Grateful Dead

Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Ship Of Fools"

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!)

“Ship Of Fools”

When I finished college, I spent several years immediately thereafter working as a full-time volunteer organizer with a group doing work among the working poor, the disabled, and marginalized communities around California. It was intense work, and I gave everything I had to it, working 18-hour days and establishing some excellent networks of members and organizers. I became disillusioned with the organization itself, which shall remain nameless, and later wrote a novel about the experience which I titled Though I Could Not Caution All (which shall remain unpublished).

“Ship of Fools.” Haven’t we all had some time in our lives when we’ve been disappointed in the direction of our efforts? It may have been some strongly-held belief, or a church, or a cause of some kind, or even a nation that has not lived up to our expectations. Fools come in many guises, and the fact that everything comes down to human potential for error (or for greatness) means that anything we lend our hand to raise a flag atop can prove to be unworthy of those efforts.

“Ship of Fools” closes the album that opens with “U.S. Blues,” and that has never struck me as an accident. But as always, Robert Hunter’s lyrics don’t allow for a simple or narrow interpretation; this song isn’t just about the failures of the US government, although I do think it could be partly about that.

The song, to no one’s surprise, is a story. (I’m beginning to think that all the songs are stories—that maybe this blog is better-named than I might have thought at first. I didn’t name it…) There’s a first-person narrator, who seems to be a prospective crew member on the ship, who confronts the captain of the vessel with a proposition. On the face of it, the narrator doesn’t seem to be offering much of a bargain to said captain. But then again, this captain has been noted to be “the strangest I could find.” So perhaps hiring someone on to learn how to sabotage one’s own ship would be within reason…

As usual, right away, there are twists in the tale when it comes to Hunter’s narratives. Is the topic, really, a relation-“ship”? That would account for some of the ambiguity in the second verse—especially that wonderful line about being all of 30 years old.

The Ship of Fools is a literary archetype, of course, dating back as far as there have been ships, probably. We have the medieval satire by Sebastian Brant, published in 1494, which uses the Ship of Fools as a metaphorical voyage of an entire fleet of ships populated by fools of various stripes, all sailing, supposedly, to the Paradise of Fools. But they have no pilot, and their journey is ill-fated. The metaphor has been taken up again and again by a variety of artists through the centuries, ranging from Hieronymus Bosch to Katherine Anne Porter.

Hieronymus Bosch

In Hunter’s hands, as in Porter’s, the metaphor broadens, and makes itself available for a multiplicity of uses, depending on state of mind, state of the world, or stage of life surrounding the listener at any given point.

“Ship of Fools” was first played on February 22, 1974, at Winterland Arena in San Francisco. Other firsts in the show included “U.S. Blues” and “It Must Have Been the Roses.” It remained fairly steadily in the rotation from then on, with 227 performances, and had its final performance on June 25, 1995, at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in Washington, DC.

As noted, “Ship of Fools” appeared on From the Mars Hotel, which was released on June 27, 1974. It was the album’s final track.

In looking for clues as to the song’s possible origins and antecedents, I came across the Child Ballad 286, entitled “The Golden Vanity,” which bears some semblance to the subject matter and format of “Ship of Fools”:

There was a gallant ship from the northern counteree,
And the name she went under was the Golden Vanity.
They feared she would be taken by the Turkish enemy
That was cruising in the lowlands, lowlands, lowlands,
That was cruising in the lowlands low.

The first that came on deck was a little cabin boy,
Saying, "Captain what will you give me if the ship I will destroy?"
"Gold I will give you and my daughter for your bride
If you'll sink her in the lowlands, lowlands, lowlands,
If you'll sink her in the lowlands low."

The boy took an auger and overboard went he,
The boy took an auger and swam out in the sea,
He swam till he reached the Turkish enemy
For to sink her in the lowlands, lowlands, lowlands,
For to sink her in the lowlands low.

The boy bored three holes and two of them bored twice
While some of them were playing cards and some were shaking dice
He saw their dark eyes glitter as the water it rolled in,
Now she's sinking in the lowlands, lowlands, lowlands,
Now she's sinking in the lowlands low.

The boy dropped his auger and back swam he,
He swam till he reached the Golden Vanity,
Saying, "Captain pick me up, I am drifting with the tide,
I am drowning in the lowlands, lowlands, lowlands,
I am drowning in the lowlands low."

