Greatest Stories Ever Told - “Scarlet Begonias”
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!)
It’s a bouncy, bubbling song. It seems to be about one, thing, then blossoms into being about everything. It’s got lyrical motifs aplenty (flowers, nursery rhymes, gambling, shapes, colors, musical forms, precious metals, and more). This song, come to think of it, has it all.
Do you need encouragement and inclusion? “Everybody’s playing in the heart of gold band.”
How about some hard-fought wisdom? “I had to learn the hard way to let her pass by...”
Or maybe some cosmic teaching? “Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.”
This song is laced with memorable and meaningful lines, showcasing Robert Hunter at the height of his songwriting chops, and paired perfectly with a similar accomplishment from Jerry Garcia. Few songs in the Dead repertoire can get at us in so many ways, make us see our lives from so many angles simultaneously, and immediately launch us all into a groove of furious dancing.
“Scarlet Begonias.” It’s the one Dead tune I’ve heard played repeatedly at San Francisco Giants games.
It debuted on March 23, 1974, at the Cow Palace in Daly City, California—a show that also featured the first “Cassidy,” and the sound test for the Wall of Sound. After that, it was never long out of rotation, and from 1977 on, it was rarely without its mate, “Fire on the Mountain.” The song’s final performance by the Dead was on July 2, 1995, at Deer Creek Music Center, in Noblesville, Indiana. “Scarlet Begonias” was played 316 times in concert.
The song was recorded on Grateful Dead From the Mars Hotel, on June 27, 1974, and it opened side two of the LP. It was the first song I played on my new stereo system at college. (Who cares? I do—it was a memorable moment in my music listening life.)
This is definitely a story song. Like most of Hunter’s story songs, it has an uncertain outcome, and the sequence of events is a bit up for grabs. Our narrator is in London, walking around in the neighborhood of the US Embassy, and sees a pretty girl—his gaze is drawn to her. They meet, she either is or is not impervious to his charms, they engage in a (likely metaphorical) game of cards, and he learns to let her pass by—but what is meant by learning the hard way? “Do they, or don’t they”, as I believe Blair Jackson summarized the central mystery of the song.
But does it matter whether they did or didn’t? Clearly, he wanted to. He was drawn to her. There is nothing wrong about it, it’s just the way of the world. There’s nothing wrong with the way she moves, there’s nothing wrong with her other charms, and there isn’t anything wrong with the reciprocating look in her eye. After all, sings the narrator: “I ain’t often right, but I’ve never been wrong,” adding, “It seldom turns out the way it does in the song.” Hmmmm.
I’ve gone round and round in my head about all the clues in the song.
“She was too pat to open, and too cool to bluff.” Sounds like a card game metaphor for a one-night-stand courtship. But what might it mean, exactly? Your speculation welcome, as always, here. One idea I’ve heard is that the sensible formulation of the lines would be “She was too cool to open, and too pat to bluff,” and maybe Hunter is just switching up the meanings—along the same lines as the sky being yellow and the sun, blue. And if he’s picking up his matches at the end of the evening (I always envisioned the old use of matches as stand-ins for chips, used to bet in a poker game, but maybe the matches were used for something else…), is he a winner or a loser?
The sense of déjà vu our narrator experiences as he “picks up his matches” and closes the door—is that a sense that he is doomed to repeat this longing, this pursuit (successful or not) on an endless basis? OK—that’s what I get from it, I admit. “The open palm of desire,” as Paul Simon refers to that aspect of the human condition, “wants everything, wants everything.” This song is laced with desire, innocence, lost innocence, regret, and recurring longing—and self-revelation.
And then, the magic.
That last verse takes the entire story—sad or not—that has gone before: the story of the human condition of falling prey to desire and then moving beyond it again only to know that one will fall again, and blows it all out of the water.
The glee that pervades a crowd when that verse is sung! We can look around the room, and see, not just a crowd of crazy happy dancers, but an actual community of fellow-passengers on the planet, all playing in the Heart of Gold Band. Shaking hands with each other, though we feel like strangers. (“Shake the hand, that shook the hand...” comes to mind, from side one of the album...)
And, like the imagery in “China Cat Sunflower” that Hunter is glad no one has ever had to ask the meaning of, we are presented with the perfect line: “The sky was yellow and the sun was blue.” The condition of altered perception allows us to break out of our straightjacket of loneliness, and to connect with our tribe, and, by extension, to the entire world of beings.
Musically, the song has magic to match the words, and more. The bouncing opening riff, the verse, the bridge, and then back into that riff for an extended jam that can lead anywhere before settling, usually, into “Fire on the Mountain.” And, at the end of “Fire,” a quick return to the “Scarlet” riff. Such satisfying sonata form happiness!
Looking forward to reading your thoughts about the song. Was there a time when something about this song, in the immortal words of The Beatles, “zapped you right between the eyes”?
