Grateful Dead

Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Terrapin Station"

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!)

"Terrapin Station"

The Terrapin Station Suite’s second part, “Terrapin Station,” begins, as did the first, with an invocation. This one is addressed directly to Inspiration, perhaps the name of the muse being invoked, and again the poet seeks to be granted the ability to tell a story on fire with elements that will make it alive—evocations of the senses. And again, the muse is asked to allow staying power to the poet, to hold away despair.

The poet promises not to ask for more than this gift, of being allowed to tell a story that will come alive for his readers, and that in doing so he may remain confident, unbowed. He explicitly then states that he will only ask for those gifts, and no more. He will not seek power—because the job of the storyteller is not to gain power over things, but simply to reveal things as they are, as stated in the first section.

And with that, Hunter is off—into a song that only hints at its subject, the destination we will all arrive at, with a verse that evokes the early night sky and the atmosphere of singing insects so vividly for so many listeners, that I am sure I am not the only one who, every time I see a young moon, sings to myself “brand-new crescent moon…” and looks for Venus in close proximity if the time of day is right. To this one verse I owe so many moments of sublime appreciation of the natural world. And the same is true when I hear crickets sing, which happens pretty much every night in my own back yard. I take a moment to appreciate the rare and different tune they sing.

Each of us can bring imagery to mind, certainly, when we close our eyes while listening to this portion of the suite—but I am very curious to know about the experience of others who close their eyes to see. When you hear the words “spiral light of Venus,” what comes to mind? And, in particular, when you hear the words “Terrapin Station”—what in the world (or what NOT in the world) do you conceive of?

The “deadsongs” conversation about the suite on the WELL has a large number of contributions, with contributors sharing what the song means to them. I’d like to see that here, too.

First off, let’s think for a second about the word “Terrapin” itself. On the face of it, it’s just a turtle. But it is laden with association and possible internal, neural-level reference points. For instance, when I hear the word, I hear that root “terra” right away—the word for our home planet, named for the Roman goddess of earth, corresponding to the Greek goddess Gaia. However, despite such automatic association, the word “terrapin” has nothing to do with a Latin root word—it comes to us from Algonquian, a native American language, generally spoken in the geographic range stretching from the northeastern coast of North America to the Rocky Mountains.

So, the terrapin is a freshwater turtle known to early inhabitants of the North American continent. In Native American mythology, and in a surprising number of other world mythologies, the turtle carries the earth on its back. “Turtle Island” is the name given to the continent by native peoples. The symbol is weighty, and in using the word “terrapin,” which (falsely) evokes “terra,” we get a sense of double planetary significance, just from the word itself coupled with its archetypal symbology.

I’ve always loved the story, which I relate in the annotated lyrics, about William James (1842-1910), the great American philosopher, physician, and psychologist—author of The Varieties of Religious Experience — who was approached by an elderly woman after a lecture he gave on the solar system. “We don’t live on a ball rotating ‘round the sun. We live on a crust of earth on the back of a giant turtle.” James replied, “If your theory is correct, Madam, what does the turtle stand on?” “You’re a clever man, Mr. James, and that is a good question, but I can answer it. The first turtle stands on the back of a second, far larger turtle.” “But what does this second turtle stand on?” asked James. “It’s no use, Mr. James! It’s turtles all the way down!”

So: terrapins all the way down it is. After all, some rise, some fall to get there. And Terrapin Station, whatever or wherever it may be, is a place that might good, or might be ill for any given person.

The suite, as recorded on Terrapin Station, concludes its lyrical portion (excepting the big choral refrain) with “At a Siding.” Of all the live performances, the band never played this one live with lyrics, though there is a note of an instrumental performance. But it plays a crucial role lyrically, at least as I listen to the piece. Left alone by itself, the “Terrapin Station” section may seem triumphant, despite the occasional statements (which seem vain at last?) conveying uncertainty about the entire endeavor of arriving at Terrapin. At least, the music seems triumphant, in all its studio orchestral grandeur. (Somehow, this same grandeur came across absolutely in concert, despite the lack of strings.)