"O no my boy to pick you up that I never will,
I'll sink you, I'll drown you, I'll do it with a will,
Nor gold will I give you nor my daughter for your bride
But I'll sink you in the lowlands, lowlands, lowlands,
I'll sink you in the lowlands low."

The boy turned around and swam to the other side,
Saying, "Shipmen pick me up, I am drifting with the tide,
Shipmen pick me up, I am drifting with the tide,
I am drowning in the lowlands, lowlands, lowlands,
I am drowning in the lowlands low."

The shipmen picked him up and on the deck he died,
They wrapped him in his cot for it was long and wide,
They wrapped him in his cot and they buried him with the tide
Now he's sinking in the lowlands, lowlands, lowlands,
Now he's sinking in the lowlands low.

About three weeks later, the weather being fine and clear
A voice came from heaven which smote the captain's ear,
Saying, "Captain you have been very cruel to me.
Now I'll sink you in the lowlands, lowlands, lowlands,
Now I'll sink you in the lowlands low."

The captain laughed a scornful laugh, an evil man was he,
He feared no retribution, so peaceful was the sea,
But soon the waves were breaking o'er the Golden Vanity,
Now she's sinking in the lowlands, lowlands, lowlands,
Now she's sinking in the lowlands low.

The sailors in their life belts were rescued from the sea
But the wicked captain perished with the Golden Vanity,
A giant wave came over and it swept him out to sea,
Now he's sinking in the lowlands, lowlands, lowlands,
Now he's sinking in the lowlands low.

Just the kind of song we could picture the Dead singing, in the manner of Jack A Roe, or Peggy-O. And it’s even a sort of variant of the Grateful Dead folktale itself—at least, we have a visit from a murdered cabin boy who takes his vengeance—I guess it would really be the Vengeful Dead, or something like that, in this case.

At any rate, whether the song addresses our nation, or our Deadhead tribe itself, or possibly something as “small” as a relationship, it serves quite admirably as a vessel for any of the above. And, as was clear from Garcia’s steady changes in his delivery of the line about 30 years (40 years…. 50 years…. upon his head), it was a tale that resonated with the singer as well.


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Joined: Nov 5 2014
"The Captain"

When the protagonist of this song tells me that he "went to see the captain; the strangest I could find", I get the notion that he's saying that he went before God, or the Source, or Allah, or whatever one might call that mysterious thing to which all life is connected. "The Captain" may also be a pseudonym, in this song, for leader of the government.

It usually give me chills during the final plea when Garcia laments, "Though I could not caution all, you know I still might warn a few: Don't lend your hand, to raise no flag atop no ship of fools." Hunter's intentional use of improper grammar makes it sound so serious to me, like the plea is so heartfelt and true that the storyteller didn't have the strength or time to clean up his language. This is one of my all-time favorite lines from our beloved band.

Underthevolcano's picture
Joined: Feb 6 2008
another thing you gotta love

about these songs-all kind of ways to think about them, speculate about them, autopsy them, deconstruct them, theorize them. Some wonderful ruminations in this thread. You just keep listening, thinking and wondering. Never gets old.

Joined: Jun 26 2013
What is Shaking Here

The more I think about this Story
the more I think...

Its the Narrator who is the Fool.
A Wise Fool with a Bad Attitude.

Is it Me or does This Guy seem to have
Nothing Good to say about Anything?

The Captain is Strange...Everyone on Board is a Fool (except for Him, of course)
and Even the Sea is Cruel.

His Proposition is Insane!
He doesn't mind being a Slave...but Only if it Enables Him to Sink the Whole Ship,
fully aware that this will Force Everyone to either Sink or Swim or Float.
That Does Not Sound Like a very Wise Plan to me.

I am thinking possibly Hunter revisits him on Shakedown Street.
What is this Guy's Problem?

"Maybe It's 'Cause You Missed Out on the Thing That We Had to Start"
"Maybe You Had Too Much Too Fast and Just Overplayed Your Part"

"Maybe the Dark is From Your Eyes"

"I Recall Your Darkness When it Crackled Like a Thunder Cloud"


"Don't tell Me This Ship Ain't Got No Heart"

I am also thinking possibly about Franklin's Tower.
On David's Annotated Web-Site there was a post from Hunter Himself regarding the meaning of that song.

Franklin's Tower was about the Liberty Bell and the Declaration of Independence from the Tyranny of the King in 1776; and how it Tolled in 1976-200 years later.

