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Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Stella Blue"

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!)

“Stella Blue”

This song represents the best reason I have to be grateful to my parents for getting me started with all those years of piano lessons. Well, maybe Beethoven and Chopin, too, but definitely “Stella Blue.” It’s a song I can lose myself in, whether listening to it or playing it myself. It delivers new layers of meaning as the years combine, and depending on the situation—true of many Grateful Dead songs, but particularly true of “Stella Blue.”

This Robert Hunter / Jerry Garcia song seems to me to constitute the apex of their joint songwriting partnership. If it were possible for me to choose one song about which I could have a focused conversation with Robert Hunter, this would be the one, without a doubt. I can think of many questions I’d like to ask him, but as always, I would fear that asking the questions and getting the answers would not be such a great idea.

For instance, there’s that perennial question, “Who (or what) is Stella Blue?” What if Hunter’s answer was “I just liked the way the words sounded together.” And that doesn’t seem entirely unlikely. As long as I don’t ask, I can be free to speculate, as we all have, listening to the song. Maybe it’s just a variant on the words “dark star,” only “blue star.” That would neatly link “Dark Star” to “Standing on the Moon,” with its three blue stars. Or maybe it’s a blue guitar, with the Stella trademark—see picture. Or a blues guitar. Maybe it’s code for a real person, known only to insiders—that does seem to happen sometimes.

One of my favorite interactions ever at a public library reference desk was when I was taking a request from a woman one day, who gave her name as Sloopy something or other. “Sloopy? Like the song?” (I may have even hummed a bar....) “Yes,” she told me. “I am Sloopy from the song. He wrote that song about me.” And I really think she was telling the truth.

So maybe someday I will have a patron standing in front of me named Stella, and I’ll say, “Stella? Like the song?” and the same thing will happen. “Yes,” she will say. “I am Stella from the song. He wrote that song about me.”

The Annotated Lyrics book goes on for quite some time about all the various associations with “Stella Blue” as a name, even pinpointing an actual fictional character by that name from a Vladimir Nabokov novel, Pale Fire.

Other questions for Mr. Hunter: tell me about the character in the song—is he the broken angel? Or is that his muse? Was he a once-successful musician, or “just” a dreamer? Did he spend his life dreaming about what might be?

I’d also like ask Hunter what he meant by “blue light cheap hotel,” exactly. I mean, I get it—I think we all do. And it’s kind of a picky thing, but I’ve never been able to find any real definition that satisfies me in terms of Hunter using the words “blue light” in relation to a cheap hotel. I have always associated this line with the famous hotel in New York City, the Chelsea, where Hunter wrote the song, according to his own note in Box of Rain.

“Stella Blue” was first performed on June 17, 1972, at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. That show was also Pigpen’s final show with the band. They played it five shows in a row, and in the fifth show, it moved into a second set position, where it mostly remained thereafter. Its final performance was on July 6, 1995, at Riverport Amphitheatre, in Maryland Heights, Missouri. They played it in concert 328 times.

The song was released on Wake of the Flood in October 1973.

As seems to be always the case in Hunter’s songs, this one is character-driven, with the narrator portrayed as someone who is down and out, and who may have been so for quite some time. But there is somewhere in his past where he was, it seems, a guitarist, and the absolutely gorgeous bridge encourages this broken angel to “dust off those rusty strings just one more time,” and make them shine. The narration is ambiguous—it seems to me that the singer is encouraging himself to dust off the strings, after saying that he has stayed in all those cheap hotels. Is there a story line that accommodates two narrators? It seems to me there might be, but it is just out of reach. Again, fodder for that imagined interview with Hunter.

In performance, “Stella Blue” could take on a number of moods, or, more likely, fit easily into a number of moods I might be bringing to the show as a listener. It could be wistful, mysterious, even angry once Garcia got to the solo. It demanded a certain degree of quiet from the audience, and, mostly, we gave that to the band. I do remember one particularly obnoxious Deadhead loudly singing “Where’s the glue?” just before the first, tender, “Stella Blue,” at the Henry Kaiser Auditorium It must be captured on an audience tape somewhere, but, I mean, really?