But “At a Siding” is dark. The gorgeous short melody to which the words are set seems to drip with that sense, which perhaps only Garcia’s voice could contain, that there are mysteries with which one might not really want to be acquainted. The dichotomy of light and dark are never far away in Hunter’s lyrics, and here we have spaces filling with darkness, things that were obvious being hidden, leaving us nothing to believe in, except the direction in which we are headed, whatever that may be. But the compass always points to Terrapin. And we are left with: “You’re back in Terrapin for good or ill again.”


So, given that this verse was set by Garcia, and included on the studio album, which contains a suite that is itself a fragment of the larger work that Hunter produced, it seems interesting that the band, or maybe just Garcia, chose to perform only a fragment of the fragment live. I think of other songs which were left mostly unperformed, or which were basically disavowed entirely, such as “Barbed Wire Whipping Party,” which also contained dark lyrics, and which Hunter wished he could take out of the written memory entirely.

“Terrapin Station” stands as a “place” in imagination, full of potential.

It was the name given to the museum that was never built, meant to house the Dead’s archives and provide a performance and experience space.

It provides the name for the performance space and restaurant opened in San Rafael a little over two years ago by Phil Lesh. A few months ago I was at a bar show at Terrapin Crossroads, listening to one of my favorite musicians, Danny Click, playing an unannounced show with the Terrapin Crossroads house band, which that night included Phil on bass. What a treat! At one point, a friend of mine who plays in Danny’s band leaned over and asked the table, “What’s with the turtles?”

Indeed. What an excellent question.

Next week: all the rest of it.


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caeserdog's picture
Joined: May 13 2016
terrapin station

This may sound a bit crude after all the artistic speculation going on here for the last couple years.

But I always thought Terrapin Station was about ingesting a large dose of LSD.

Because every time you do, you are stepping into an unpredictable experience. You're back in Terrapin, for good or ill again.

Joined: Dec 26 2015

Coming from Norway not so well into US English language I always interpreted "terrapin" in the direction of "therapy". A lyrical metaphor. Maybe very wrongly. It never hampered my appreciation of the recording though. Over many years, quite the contrary. This is one way the song can be interpreted, so I'll put my neck out and stick to it. Basic meaning: therapy.

dlutz's picture
Joined: Nov 27 2010

Terrapin with the Berkeley Symphony was the highlight for me at the Greek on 8/1. Majestic!!

teetop's picture
Joined: Apr 26 2013

Terrapin Station is about ballin'

Joined: Jun 26 2013

Mickey Hart was in Dallas with his band and declared they would now attempt to
'Recreate what the Sun is Doing'

Who can say if they Succeeded...but the 'vain statement' I found to describe the Vibe is
The sound moved like a Turtle and was "in no hurry."
Very Patient and Very Deep and Very Spacey.

I will tell you that the sounds they created lifted my soul into the Heavenlies where I could swim with the stars in a wonderful way.

The Sun exists in outer space
with all those stars that are impossible to count,
rising and falling and climbing again in a Cyclical fashion

Whatever the Sun may be is ushered into our point of perception every morning by the Bright and Morning Star also known as Venus.

George Carlin's Hippy Dippy Weather Man would predict...
Tomorrow will be filled with Sunshine followed by Increasing Darkness.

'There goes Jupiter and here comes Mars' and then Comes Venus followed by Increasing the Circle of Life..."Like a wave Upon the Sand"

"Daybreak on the Land"
where " The Light's All Shining on Me"
"Terrapin Station"

I'm sure its no coincidence how the Turtle Dancers that Strider told us about would do their dance on what must be the Winter Solstice in December when the Sun shines for the shortest amount of time in any day of the year.

(I wonder if there's any Video of Jerry doing the Turtle Dance)

I Love how the Astronomical Patterns were set by the hand of the Creator.
I love how Worship enables the Soul to Dance in the Creator's Inspiration.

There are varieties of religious experiences here on earth
( I've got mine and you got yours )
but it really doesn't change or hamper the Cosmic Cycle in Outer Space of Days and Months and Years and Great Years (which ended and began on the Winter Solstice of 2012)

I'd say we are All Turtle Dancers in the Grand Scheme of Things

We'll be at Terrapin by Morning

Joined: Jun 15 2007
The Last Won (I think Dylan said that...)

