blues Away
7. Money Money
8. Sage & Spirit
9. Sunrise
10. France
11. Antwerp's Placebo
12. When Push Comes to Shove
13. Just a Little Light

Strider 88's picture
Joined: Jun 20 2007

Rosemary is a standalone song on the most unusual Grateful Dead album ever. Printknots research and giving light to the old Garcia interview is impressive. Jerry's comments about the song are a testament to the power of the muse. I feel the song is the most psychedelic acoustic piece ever recorded by anyone. The song and the vocals have an other worldly feeling. They seem born from the ethers.
Ethereal; Extremely delicate and light in a way that seems too perfect for this world.
AOXOMOXOA was released 6/21/69.
Happy Summer Solstice Northern Hemisphere.
Happy Winter Solstice Southern Hemisphere .


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