It was also about the Coming of Age of Hunter's Son entering his Second Decade as America entered its Second Century.
It addresses the Desire for Radical Change and the need to Temper it with Time Tested Tradition.

There's no Quick Fix to the Challenges we Face in Life.
"If You Plant Ice You're Going to Harvest Wind
-You Better Roll Away the Dew"

Sinking the Ship is a Quick Fix but will not Likely Improve the Situation.

There was lots of Unrest with the folks with 30 or so years upon their heads in 1976.
Lots of Unrest to Start Another Revolution.
Hunter warned that the Liberty Bell
"Might Only Have One Good Ring but Baby You Can't Tell"

As if to say if we Sink This Ship will we have a Better One to Sail??

Wasn't Ship of Fools written during the same period as Franklin's Tower?

Well...I think the Grateful Dead sailed through the Sixties and Seventies in Fine Fashion, and kept Things More or Less in Line.

Sinking the Ship is Foolish if you ask me.

"Of All Possible Worlds...We've Only Got One...
We Gotta Ride On It"

I Bid You All Peace and Love and All that Old Hippy Stuff!!

Strider 88's picture
Joined: Jun 20 2007

Allegory not (alegory), they need spell check on subject column also. They learned us good in skool. And Friday the 7th is the correct day and date of the Beatles landing at JFK airport. I vividly remember the local NYC news channels covering it. I remember a kid being interviewed with his thick New York accent "I got my Beatles haircut". It was such a buzz. I bought a couple 45 records and pasted the cover sleeves on my school notebook cover. The next day in my 4th grade class at least a couple of the girls (Carol Perchino) sat next to my desk and started singing Beatles songs. "Hey this could be the start of something big" I thought. First part true, last line I just made up. And something about the joker, he runs the risk of people not knowing when he's serious. Be careful of being Zero the Fool, the precipice lies before you.

Strider 88's picture
Joined: Jun 20 2007
A sea story, an alegory, a warning

The painting by Hieronymus Bosch is down right scary. Its part of a triptych painting that includes a panel called Death and the Miser. It seems to be the result of rye ergot poisoning. There were times when the parking lot scene outside of Dead shows was a modern day image from one of Bosch's paintings. Granted in 1973-74 when Ship of Fools was penned by Robert Hunter little or no vending/ parking lot scene existed. As I mentioned in an earlier post I appreciate the quest for knowledge that's sparked by the underlying meanings and stories that may or may not be behind the songs. The Ship of Fools archetype has a great deal of folklore and history surrounding it. The concept of the captain or leader possessed or gone mad reoccurs many times in history and literature. Captain Ahab and his quest for the great white whale in "Moby Dick" by Herman Melville, Nemo from "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" by Jules Verne, Captain Queeg from "The Caine Mutiny" by Herman Wouk, and without a doubt Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz in the film "Apocalypse Now". I think back to the Watergate trials of 1973-74 with Nixon. His bizarre behavior resembling Captain Queeg as portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in the film version of "The Cain Mutiny", "Who stole the strawberries, I'm gonna conduct a search". And the infamous steel balls that Bogie would bust out in the film when he became stressed. I love David Dodd's book about Grateful Dead lyrics. Maybe the best book of many about the Dead. Under his page about the song "Ship of Fools" he quotes a book by Michel Foucault "Madness and Civilization" ,and its worth repeating here. In the introduction by Jose Barchilon its stated "Renaissance man developed a delightful, yet horrible way of dealing with their mad denizens; they were put on a ship and entrusted to mariners because folly, water, and sea, as everyone then "knew", had an infinity for each other. Thus "Ship of Fools" crisscrossed the sea and canals of Europe with their comic and pathetic cargo of souls. Some of them found pleasure and even a cure in the changing surroundings, in the isolation of being cast off, while others withdrew further, became worse, or died alone and away from their families. The cities and villages which had thus rid themselves of crazed and crazy, could now take pleasure in watching the exciting sideshow when a ship full of foreign lunatics would dock at their harbors". And a couple quick notes, today would have been the 100th birthday of William Burroughs and tomorrow marks 50 years since the Beatles first arrived in the United States. Long hair anyone, and we did indeed start growing our hair from that day forward. Fool on the Hill is a Beatles masterpiece and the Robert Plant song "Ship of Fools" is quite deep also.

Thats_Otis's picture
Joined: May 12 2011
One of the first songs that I truly "GOT"

Loved it from the first time I heard it on MARS HOTEL, and even though I was a tender young 13, I immediately got it. Years and years later, the song is still one of my top favorites, and while the meaning has changed as I have aged, it has lost none of that magic it had way back when. This song is a great example of why I love this band!

