Grateful Dead

Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Sugar Magnolia/Sunshine Daydream"

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!)

"Sugar Magnolia"

"Sunshine Daydream"

Did anyone besides me read the wonderful novel by Jennifer Egan, A Visit From the Goon Squad? There were a lot of quirky wonders in the book, but one that stands out was the quest by one of the book’s characters to find all the big pauses—moments of silence—in popular music.

She never mentioned my favorite: the space between the end of a live performance of “Sugar Magnolia” and the commencement of “Sunshine Daydream.” It could be a simple countdown, the length of a set, or longer—as when the band waited a week between the two segments so that they could follow the concert they gave the weekend of Bill Graham’s death with the coda a week later at his to open memorial concert in Golden Gate Park. I thought that was breathtaking.

Everybody’s favorite New Year’s eve midnight tune, “Sugar Magnolia” is mostly a lyric by Robert Hunter, with several verses noted as being Bob Weir’s contributions. The music is by Weir.

In an interview featured on the Anthem to Beauty documentary, Weir talks about the song’s transition from vinyl to the stage, saying something along the lines of it going from a mellow sort of country-ish tune to a “balls-out rocker.”

I just participated in the one-night-only screening of the new release of the Veneta, Oregon, concert from 1972, aptly entitled “Sunshine Daydream,” given the atmospheric and other conditions. Apparently, by the time they played the song at the concert, it was too dark to film any more, so the song itself doesn’t appear in the movie, despite the title. But I am very much looking forward to hearing it in context on the CD release coming up, with Jeffrey Norman’s fine remastering that serves the live sound of the band so well.

“Sugar Magnolia” was released on American Beauty in November, 1970. It was first performed live on June 7 of that year, at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. It was extremely solid in the live repertoire from then on, being played a total of 596 times, with the final performance at their final concert, on July 9, 1995, at Soldier Field in Chicago, where it closed the second set. From what I can tell, that makes it the most-performed original song in their entire repertoire, and only the second most-performed overall, following “Me and My Uncle.” (And not counting Drumz.)

The New Year’s Eve tradition of playing the song at the stroke of midnight is less than straightforward. Looking at the DeadBase X listings, it appears that it was played every year in which the band played a New Year’s Eve show from 1970 through 1980, but then in 1981 it was missing in action. It reappeared the following year, but in 1985, once again—nowhere to be found! I was at that show, and recall watching Phil Lesh react in horror (mock horror?) as Bobby launched into “Midnight Hour” at midnight, instead of “Sugar Magnolia.” From then on it was hit or miss. A no-show in 1986 or 1987, but back in place in 1988 and 1989. Gone in 1990. Back in ’91. And that was it.

However, at the Dodd household, you can count on its being played every New Year’s Eve.

Back in January, I started this series of posts with a piece on “I Need a Miracle,” which bears some similarity, thematically, to “Sugar Magnolia.” (Another song I place in this category is The Band’s “Cripple Creek.”)

I’ve gotten into a couple of arguments over the years about this song. I have thought of myself as a feminist for a long time, and therefore I think maybe I have over-thought this song, trying to find a way to make it fit into my world-view. And I feel pretty justified in that. I mean, Hunter is no fool, that’s for certain, and he makes it pretty clear that this idealized Sugar Magnolia girl / woman is “just a daydream.” In other words, as I’ve always read the song, he pokes fun at the whole sexist litany of a woman who will coddle her man through everything. But…is that really how it is sung? I think maybe not.

As always, when you’re dancing up a storm, these considerations are irrelevant. I have more than once been in thrall to a “Sugar Magnolia” of my own, and frankly, we always just grinned our fool heads off at each other during this song—no hard feelings! And when that mirrorball got cranking in Winterland during the song, all bets were off as far as rational thinking went anyway.

Still, I’d be interested in hearing thoughts about the song along those lines. Anyone ever get into one of those arguments or discussions about the misogynist hippie culture, as evidenced by songs like “Sugar Magnolia”?

This song is another one of those that contributes to the ongoing motif, running through many songs, of horticultural references. The magnolia is a family of trees and shrubs, particularly associated with the South in the USA, but you can find them all over. And then there are the rushes—often tufted marsh plants. You could stretch the motif to include violets, since she does come skimming through rays colored like that flower (which came first, the color or the flower?). And, of course, she is blooming like a red rose. So that’s four plants in one song—possibly a record of some kind. Oh wait! I missed the bluebell: five plants. And pines! Six! And willows! Seven! Possibly eight, if the tall trees are something other than pines, willows, or magnolias.

