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and later wrote a novel about the experience which I titled Though I Could Not Caution All (which shall remain unpublished).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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Anna rRxia's picture
Joined: Dec 25 2009
Nice write-up, history on this one, David

To quote " 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.". All this above a painting of Hieronymus Bosch, no less.


I always thought this song was about politics and politicians and Jerry's (and presumably Hunter's) hippy view of rejecting the game altogether (the lesser of two evils is still evil). It sure fits and one can imagine Jerry's anger being told again and again that he had to support this or that politician/cause/organization.

in the end Hunter's line perfectly fits "...though I still might warn a few. Don't lend your hand to raise no flag atop no ship of fools."

The Grateful Dead from 85-90 had a certain mastery over this song that was awesome. A simple ballad becomes crackling with energy. Check out Truckin' Off To Buffalo.

Joined: Jun 15 2007

"Harmony and me, are pretty good company
Lookin' for an island in our boat upon the sea..."

We've got everything we need on the bullshit artists.
Don't even bother looking back.

Joined: Jun 15 2007
Subterranean Homesick Blues

I say again: Subterranean Homesick Blues

And it's a soft rain, segnoia fall...

And it's a hard rain, sa'gonna fall.

Eye Dam. Industrial light and magic. Wonder how the cartooney Star War they're in is going? I know it's a bad habit, but I sometimes Chew'bacca too. Something I picked up in the Marines. Thank's for nothing, Smitty.

Joined: Jun 15 2007

I heard both Johnny and Edgar Winter play in the 70's in B'ham. Albino brothers.

Dual General Winters must keep things Russian along...though the Wind leaves their eyes kinda red...after getting pumped to the gills with Too Much Seconal.

Livin' on reds, vitamin C and cocaine: Hey, it's all we had, so we all pitched in and made a C-Rat stew in our helmets...

Tastes like shit, by the way...could've used some spices, but some shithead BJ left it behind in the Chart House before we hit the Dunes...It's been a real bitch,

"Ow! If you know what I mean..." (-.- .-. .-)

P.S. Disregard the blood-sucking tick marks or quotation marks around our lyrics (a single, but double mark, by the way, easily con(with)fused). It's just a notation used when acknowledging someone else's lyrics, but sometimes we forget.

"One toke over the line, Sweet Jesus. One toke over the line."

They crossed sativa with indica: The Waking Dead. ONe pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small and nothing we've tried works (...and the ones that Mother gives you, don't do anything at all...)

Call off ALICE.

Alice...this is me...come on home...

I am a bit ticked off by all this, but I am not MAD. Mutually assured destruction is a really bad game. So here's an IQ test for you MENSA Slackers: I Quit. You can both keep your game. Charlie has one button and I just gave the other to another of you. So witch 1 of u is it? I'll give you a moment to think about it and be back in just an instant...

He made sure I got the IFIF file (International Federation of Internal Freedom), but it's a bit iffy if anything ever came of it. It's all old history tome, I mean, to me...I'm sure I have it lying around somewhere...I mean it's not like it could move by itself...It's nothing but a folder of old papers.

And just between you and the dyin' land, I'd sure like to meet the muses behind the song, "Masters of War". Because I sure didn't write it, and neither did Zimmy.

Rip Van Winkle sleeps no more.

We're going to want to have a look at that AN/TYC-5 Van. Seems a 7th CommBn major mustang got loose inside who wasn't on the access list. And who was also denied access by me. Microwaves are dangerous and can cook your brains from the inside out if you're not careful. Least that's what I always heard...

Hey, asshole. I found out who you were.
Access denied, forever. SLAM.

I always knew that both it and you were nothing more than shit

Kinda like Tinian Marines.


I still have the original, Skipper. Gung-ho again.

jbxpro's picture
Joined: Dec 4 2012
A False Karass

This is a sweet, folky song on the surface that has some serious anger underneath. I used to always be a little abashed listening to it because I didn't get what the narrator was so angry about. And Garcia could really *look* angry while singing this. I think that's part of the affect Hunter wanted.

I think the "ship" is a granfalloon (see, you non-Vonnegut types), and this guy has fallen off the wagon hard. Though few of Vonnegut's characters realize they're in a false karass, this guy has and is really pissed about it ... and wants to drill a hole in it on the lowland sea.

I suspect what an earlier contributor said about the Pranksters may be true to some extent. If so, I don't think Hunter was condemning the "on the bus or off" mindset per se, just writing about some people who soured on it.

And what about Scientology? Can't recall when Hunter got off that bus but there may have been some serious bitterness there.

Strider 88's picture
Joined: Jun 20 2007
Hot Tuna

Water Song from Hot Tuna Burgers album is a masterpiece . Trial by Fire also great song from Jorma who performed it both with Hot Tuna and the Jefferson Airplane. (Long John Silver). My first concert at Winterland was Muddy Waters 2nd billing and electric Hot Tuna back in May 1973. Saw MC-5 at Boston Garden in October 1969 as 3rd billing before Johnny Winter with Led Zeppelin as top bill. Much to learn about Ship of Fools history. One of the great aspects of this forum is that it sparks the quest for knowledge that may or may not be underlying the corpus of Grateful Dead songs. Keep it lively. And I loved the Bob Dylan Chrysler commercial during the Super Bowl last night. The times are indeed always changing .

Joined: Jun 15 2007
One man gathers what another man spills...

If E=mc2 in three dimensions, how might that translate through two?

And if E=mc5 from two translated back to us? That really would be quite maddening.

MC-5. Haven't heard that name in awhile, but I understand they were known for being quite loud. But not anymore.

Harps and HAARP also play entirely different songs. And I'd climb up and turn off the latter, if only I had a ladder, Jacob.