As you can tell from my username Scarlet is one of my all time favorites. I have to admit that I am partial to its pairing with Fire. My most favorite Scarlet lives on 7/31/82 from Manor Downs in Austin Texas. WHAT A JAM!!!! My friends and I have always called it the "Never Ending Jam". This moniker is due to an early evening road trip through the Northern Adirondack Mountains. The Boys ripped into Scarlet and as Jerry began the solo we approached a lengthy curve in the road. The combination of the curve, Jerry's extended blazing solo and a certain chemical made this experience unforgettable!! Man he just went on and on and on!! (And so did we!!!) We certainly "got shone the light" that night! Scarlet Begonias in one for the ages!!
I think I loved this song the very first time I heard it and ever since. It was certainly the studio version with its very unusually articulated guitar and keyboard parts, then later on some of the very first live tapes I received from kind schoolmates. Remember when those were like gold? The anticipation of hearing each one was electric. This many years later, I have to agree with several other posters that the stand-alone versions are the ones I crave most. I do love the pairing with "Fire" on Dave's #8 (11/30/80). Something about that one just takes me there. I also was lucky enough to catch this tune at my first show on 5/13/79. That one is no slouch, either. The aud tape I have isn't terrible (at least by that point in the show) but I would kill for a great matrix. This is certainly in my top few Garcia/Hunter tunes.
But you know, Jerry never struck me as much of a ladies man and this song has him inhabiting the character of a sexually curious dude. I wonder if he was comfortable singing it. It certainly seems like he was. I just don't think of him that way. He was always this oddly asexual mega-hippie figure to me.
Strangers stopping strangers just to shake their hand. Reminds me of Crocodile Dundee walking down the sidewalk in N.Y.C.. As for the feeling of the song , it embraces a certain amount of naiveté and that's not a bad thing. It has an energy of the old days similar to the feeling of China Cat and Crazy Fingers. When I first heard Crazy Fingers live my thought was "Good Old Grateful Dead". Some of us continued to carry some kind of innocence into the future long past "back in the day". A heart of gold will protect a person in many ways. "but baby don't get burned". I loved hearing Scarlet Begonias live in 1974 as a stand alone work. A Scarlett-Fire that I saw live that stands out in my memory would be from Las Vegas in 1991. During the October 1974 Winterland shows my friends and I used to walk by the Mars Hotel. Music lives.
a lyrical description of "the coup de foudre". Nothing is the same thereafter.
Hey, this is a wonderful blog with great comments about one of my all-time fave songs, and I agree with the woman who proclaimed the studio version to be special. I just wanted to humbly correct Mr. Dodd, though, on the following statement: "The song was recorded on Grateful Dead From the Mars Hotel, on June 27, 1974."
Actually, June 27, 1974 was the release date of "Mars Hotel," not a recording date. I believe the album was mostly recorded in Feb.'74 (and March?), right after Jerry had completed the sessions for his "Compliments" album, called "Garcia" at the time.
However, since we were actually at the 6/26/74 Providence Civic Center show (DP 12, Disc 1) the night before "Mars Hotel" was released, it turns out that June 27, 1974 was an incredibly exciting time for me and my friends! I had turned seventeen a month earlier. We'd seen the band just nine months prior, on September 15th at the same venue, up close on the floor for "A Swell Dance Concert." The coolest thing for us was that on 6/26/74 we were fully aware that when they played "Scarlet" and "U.S. Blues" that night, we were hearing tunes we'd be able to get the record of and spin the next day!
I'll conclude with this anecdote: At a Providence Bruins game two years ago at The Dunkin' Donuts Center (formerly The Providence Civic Center), while I sat in the upper tier at the far end of the arena, directly opposite from where the stage is located for concerts, I peered down at the seats my friends and I had sat in on 6/26/74. (Sec. 109, Row F). I couldn't believe how much sweeter those seats were than how I'd even remembered them. The place was crackling with high energy that night and we really had some killer seats for it. By coincidence, the three people I attended the game with that evening two years ago were all there with me on that night in 1974.
At a recent Robert Hunter show in NYC he prefaced this song with the tidbit that it was written for and with his (future) wife in mind.
While in London recently, I spent a couple of nights a bit north of Hyde Park. Having experienced certain consciousness shifting emotions involving a "cosmic" girl that led me to recollecting what a trans-formative role the Dead played for me from 1975 to 1977, I paid homage by taking a walk to Grosvenor Square and then to nearby Berkeley Square. When I returned, I checked out David's web site for "Scarlet Begonias" and later the lyrics to "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square. I was struck with how Hunter was riffing off the later and giving us a much more complex and ultimately fulfilling set of emotions.
I'm approaching the 32nd anniversary of meeting my Scarlet.
She walked into the record store in Glasgow, Scotland, and I knew right away she was into the blues. She also purchased "Anthem of the Sun" among other.
I still love my Scarlet though I usually have to call her Sheila. And this is still "our song".
Love the lyrics, the look in her eye, like most of the eyes at shows so happy and dilated, though a lot of hunters songs do reference card games never really pieced this work of art to tht I more or less think of it as a meeting of chance at a show, though the square is in London maybe was influenced from Europe 72 tour, rings on fingers bells on her shoes common place among us anyway all is left to ones own interpretation have to see what my GD dictionary says is a grate book if you get the chance pick one up greate reading of tunes and other GD facts and stuff yea stuff
This is clearly a potential sexual encounter with an otherwise coupled man and an extremely attractive woman. "Had to learn the hard way to let it pass by."