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and later wrote a novel about the experience which I titled Though I Could Not Caution All (which shall remain unpublished).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: Jun 15 2007
Great choice!

Anyone know where they keep the special torpedoes on this Yellow Submarine?

And what does this button do? Oops. Turned us into a Psychedelic Bus. It's hard to see the Orange Sunshine through a broken Window Pane.

"Set out runnin', now I'll take my time: a friend of the devil is a friend of mine..."

Now put that in your pipe and smoke it...

Peace.

ddodd's picture
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Joined: Jun 6 2007
Whole Earth

Sorry I missed that one, Doug! And amazing that your family used to sing The Golden Vanity.

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Joined: May 28 2012
A little on "The Golden Vanity"

That was a song my family would sing in the car on long drives. I was greatly amused when - perhaps during the time you were off organizing - a band performed it on Quad Stage at the Whole Earth Festival. I think they were from Arizona, and were called "Major Lingo." Possibly further on a tangent than you wanted to go, but it would have made plenty of sense for the Dead to have pulled it out instead of the other ballads you mentioned.

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