The New Potato Caboose Revisited
(The new pot hates us - kabloowie!) The Water Song is too strong. Too many heads swimming in the reverse osmosis hydro. Saline solution even worse. Trial by Fire works best for me!

Red and white, blue suede shoes
I'm Uncle Sam, how do you do
Gimme five
I'm still alive
Ain't no luck
I've learned to duck...(to be continued)

Arlo: If we all awaken in My Darkest Hour, would anyone ever hope to see the light... Remember Now: We're talking MY darkest hour. Great song, by the way.

Like a bridge over troubled waters, I would take it down.

Been listening to the Dead all morning. Think I'll take a break, go ride the Purple Sage for awhile and see what the New Riders have been up to since Marmaduke's gone.

"I've been on this road for seven days...and I'm so beat my vision's just a yellow haze..."

Close your eyes, grab the friggin' rope and climb. Now that's a spittin' or du hockin' good point if I ever heard one.

Just pick the strings up and pull - first pull up, then pull down. I'm still on the other end whether it looks broken or not. Forget the Dead. They're already in front of you. Just fucking go.

We've landed at Calais with no fire support. Direct fires only effective at 33 degrees. Send in Turner.

Casualties: Total. Every day is a good day to die. So say we: The Grateful Dead.

Kilroy was here. ;)

But that was then and this is now...

And we're all sitting either at home or work...and the fucking war is over before it's even begun. Working things out in the past is the best way I know of protecting the future.

Sometimes Satan comes as a Man of Peace...if it happens to be a devil of a problem, or opportunity, as the case may be.

Well, I guess this is as good a place to make a stand as any. Desolation Row. And our lines are all open...

Joined: Jul 15 2013
Time there was and plenty....

When I was younger and less aware/concerned about the speed at which time passes, I heard the line as: "In time there was in plenty, but from that cup no more." It made sense to me (and still make sense to me, though now-a-days when I hear it I do hear "Time there was and plenty but from that cup no more - and it takes me back, in a melancholy way, to the wonderful, carefree days of going to see the Grateful Dead and if you were lucky enough maybe catching am entire tour) that Hunter was referring to the full bottles (in time there was in plenty) which were foolishly/carelessly emptied (from that cup no more). Whether it was commentary on wasting our natural resources or just generally referring to foolishly wasting whatever it was they had in the bottles (wine, etc...) through over indulgence. Anyway, it's one of those lines, that Mr. Dodd likes to refer to often, that has changed its meaning to me over time/at different points in my life.

Joined: May 9 2012
B sharp or c flat

Bsharp or C flat. I was taut, and i was taught there isn't such a note? or is it one and the same? hummmm

Joined: Jun 15 2007
Upside Out, Inside Down Explained


Get with David and Joni, take any jazz chord chart, turn it upside down and retune your strings so that you can play the same forms in tune with their songs, but in our forms. That's the key to translation: It's a Platonic form-to-form clash kinda thing. For instance, in standard tuning on a guitar, the B chord has no unique form of its own, which might make things hard for a B-based system to even get past the first speed bump in trying to talk to an A-based system. Two B's or not two B's?

Two B's or not two B's: to which Shakespeare answered in about ten thousand words (sounds) more or less. Now if another system thought the entire response was our B chord, well... How many fingers and/or connections do you think you might need to play a chord like that? You'd almost have to create a Living Shakespeare Theater just to play one really huge chord, only to find out that most of the audience didn't understand it themselves or had only, as I, have read certain plays, but all the sonnets. Hence, vibrato which when sped up simply becomes static or pure Chaos that only Morse Code can really penetrate, which after speeding up, slowing down and modulating a bit here and there over eons: we somehow found music in or through the Chaos. Pretty powerful stuff.

You three have never recorded together so far as I know. Now might be a good time to think about that. You're some of the original guys who've been playing this good music for all these years.

Did you really think it was all for nothing? Well, let's just perish that thought too.

I heard "Blowing in the Wind" by Peter, Paul and Mary long before I heard Dylan's original. How do you suppose that happened? Might I have heard it differently had it been the other Way around? Go figure.

"Sugar Magnolia, blossoms bloomin'": I suspect this is the actual call that went out, the mighty sign in the heavens, so to speak, when the atomic blossoms started blooming around here.

Bet you never heard anything more coo-coo than that. Just so long as you remember that we're really only shooting through images here and nothing more.

So to answer the question: Not 2B or BB, but Bb (B flat)

In the crawl space between two and three dimensions, can you be any flatter in one than you already are, or any more augmented in the other? And the shared diminished chord as it's little circle wound down: "..and that's the way it's been in town ever since they tore the jukebox down..."

Wow! Now that's a mind-blowing burst to think about just a'settin' here this gray morning. Of course, it is kinda hard to turn things up or down in two dimensions, but I truly shudder to think what could happen if sound like that ever suddenly burst and expanded into three dimensional space. So we might want to think about having a better regimented sound barrier or something like that between the 1/3, 2/3 and 3/3. Think I'll add those little triplets to my Christmas wish list.

Remember this one from grammer school:

The Missing Half-Step Up or Down. Holy Toledo.

(The Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo)
(The Half-Step Mississippi Uptown, Toodeloo)
(We're missing half of uptown...hole in Toledo!)
(We're missing half...)

Killer of a swan dive, with a half twist, I don't mind saying.

The New Potato Caboose
(The new pot hates us - kabloowie!) The Water Song is too strong. Too many heads in the hydro. The new ultra-violet frequencies are running amok. We still liked the old Riders of the Purple Sage you know. Things don't get buried just because they're renamed or get "oldie". We just really liked the images (not graven) - just nice thoughts. ie is just something porter's scream in Tarzan movies when they fall off a cliff. Some of the best are even considered golden oldies.

Hello, baby. I'm gone goodbye.



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