For years, I thought how wonderful it would be to have this song performed by Willie Nelson. Somehow, his voice and guitar seemed perfect for the song. And then, it actually happened! As is often the case with dreams vs. reality, though, I didn’t think the recording lived up to Willie’s potential. Still, a nice thing to have.

It occurs to me to wonder, is Stella a name many Deadheads have used for their own daughters? It’s a beautiful name—certainly right up there with Cassidy.


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jbxpro's picture
Joined: Dec 4 2012
Beautiful Dreams

I agree that this is one of the best. And just as "the Doctor you grew up with" is your favorite Doctor Who, Wake Of the Flood holds a special place in my personal Dead pantheon because it was the next record released after I became a devotee. Wow, it was worth so much then and still is.

What does Stella Blue mean? What does it mean to me?? Do you have a lifetime for me to even start explaining this???

One of the fun things about this song is chronicling all the possible references and meanings. Two I haven't seen mentioned are:

"... that song, comes crying like the wind" - This always reminded me of Hendrix's haunting "The Wind Cries Mary." The wind can cry many things, and many times it can be a woman's name.

Stephen Foster, one of the great American composers, died in a blue-light cheap hotel. He was in his bed alone, dying of a fever for days (Black Peter anyone??), at the North American Hotel at 30 Bowery, on the lower East side of Manhattan. Perhaps the use of "dream" in the lyrics to Stella Blue is a reference to Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer?"

One Man's picture
Joined: May 17 2011

I must have heard this song on Wake of the Flood and/or Steal Your Face before seeing the GD Movie. But my first memory of it is from that screening. It was probably THE defining moment in my evolution as a listener. I seriously thought the band was testing the audience to see how long they could keep up this inside joke without getting pelted by tomatoes. With the help of some mind expanders, I soon saw the error of my ways and Stella Blue became one of my all-time favorite songs. Don't you just love how the chord progression is used at different cadences, depending on its function as verse, instrumental solo, or ending? I can't get enough of this song and I crave hearing it whenever I see it on a set list or CD track list.

greatnorthspecial's picture
Joined: Apr 12 2009
Stella Blue - Beautiful, Haunting, Sad, True

One of my all time favorites but only became so about 4 years ago. Sometimes the song is waiting for the person to need it or relate to it. I certainly have.

This song to me is about life and the disappointments that are inevitable along the way. Some people have more than others but we all have them. Also that life, our attachments, and our disappointments
are temporal in nature. "In the end there's still that song" - I love this because as we all know the music survives all the broken dreams and the things that we can't hold for very long.

This is a very sad song, yet the song is both therapeutic and there is some hope presented with the "dust off those rusty strings one more time, gonna make em shine" line.

Lastly, I can't help think of the sacrifice the musician or writer (broken angel) makes to bring us the music when I hear Stella Blue. The artist has their own pain yet channels that to create something beautiful like this song, and perform it for us. Listen to the 3/21/94 version and it will blow you away. The frailty is there yet he overcomes and channels it into one of the greatest performances of this song.

Don't also miss the previously mentioned performance in the Grateful Dead Movie. Stunning.

ddepace's picture
Joined: Apr 8 2013
Pure Beauty

lIke so many Hunter/Garcia songs, I hear the echoes of impermanence, beauty and suffering. Stella blue has always meant the Earth to me. And how “there is nothing you can hold for very long, “ including your own life, but the song (or life itself) keeps going….and going….and…..(unbroken chain anyone?)
The beauty of the song hints at the beauty of our planet and how so much of history seems just the dream of others. I love playing it on guitar and it was probably one the first ballads I fell in love with.
Thanks David for all the fabulous research and writings and thanks to all of you for reading my words. Peace!

Joined: Nov 11 2009

7/18/76 Orpheum . . .wonderful Stella, maybe my favorite

Joined: Apr 16 2009
Multiple meanings

I've always thought Stella Blue was Hunter's muse. It's nice to think of the guitar as well.