When I wrote the piece about “Let Me Sing Your Blues Away” a few weeks ago, I thought maybe that was the only song about cars. However, there is a car reference in “Sugar Magnolia,” too—the Willys to which she is compared for her capacity to jump. Now, this is one of Weir’s verses, and in the Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics, I quote Phil Lesh’s autobiography, Searching for the Sound:

The tension between Weir and Hunter finally came to a head backstage at the Capitol Theater when, after an argument, probably about Bob’s addition of a line to ‘Sugar Magnolia’—‘[she] jumps like a Willys in four-wheel drive’—Hunter turned all responsibility for Bob’s lyrics over to Barlow, with the words, ‘Take him, he’s yours.’

But in a way, it’s nice to have that somewhat antiquated car analogy there in the song, and I actually would’ve thought it sounded like a Hunter line, I have to admit. I saw a Willys on the street just the other day in the town where I live, and got to have a fun conversation about it with my son.

So: feminism, cars, plants, rock and roll…your turn to talk! Or maybe someone has a great story about a particularly insane New Year’s Eve. I’m all ears….

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Anna rRxia's picture
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Joined: Dec 25 2009
Aborigine Dream Rap 6/20/83

This was a pretty cranking Sugar Mag. but Bob started blowing minds with his aborigine dream rap during the SSDD coda. I wasn't there but I can imagine more than a few heads walking out of the show with their minds a little weirded out!

I always loved this song when the band really got in the groove and jammed with it for a few minutes. There was that certain space they got in that I always loved and caught the dance energy like riding a wave.

slo lettuce's picture
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Joined: Jul 20 2012
craftyzenmom....

love your post and LOVE that van!!!!!

slo lettuce's picture
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Joined: Jul 20 2012
pays my ticket, buys my weed...

I was fortunate enough to go with my son and spend some time with my parents in central Illinois a short time ago. We were sitting on the front porch early on a Sunday morning, drinking coffee and talking about the old neighborhood. Directly across the street used to exist the most magnificent saucer magnolia tree (google "saucer magnolia" if you've never seen one) I've ever had the privilege to experience in my entire life. It was picture perfect; 20' tall; beautifully round and every spring it would blossom out in a full profusion of the most incredible, huge, fragrant, soft pink and white flower petals that would eventually fall to the ground and blanket her entire front yard for a couple of weeks before turning brown. The lady who lived there used to let me and my brother come over and play in them when we were children. The smell and sight of that tree was nothing short of incredible....so much so that I've never forgotten it. (Every time I hear this song I automatically think of that tree). She eventually passed away and the house was sold.

Then a dipshit bought the place, moved in and cut down that one-in-a-million-tree because he "didn't like raking the petals in the spring" :(((( Cue "Loser"

I've never seen this song as misogynistic either, mostly because I can't see Bobby as being that way. Just a song that he sings. Love it though. Upbeat and happy :)))) The subject title is what a friend and I used to sing a loooong time ago when we worked 3rd shift at a fast food joint and our supervisor, who was a great looking gal, told us on our first night that we could get fired for two reasons: 1. eating too much of the inventory and 2. bringing in piss-poor weed to smoke...she always had killer bud which, ironically enough, made it really difficult not to eat too much of the inventory. :)))) (God I loved that job!)

craftyzenmom's picture
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Joined: May 19 2009
Sugar Mag has never offended...

in fact it's been my one of my all time favorites for since my first show in 91. I giggle over the "head's all empty" lyric since it's my ring tone and people tend to stop for a moment if they hear the actual words. As a super busy mom in my mid-40's my head has been known to go completely blank at the worst times so it's completely appropriate. My husband and I met at Shoreline in '93 and got married in Capitola (next to Santa Cruz) in '94. I really wanted magnolias in our wedding but had to settle for the pine trees of the state park and roses... with tie dye of course. Our license plate on the minivan says "Sugar Mag loves Cosmic Charlie". She may be a daydream but she has been a hell of a lot of fun to dance to over the years and I look for her every year at the Civic when the clock strikes 12.

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Joined: Aug 12 2011
we can share but why

Thanks Mary, awesome post. I always liked that line a lot too but it always scared me a little too...whatever is making him see double, probably isnt good...but its sung so happily that it sounds innocent. I know its just basically a metaphor for a daydream girl...but ive been there too (maybe not with a dream girl but a buddy or someone else) and looking back on it is a bittersweet feeling. Good to know someone was there to help, bad to know I needed help.

