Grateful Dead

Greatest Stories Ever Told

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. With Grateful Dead lyrics, there’s always a new and different take on what they bring up for each listener, it seems.

- David Dodd

  • “Estimated Prophet,” words by John Barlow, music by Bob Weir, has always worked a special kind of magic. Barlow captures that whole slightly (or very) deranged or tripped-out Deadhead vibe so well, but the song’s character transcends that little box over time—both over the time the particular rendition might take, and over the time from when we may have first heard it played or performed to the most recent rendition we have heard.

  • Maybe it’s true everywhere in the world, but the county I live in, Sonoma County, California, is a hotbed of local music. There is a plethora of bands, songwriters, studios, and venues here—ranging through all genres of music, from the all-volunteer symphony The American Philharmonic, to songwriters trying to break through to a larger audience.

  • “I don’t trust to nothin’, but I know it come out right.”

    Like “The Music Never Stopped,” “Playing” is a song that could be taken as an autobiographical song (others would include “The Other One,” “Truckin’,” “Golden Road....”). I remember this hitting home for me at the Closing of Winterland concert, as we repeatedly saw the phrase “breakfast served at dawn” on t-shirts and posters all night long. Daybreak would truly come as they were playing. By then, we would have been dancing for the entire night: through the New Riders, the Blues Brothers, and then the Dead coming on at midnight to start their three-set show.

  • Long-time friend and lyrics enthusiast Mary Eisenhart requested this one—Elizabeth Cotten’s song “Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie.”

    I’ve loved this song, too, since first hearing it on Reckoning. Its deceptive simplicity, beautiful melody, and somewhat mysterious words drew me in. As happened often over the course of several decades of listening to the Dead, I found myself wanting to know more—more about the song, about the meaning of the words, and about the source of the song. And so, as usual, I was led quite readily into several directions at once.

  • Several times over the course of their career, the Dead would comment, through their songs’ lyrics, on the idea of being a band—and in particular, on the idea of being none other than the Grateful Dead. This is one of them, and many of its phrases seem...just exactly perfect.

  • “Life may be sweeter for this, I don’t know…”

    Think for a moment about how often those three simple words pop up in Grateful Dead lyrics: “I don’t know.” Not-knowing is somewhere close to the center of the lyrics, in so many ways. We’ve danced around that idea over the first nine blog posts—mostly in the form of avoiding any claim to THE interpretation of any given song, but also in terms of being open to what is coming down the road or around the corner (where it’s been waiting to meet you…).

  • This last week, on March 15, Phil Lesh turned 73 years old. When he was a youngster of only 29 or 30, he and Robert Hunter collaborated to write “Box of Rain.” It was a song written to and for his father, who at the time was in his final days. Lesh was driving out to the Livermore Valley (where I grew up!) on a regular basis, and this song came to be during those drives.

  • In a number of communities across the United States this year, entire towns, cities, and counties are participating in the Big Read, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. And of those Big Read participants, quite a few are reading the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Here where I live, in Sonoma County, California, March is Emily Dickinson month this year.

  • In the Bob Weir / John Perry Barlow composition “Cassidy,” Barlow sets himself the task of comparing a newborn baby girl, named Cassidy, with the legendary “Cowboy Neal” who previously appeared in “That’s It For the Other One.” In this case, the comparison is a study in contrasts, even as the two Cassidys intersect in the life of the band. “There he goes, and now here she starts — hear her cry.”

  • Is it possible that “Ripple” might be in every Deadhead’s top five favorite Dead songs list? It is definitely on mine, when push comes to shove.

    Garcia was quoted once, when talking about “American Beauty,” as saying something approximating: “Yep—every song on that album is a winner.” Side two (and I will always think of albums as having two sides) starts with “Ripple.” Side one starts with “Box of Rain.” What a nice pair of opening songs for album sides those two are!

Greatest Stories Ever Told