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and later wrote a novel about the experience which I titled Though I Could Not Caution All (which shall remain unpublished).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: 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.

Joined: Jun 15 2007
PF Flyers

While we're on this Ship of Fools, does anyone know anyone who actually ran faster or jumped higher in their new PF Flyers? Well, I tried them in my driveway about 50 years ago and they didn't do shit. What a jip. It was about '63 and I'd put on my new shoes and tried to jump all the way across the street into the yard of my new neighbors from Formosa - Chi, Ling and Ding, but I didn't see much difference from my regular ol' Keds. What a jip, I thought. Wonder if that's when I got hit by the car...or to complete the thought...carrier wave.

And has anyone ever actually looked inside that friggin' torpedo sitting in front of HQMC at the Naval Annex?

Now I ask you, what kind of Marines leave a fucking enemy-made bomb on their goddamn doorstep?

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 .


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