We can share the women...I had a friend that first believed the line was "we can the women, we can share but why?" When several people convinced him that he was wrong, he was actually a little upset..questing why the character would want to share. Regardless of the songs context, it is an odd way to start out a song. But Im not easily offended and have never put too much thought into either one of these songs. Im also not a woman...but If a woman wants to be with a guy thats seeing double all the time...thats up to her, right? Or be shared... Ladies, you can share me if you want. Just kidding.

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Joined: Jan 13 2010
sexist or misogynistic, the GD don't have anything on this

I went to Yakima WA on a business trip this week. Talking with a couple co-workers who commented on "Blurred Lines", a "pop" song that is current. I have never heard it. One guy said it was singing about rape, the other said it was a catchy song that got repeated play on a mix CD during his recent family road trip.

I doubt even Pigpen couldn't have thought up this treat:

"One thing I ask of you Let me be the one you back that ass to Go, from Malibu, to Paris, boo Yeah, I had a bitch, but she ain't bad as you So hit me up when you passing through I'll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two Swag on, even when you dress casual I mean it's almost unbearable Then, honey you're not there when I'm With my foresight bitch you pay me by Nothing like your last guy, he too square for you He don't smack that ass and pull your hair like that"

Ah, free speech.

Of course, back in the early 70s the Rolling Stones gave us "Brown Sugar" and "Starf*cker", and before that, "Stray Cat Blues". Later, "Some Girls" came about...

I dropped the f bomb one time at work and caught complete grief. Put it in a "pop" song and you make a million dollars and are heralded as an "artist" (see: Macklemore, cover of current Rolling Stone; Cee-Lo Green's huge hit, which he sang with the FREAKIN' MUPPETS.)

I do know mf appears in Wharf Rat.

But the GD never promised any hippie chick a destroyed backside.

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Joined: Jan 13 2010
I never thought of this song as misogynistic

like gr8fldanielle, I associate it more with orange sunshine (wink wink, nudge nudge) than "got me a hot babe, y'all".

sugar magnolia blossom's bloomin' head's all empty and I don't care (heheheheh...far out, man)

we can discover the wonders of nature, rollin' in the rushes down by the riverside ("wow, did you ever REALLY look at water striders?")

she comes skimmin' through rays of violet (wow, the colors, man) she can wade in a drop of dew (I know exactly what he means)

I take me out and I wander 'round (enjoying the world through orange rose colored glasses)

Sunshine Daydream: an ode to a certain chemical and its effects, to be sure.

now Pigpen's raps could get misogynistic (legs turning red, blah blah) (squeal like a Pig!)

marye's picture
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Joined: May 26 2007
who's the photographer?

I remember that shot being rather popular at the time.

marye's picture
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Joined: May 26 2007
well...

not that anyone should take my opinion as gospel, but a) I *really* like the noted affinity with "Up on Cripple Creek," which I feel like a doofus not to have noticed long ago, and b) "She's got everything delightful/she's got everything I need/takes the wheel when I'm seeing double/pays my ticket when I speed" is one of my favorite lyrics. (Now, do I think a relationship based solely on this is destined to prosper? Uh, no. But it says something cool very neatly.)

WRT "we can share the women," in some previous thread I noted a conversation with Hunter in which he noted the strange tendency of people to take that line as a recommendation rather than a beginning of a tragic tale... (Kinda like that thing of the crowd roaring every time Jerry sang "When it seems like this night will last forever..." thereby indicating a complete obliviousness to what was going on in the song...). But the songs take on a life of their own.

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Joined: Jul 20 2007
We can share the women...

"We can share the women, we can share the wine..." Now, my wife HATES the Dead anyway, alas. But when she hears lines like that it only confirms here belief that the scene was nothing but another example of women being put in their place or even abused by men. I've tried, perhpaps halfheartedly, to point out that Jack Straw is a character song, not actually Hunter's point of view...after all, Hunter never killed someone and put them in a shallow grave either. Though those opening lines do have the universal ring to them that we Deadheads like to claim for more, uh, edifying lines. I supposed if we don't like the ethos of a particular line we can just give it to the character in the song - very convenient lol.

What I really want is to hear MaryE's view, or some of the other women in this site. Right now we're like one of those CNN panels of eight old white guys talking about women's reproductive rights or something...

Favorite "pause" beween SM and SSDD coda? Easy - the one on 11/30/77 (filler on DP10). I can still remember the first time I heard that - I was laying on my floor, having listened to the whole show, in that half-asleep hypnotized Dead trance, when SM ended. In my state of mind I thought it was over, then WHAM, a perfectly timed jump into SSDD, scared the shit out of me, in a good way. I especially love how you can clearly hear a woman scream in fright when the band jumps back in (huh, more misogyny, hehehe). Another argument for filler by the way :)

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