Joined: Jun 15 2007
Rusty Strings

In my humble opinion, it's one of their best. The bridge is probably the most beautiful and poignant of any they ever played:

"I've stayed in every blue light cheap hotel
Can't win for tryin'
Dust off those rusty strings just one more time
Gonna make 'em shine..."

I've stayed in some serious dump hotels in various parts of this country and world, and there's something very humbling about sitting in a dump playing your guitar as carefully as if sitting in Carnegie Hall. I probably personally relate to the lyrics of this song more than any other. They played it as nicely as you'd ever hope to hear at one of the Capital Center shows in the 90's, with Jerry alone on the side of the stage in the spotlight. Very nicely done. And as for the identity of Stella Blue, well, I trust that all will become clear when the set-lists find their final order and the whole story unfolds. Some things just have to be played out...and Space and Time are relative.

It all rolls into One. My gift to You: For free. Maybe I'll find another someday. Maybe... Couldn't care less. We're outta here. And as always, the winner loses all, because there's just nothing you can hold for very long, so it had damned sure better have been worth it.

"I know you, rider, gonna miss me when I'm gone, gone, gone...
Gonna miss your baby from rollin' in your arms..."

...or perhaps...

"Turnin' around, that's what I'm gonna do
Yes, I'm goin' back home, that's what I'm gonna do..."

The questing persona we encounter behind Stella Blue, Jack Straw, Black-Throated Wind and more than a few others is one and the same. And while some may think the final ending of a great quest as a time of great celebration, or maybe even some kind of fireworks-like stuff, I highly suspect it's quite more a solitary event as when that final pebble gets kicked down the road and he or she finally stops, and no doubt smiles sardonically as the realization dawns that it's finally over: finished and done. And then simply carries on. The ending of what's Past and the beginning of the Next I suspect will finally pass no more noticeable than as that: Plink. Bong. Twang. Who knows? Maybe..just maybe...that last One, whatever it was, finally hit the friggin' mark. And that's why, to this day, the music's never stopped.

All of these songs played over the years by the Dead, and some others, like a roll of the I Ching, take on different meanings at different points in Time and in different contexts. That's what happens when you either manage to break or stumble into the Existential Songbook: You become a part of the Music's never ending story: an active member of the lyric, in which case - for totally subjective better or worse - you also have a say in both the Ending of this Song and the transition into the Next. Not a bad place in Time to be when you think about it. But as always, best take care: Vault's work both ways, you know.

...but then who ever listened to a broken angel singing from a guitar? Certainly not me...


Joined: Jun 7 2007
Stella Blue Guitars

I thought the song was based on the short lived blues guitar "Stella Guitars" that came in different colors sold in the 20's and 30's.

simonrob's picture
Joined: Jun 7 2007
Which Stella?

So maybe someday I will have a patron standing in front of me named Stella, and I’ll say, “Stella? Like the song?” and the same thing will happen. “Yes,” she will say. “I am Stella from the song. He wrote that song about me.”

It would be quite possible that the patron is not referring to "Stella Blue" but rather the Amos Garrett song "Stella ain't got no brains".

Sorry, I couldn't resist that!

Joined: Nov 12 2007
Winterland 1974

A few years back, I got a chance to see THE GRATEFUL DEAD MOVIE on the big screen! What an amazing experience that was. So many classic scenes and performances.... "Eyes of the World", "Truckin", "Playing In The Band", "Casey Jones", etc.

But the performance that stand out is "Stella Blue". Probably the best version I've ever heard. Really captures the mood... slow, mysterious, classic! I just shut my eyes and let Jerry's gentle guitar leads take me to another place.

I think this version was included on the universally panned (unjustified!!) LP "STEAL YOUR FACE." I frequently enjoy the entire album, and Stella Blue in particular.

Man, I wish I could've attended those Winterland shows in 1974. Seems like so many decades ago....


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