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”?
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."
Wonderful elucidation of a great song full of pregnant lines and charming imagery. "She was to pat to open and too cool to bluff" evokes for me a stunningly beautiful girl who could stroll through the gates of hell, a lions den or a drunken frat party without giving an inch and exit unscathed.
I think Dave hit it right on with the comic teaching part....Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.....it's one of those lines that I always think about living my life......you need to open up and pay attention to the world around you there's lots of beauty out there, you just have to find it. If more people listened to music, really listened and especially listened to the Dead the world would be a better place....Peace
Sandy kicked our asses here on the Jersey shore. Ours (Dead On Live) was the 1st show held at the Count Basie Theater after the power finally came on. A good portion of the audience were quite possibly still homeless. I used the opportunity to bring up the house lights for "Strangers stopping strangers" line (around 5 min in) and have everyone meet the neighbor they helped or meet the neighbor that helped them. It was a magical moment in the show. People were hugging each other. Heck of a song, indeed. Random audience vid posted on youtube.
Of all the Grateful Dead's songs, along with Operator, Scarlet Begonias is one of the most fun to play on the guitar (those two songs just seem to fit right under the fingers) and I think it's in the single digits among their very best. After a few years riding - and growing up with - the wonderfully jazzy smooth sounds of Wake of the Flood, Mars Hotel's release was something new entirely, and Loose Lucy, Unbroken Chain and Scarlet Begonias in particular showed a new level of guitar interplay much more intense and precise than previous records. It really was one of the best recorded albums of its day, especially if you were able to get one of Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab's master recordings. Scarlet Begonias starts out kinda slow with some nicely funky guitar and bass figures and from then on it's balls to the walls and you'd better just hang on lightly because it only gets more intense from there.
I really love the studio version, but they took it over the top at Cornell and I think I'll go put that exact song on my stereo right now. That said, however, I generally like the stand-alone versions better than the ones attached to Fire on the Mountain which, like Row Jimmy, is one of those songs where Jerry oft times tended to overdo the wah and just drag it out too long. And I'd bet most anything that he'd first laugh and then not disagree.
Lyrically speaking, the parts I find most interesting are in the lines:
“She had rings on her fingers and bells on her shoes
And I knew without asking she was into the blues
As I picked up my matches and was closing the door
I had one of those flashes I had been there before
Been there before…
Well I ain't often right but I've never been wrong
It seldom turns out the way it does in the song
Once in a while you get shown the light
In the strangest of places if you look at it right…”
A one-of-those-flashes similar occurrence happened to me once in New Orleans when a girl I could have sworn I went to high school with walked out of a bar looking exactly as she did forty years ago. I thought about it for a moment before scratching my gray beard, turning and walking away…closing the door (but not necessarily the mind), so to speak.
He’s Gone, Born Cross-Eyed, and quite a few others also touch on this theme, as David observed, of déjà vu or reincarnation, but each song has its own unique twist in how it deals with the perplexing encounter:
“Seems like I've been here before
Fuzzy then and still so obscure…”
"Rat in a drain ditch, caught on a limb
You know better, but I know him
Like I told you, what I said
Steal your face right off your head"
Perhaps someday, as Scarlet Begonia's last verse intones, we'll put all of those curious confusions behind:
"The wind in the willows playing Tea for Two
The sky was yellow and the sun was blue
Strangers stopping strangers just to shake their hand
Everybody is playing in the heart of gold band
Heart of gold band..."
As Peter Pan might muse in a fairy dust-off whilst wingin' Wendy out the window o'er Grosvenor Square: "Now that's a really happy thought indeed..."
Doomp da-do-de doomp... HA!
I really love this song.
He picked up the matches and closed the door and turned into the Dragon with Matches lose on the town.
Greek 85 is the Scarlet I like to listen to.
Anyone who sweats like that must be all right.
That will just never get old...