The one final thing I can say about the Grateful Dead is that the one thing that kept them going over all those years wasn't the Dead Heads, the money, or even the music itself, but the fact that, once the Grateful Dead found the One, they never lost it, and no matter how elusive or fragmentary, the One also never lost the music. And that's been one helluva thing to both witness and of which to have been a distant, singular part. All the Dead Heads were there too, every one of them, though I do truly trust that at last count the final percentage "done come for the show" will prove a bit better than One in Ten Thousand!

Peace and happy listening.


Strider 88's picture
Joined: Jun 20 2007
Crescent Moon at dawn

Turtle shells are one of the main percussion instruments used in dances by the Pueblo Indians from northern Arizona Hopi land to Taos Pueblo in northern New Mexico. The whole shell top and bottom is sealed at the openings with pebbles added to create sound . It's strapped to the right leg of the male dancers who dance in unison in a long line. The combined sound evokes the sound of rain. Also the dancers will wear bandoliers of shells to create the same effect. The use of the symbols of turtles, tadpoles, bull frogs, sea shells are all employed in the supplication of rain by the Pueblo people of the desert southwest.
The Turtle Dance of Taos Pueblo held every New Years Day was revived by an old friend of mine from there who had made a pact and prayer to the Great Spirit while pinned down by enemy fire in Vietnam. If he survived the battle and the war he would bring back the Turtle Dance upon returning to home.
The Turtle Dance of San Juan Pueblo (Okeh Ohwingey) held every December 26 has well over a hundred dancers. One of the old time leaders and participants of the dance was named Jerry Garcia.
If my memory serves me well the word Terrapin originated with the Delaware Tribe or Lenne Lenape people who are Algonquin language speakers.
It figures that Terrapin Station was written simultaneously by Hunter and Garcia at different locations during a massive rare Bay Area thunder storm. An electrically charged atmosphere moving great creative souls.
It's a testament to the human spirit in harmony with the powerful forces of the Universe.

A.Cajun.Head's picture
Joined: Jun 3 2014
Thanks too for all you do David!

Thanks for all your great work David!

"At a Siding", to me, is the time out of body when the soul must figure out whether it's going to return to "Terrapin" or ... ??? Reminds me of what is known as "limbo".

What really cinched it for me about the reincarnation/cycles theme is the line "Is this the end or the beginning?"

All very Book of the Dead!

ddodd's picture
Joined: Jun 6 2007
Thanks, all

I love all the comments, and especially the very convincing post by A.Cajun.Head. Not exactly where I'll go with all this in the current week's post, but somewhere....

Old School Chuck's picture
Joined: Feb 3 2009
God Is Red

Reincarnation; yeah, I like that association with this song. I have a copy of the God Is Red book, but I left it back in the States. I've been in Thailand for just over a year, and am now working at Asia's top drug & alcohol rehab, so I like the William James story a lot, considering he is mentioned in chapter 1 of the 'big book' of AA. Jung is also, which makes me think of ideas about archetypal imagery.

I've never been a big fan of the cute dancing bears, or the slightly less ubiquitous dancing turtles, but what the heck...other than the cartoon cuteness, the animal symbols themselves work for me. As far as the "spiral light of Venus", I think of the Greek goddess, and the idea of love, which seems to be a theme of the Terrapin suite in general. Maybe that's one of the ties that bind us as we travel the cycles of the wheel of life, death, and rebirth. Love keeps bringing us back, not just attachment.

Yes, I often think of the song and refrain when I see a crescent moon, and I love the Turtle Island idea. I didn't know about the Algonquin etymology before. There do seem to be cicadas here in Northern Thailand, but I miss my New England crickets (in Maine, especially). Anyway, I just thought I'd chime in for kicks. I hope to back in the good ol' USA at some point, for good or ill. At least I'm not missing Furthur, since they're on hiatus. I really enjoyed seeing them do the whole suite a couple of times; probably my favorite of their vast repertoire. One reason I moved out here was that I spent a few months in Nepal back in the 80s, the height of my GD years. Love those mountains ("some climb..."). Peace!


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