"Oh, it makes me wild..."

Joined: Jun 26 2013
Who to Believe

I Must say the Report from the Byrd's Nest is Quite Compelling
Multi-Dimensional, Metaphysical, A-Political, and (perhaps) a Tad Delusional.
Its Like he can See Over the Edge of the Horizon and into the Far Beyond.

Professor Byrd's Stream of Conscious Expression is Deep Enough for a Ship of Fools to Sink In

I Love All These Posts and Can See How this Song Relates to The Merry Pranksters...and the White House...and Church...and Sneaker Commercials.

In particular the time Randall McMurphy took his friends Deep Sea Fishing in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

As for Relates to the Time I got involved in a Multi-level Marketing Plan
to Sell Vitamins. The Initial Investment filled my Closet with all sorts of Pills.
I began a Regimen of Popping Vitamins every Three Hours in Hope of Health and Prosperity and Freedom like never before!
Then came the Motivational Conference where All the Success Stories were paraded before our Eyes. At 12:00 it was time for my next dose of Multi-Vitamins.
As I pulled out my Pill Box I noticed Everyone else doing the Same THING.
We were a Room full of Pavlov's Dogs.

That's when I began to suspect that not All was as I wanted it to Seem.

Of course, like a Good Dog, I wanted to Believe this was a Great Opportunity...and the Product was Amazing...and wanted to Share the Laughter and the Fun with all the other Rich and Extremely Healthy it took a couple of months to see the Light.

It all became clear when my Request for a Refund was met with a Big Security Guard escorting me out the Door. I really don't think they were very concerned with my best interests after all.

The song Ship of Fools just Resonates with those kind of Experiences.

"It was Later than I Thought when I first Believed You"
I was such a Fool to take so Long to See what was Really going On.

A Wise Man once said
"Its not so much about What you Believe
as it is WHO you Believe"

I Believe there is a Voice inside the heart of Each One of Us.
A Voice of Reason...a Voice of Wisdom...or Whatever You might want to Call It.
I Call Him my Captain...Christ Jesus is His Name.
My Dad called Him "Common Sense". Pinocchio had Jiminey Cricket.

I think in times of Recognizing Foolishness there is the Opportunity to Recognize the Wisdom and Guidance that was Always there if we'd Only paid better Attention to it.

Hunter doesn't tell us who this "You" refers to who was finally believed...and that is the Genius of Hunter that enables a Song like this to Resonate so Deeply in our hearts in so many Different Situations.

You have to Decide for Yourself Who is Wise.
The Story Teller makes No Choice.

Joined: Feb 6 2013
Sail away from me :-)

Thanks David. I enjoyed reading this write up and especially your book title. A sentiment so many of us can identify with.
I really enjoy listening to a good version of Ship of Fools. It's a beautiful piece of music. This year I have really enjoyed hearing the version on the May 77 box set from 5-15-77 in St. Louis. Awesome Ship of Fools with a great swing to it.

One Man's picture
Joined: May 17 2011
Warn a Few

Contrast this song with the abstract ones (China Cat, Dark Star) and it's pretty amazing Hunter could span all of that territory. SOF is so poetic. There are plenty of faves from before this, but for my money he peaked right about here. Name a better song from after this. Elvis Costello fans know he covered it. I think if I wanted to play it I would speed up the tempo, only because I would be impatient to get to the next awesome line to sing.

stevepremo's picture
Joined: Sep 5 2007

To me, hearing the song for the first time in 1974, it was about the US Government, and specifically the Nixon administration. We all started out believing the government's lies, but it was later than we thought. The post-war economic boom had stalled, and inflation was rampant. The bottles stood as empty as they were filled before.

By '74, the attitude was that adults were loyal pro-war labor democrats, like Hubert Humphrey, or loyal pro-war pro-business Republicans like Nixon. Those kids with their "peace" and "love" and sex and drugs, they were children, and Rock and Roll was still considered kids' music. But the most prominent of us, like Garcia, Hunter, Stewart Brand, Wavy Gravy, and so on, were all over 30 years old, but were considered "kids" by the "responsible adults" who ran things. It made us wild, with 30 years upon our heads, to have them call us "child."

Like all of Hunter's lyrics, it can be read on different levels. But on one level, it tracks the feelings of youth toward the 1974 political establishment pretty closely.


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