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”?
On David's Annotated Lyrics site there's much commentary about the line "she was too pat to open and too cool to bluff". Here's my take on that-- I hear it is an example of a koanic conundrum. If one is dealt a pat hand, then declining to open is itself a kind of bluff. So, if you are too cool to bluff, how do you not open?
The line about picking up matches? I don't hear a metaphor here--the matches are just ordinary matches to go with your smokes. Why does he pick them up? Only as a poetic convenience because "matches" rhymes with the following (more important line) "one of those flashes".
Okay, specific line readings aside, the really notable aspect of Begonias is here we have another absolutely essential Dead tune. An ode to youthful freedom and folly. A catalyst for simple joys and communal exuberance.
As usual, Dr Dodd hits the nail on the head by noting that moment so sacred to all who've enjoyed hearing this in concert:
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
Wow! The verse carries exclamation points on every line! It marks the end of the structured part of the song and sends us on our way into that joyous journey of shared movement, sailing weightless, buoyed by that glorious sound of rhythms within rhythms, strings within strings, notes within notes.
Finally, the lyrics have come to remind me that Jerry found such a beautiful way to cover "What a Wonderful World", which includes the verse
The colors of the rainbow
So pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces
Of people passing by
I see friends shaking hands
Saying "How do you do?"
They're really saying,
"I love you".
Sometimes I'd be at a show and this song in particular, usually after smoking some good stuff; I found myself thinking Jerry was slipping in some magic words from a different language.
Ha ha! must have been really good stuff. I sure miss going to the show.
Oh--I knew the album from a long time ago already--but I wanted Scarlet Begonias to be the first song played on my new system. It was just exactly perfect.
Another wonderful song, and that's a great write-up David. To me this is like a magic realist painting. You're walking along in a city just thinking there's a nip to the air today, and all of a sudden BAM, there's an incident or a sight or a glance that grabs you and the whole scenario suddenly becomes vivid. It could be an illusion but while the magic is so present you might as well as follow it.
This feeling of heightened reality is similar to the feeling of déjà vu mentioned a few verses later, "I had one of those flashes, I'd been there before." I've always felt déjà vu was a feeling caused by remembering a dream. We often experience states where the sky is yellow and the sun is blue, there are bells on a beautiful woman's shoes, there are scarlet begonias tucked into her curls (a scarlet begonia is pretty big, so how exactly would being tucked into her curls work??), and the wind in the willows (a book I loved as a child) plays tea for two. It's called dreaming, where the mind replays all the things that have happened to us that day, jumbles them around, and hopefully internalizes them and makes sense of them. While this is happening it doesn't seem strange at all. We spend a lot of our time in this state of heightened reality where a few of the multitude of images passing us by jump right off the page into our lives.
I remember the summer Mars Hotel came out like a dream from long ago, and I remember what this song meant to me at the time. Was that a dream or a time of heightened reality? I also (as mentioned in earlier posts) saw Hunter sing this in Boston recently, surrounded by roses that had been thrown on the stage. He introduced this as written for his wife, and I've always heard, "The love that's in her eye," even when Garcia sang it. Another memory of this song is hearing DSO do it as an encore at the recent concert in Concord NH I've mentioned. They closed not by going into FOTM, but with the sudden ending to the jam, like jolting awake from a dream and having it still echoing in your soul.
5/8/77 Barton Hall Cornell U