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!)
This Jacob guy keeps turning up. So I’m following him from “My Brother Esau,” where he appeared in a Barlow lyric (who also included him in “Victim or the Crime”) into the Robert Hunter-penned “Black Muddy River.” Here the allusion is more, well, allusive (elusive?), deriving from the inferred reference to Jacob’s use of stones as pillows during his flight from the wrath of Esau upon being found out as the deceiver who stole Isaac’s blessing. It’s also not a central allusion to the song, except in the sense that it conveys the deep sadness that is the territory of “Black Muddy River.”
Sadness tinged with hope, or, at least, tempered by some kind of hard-won wisdom.
Hunter wrote these lyrics as he approached his own mid-point in life. Somehow I wind up thinking of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which begins with the poet wandering, at the mid-point of his life’s journey, in a dark wood. Here’s what he told Rolling Stone in a 1987 interview:
“Black Muddy River is about the perspective of age and making a decision about the necessity of living in spite of a rough time, and the ravages of anything else that's going to come at you. When I wrote it, I was writing about how I felt about being 45 years old and what I've been through. And then when I was done with it, obviously it was for the Dead.”
“Making a decision about the necessity of living…”
I can’t listen to this song without doing a lot of free-associating, so please pardon my stream of consciousness, non-disciplined ramblings in advance.
“Black Muddy river” throws a number of images, references (external and internal to the Dead), and hints our way. We start the song with a rose, the quintessential icon of the band, along with the skull and lightning. If you look at the actual appearance of roses within Grateful Dead lyrics over the course of their career, they are not necessarily “pretty flower” references—they are used by Hunter as an ongoing and ever-expanding metaphor for life itself—as he himself made clear:
"I've got this one spirit that's laying roses on me. Roses, roses, can't get enough of those bloody roses. The rose is the most prominent image in the human brain, as to delicacy, beauty, short-livedness, thorniness. It's a whole. There is no better allegory for, dare I say it, life, than roses."
And here, in the first line of the song, he also directly alludes to a fellow lyricist, Thomas Moore (1779-1852), who, in 1805, wrote “The Last Rose of Summer,” which was set to music by Sir John Stevenson (1761-1833):
'Tis the last rose of summer,
Left blooming all alone,
All her lovely companions
Are faded and gone.
No flower of her kindred,
No rose bud is nigh,
To reflect back her blushes,
Or give sigh for sigh.
I'll not leave thee, thou lone one,
To pine on the stem;
Since the lovely are sleeping,
Go sleep thou with them;
'Thus kindly I scatter
Thy leaves o'er the bed
Where thy mates of the garden
Lie scentless and dead.
So soon may I follow
When friendships decay,
And from love's shining circle
The gems drop away!
When true hearts lie withered
And fond ones are flown
Oh! who would inhabit
This bleak world alone?
Aside from the similarity in subject matter, hinted at by Hunter’s use of the Moore song’s title in his opening line, there’s even some melodic similarity between the settings of the two poems into song—so much so that the Wikipedia article for the Thomas Moore song states that the Grateful Dead sing “Black Muddy River” to Stevenson’s tune!
(By the way, there are quite a number of excellent cover versions of “Black Muddy River,” with several of them by British Isles and Celtic and Celtic-influenced artists—there seems to be a natural affinity among those musicians for the song. I would especially note Norma Waterson’s version, which she recorded with guitarist Martin Carthy.)
In “Black Muddy River,” the singer seems weighed down. The “muddiness” of the river, the stone / pillow confusion, the stones falling from his eyes—all literally heavy motifs, combine with the darkness (the night that will seemingly last forever…) or impending darkness (the last bolt of lightning), and the moaning of the ripples, to convey an atmosphere of sadness and hopelessness.
But the singer counteracts that with…song. “Sing me a song of my own.” This lines hearkens back to “Eyes of the World,” with the line: “sometimes the songs that we hear are just songs of our own.” Hunter talked about this concept as something literal—the songs that each of us might sing, which spring from nowhere and are not necessarily anything we would want to sing to others, but which are intrinsic to us in some way. (I myself have a melody I have hummed to myself repeatedly over the years—one I don’t particularly care for, not one which I am ever able to remember when I try to remember it, but which appears, seemingly, out of nowhere and unsummoned, usually when I am walking somewhere).
And he also counteracts it with dreaming. Singing and dreaming, or, possibly some combination of the two.
In an article by Paul Liberatore in the Marin Independent Journal on May 14, 1991, Hunter discussed his method of dealing with the death of his teenaged son in the late 1980s. His response was to write his heart out, and the result was the book of poetry, Night Cadre.
The heartbreaking episode, Hunter says, "threw me into an introverted place. It made me think about life and my philosophy. You have to have a great deal of faith that time is a healer. There was nothing I wanted more than to have years pass. Now I can look at pictures and videos. The healing has happened." While in mourning, Hunter says, "I did the only thing I knew how to do. I wrote." Over the past two-plus decades, he has written the words to classic songs like "Friend of the Devil," "Uncle John's Band," "Ripple" and "Dark Star". But he hasn't written a song in years. Instead, almost as a form of creative therapy, he wrote a collection of poems, titled "Night Cadre," that has just been published by Viking.
"It does tend to be dark, with edges of hopefulness," he says of the book. "The examinations are about as close to the bone as poetry gets."
“Dark, with edges of hopefulness.”
“Black Muddy River” was performed as the first of two encores at the Dead’s final concert on July 9, 1995, at Soldier Field in Chicago. I have been told that, if you listen carefully, you will hear Garcia sing “last muddy river” at one point in the performance, as if he knew, as if he was quite conscious of what he was singing. I can’t bring myself to listen to it for myself right now, but maybe I will.