A First Timer’s Guide to the Grateful Dead

Music is such a connecting thing, everyone likes it. Even my brother, the alto sax player, who says he doesn’t like music like most people, plays 1940’s and 50’s jazz on Youtube when he plays video games. When you’re getting to know someone, you ask what kind of music they’re into, and although we don’t really like to admit, sometimes their music taste can make or break it.

Thanks to a little place called college, I’ve gotten to know a lot of new people recently, and when they ask what music I like, the almighty and dearly beloved Grateful Dead are always in my list, which brings a range of reactions, from thoughts of acid dropping and pot smoking (not me), acceptance, and lots of “I’ve never listened to them”, which is always a shock to me until I remember that not everyone grew up in psychedelic dixieland.

On my quest to prove that not all Dead heads are those kinda freaky people you see around, and with a name like “the Dead”, there’s nothing morbid about Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Pig Pen, Phil Lesh and Mickey Hart, I’ve created an introduction to some of their popular songs. Robert Hunter’s lyrics speak to me more than any other artist, he’s the one who told me that “a box of rain will ease the pain and love will see you through” any tough time I’ve been through. I’ve included my favorite quotes, in hopes that you might find a few lyrics that speak to you, too.

1. Eyes of the World

Of course I have to add this classic, the blog’s namesake into the list. A part of my childhood, the instrumental into the chorus gets me every time. It’s the Grateful Dead, so the lyrics might have something to do with a little LSD, but I like to think it that they talk about being one with nature as the “eyes of the world”.

Choice lyrics: “Sometimes the songs that we hear are just songs of our own”.

2. Uncle John’s Band

When you’re feeling down, Uncle John’s Band can always pep you up with its melody and words. Again, I really don’t know what Robert Hunter was talking about but I love every word he wrote. Fun fact: when Jerry exclaims “Goddamn!” in the second verse is the only cuss word I’ve heard in any Grateful Dead song

Words of wisdom: “Well the worst days are the hardest days, don’t you worry anymore. ‘Cause when life looks like easy street there’s danger at your door”.

3. Scarlet Begonias

The Grateful Dead were doing summer love songs wayyy before it was cool, in 1974 to be exact. A story about being infatuated with a gypsy woman who wore “rings on her fingers and bells on her shoes” and “scarlet begonias tucked into her curls” while walking down Grosvenor Square. The speaker later realizes that he just has to let the pretty lady go. My obsession with this song started with Sublime’s cover, and lives on since I also have a bad problem of falling in love with total strangers I see on the street, as well as some small aspiration of being this made-up woman

 Fave words: “Once in a while you can get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right” 

4. Sugar Magnolia

Scarlet Begonias tells the tale of a would-be summer love, but Sugar Magnolia tells the story of a “summer love in the spring, fall, and winter”. This is the girl of your dreams, who “pays my ticket when I speed”.  It’s young, naive love, it’s walking “in the morning sunshine”.

Here it is. My number one favorite lyric by Mr. Hunter: “Sunshine daydream.”

5. Stella Blue

I think I’ve sat in my car and cried to Stella Blue more than any other Dead song, because it’s so beautiful and moving. Yes, that beauty comes from the truth of what it’s like to be on the bottom, “through all the broken years and vanished dreams”, but it’s a feeling everyone can relate to at some point. This song gives me goosebumps, it’s the personification of when “all the years combine, they melt into a dream”.

Best shout-out lyric to a famous piece of art: “A broken angel sings from a guitar, Stella blue” The Old Guitarist by blue period Picasso, anyone?

6. Brokedown Palace

Few songs help me cope with death like this one, starting off with a “Fare you well, my honey”. The song reminds us that death is a natural part of life, making allusions to “all the birds that were singing”, “a weeping willow on the banks green edge”, and the river that “sings sweet songs to rock my soul”, which automatically reminds me of Richmond’s James. It’s never fun to think of passed loved ones “going home, going home, by the waterside [they] will rest [their] bones”, but Hunter and Garcia remind us that it’s natural- just like the river rolls, rolls, rolls.

Lyrics that sum up your emotions towards your dead loved ones: “Fare you well, fare you well. I’ve loved your more than words can tell.”

7. Box of Rain

Okay let’s finish this sad music binge with “Box of Rain” because if I don’t include this on the guide every Dead Head is going to go after me and my momma is going to be the first. As one of the first songs to get me into this hippie kick a few years ago, “Box of Rain” was written by Phil Lesh and Robert Hunter to cope with Lesh’s father’s death, which I immediately connected with. Similar to “Brokedown Palace”, “Box of Rain talks uses natural imagery to remind us all that death is normal though “splintered sunlight”, and unfortunately, something we all have to deal with.

What you’ve always wanted to say but didn’t have the words: “Such a long, long, long time to be gone and a short time to be there”

8. One More Saturday Night

Now here’s your anthem for when you’re a getting ready to go out kinda mood. “Everybody’s dancing down the local armory with a basement full of dynamite and live artillery” may not sound so safe, but hey, this was the 1970’s, was safety really a priority then? Obviously not, with “everybody getting’ high, at the rockin’ stroke of midnight, the whole place is gonna fly”. The Grateful Dead rocked the carefree, party rockstar life, with lively instrumentals making you want to get up and dance, and ending the song with ends with the advice: “don’t worry about tomorrow, Lord, you’ll know it when it comes, when the rock and roll music meets the rising sun”

Proof that God wants you to have a good time: “Then God way up in heaven, for whatever it was worth, thought He’d have a big ole party, thought he’d call it planet Earth”

9. Touch of Grey

As the only Dead song to go mainstream, “Touch of Grey” is a reminder that not all is perfect, and that “every silver lining’s got a touch of grey”. I listened to this song way to much when I was feeling low, and listened to the words to remind myself that “I will get by, I will survive”. Sorry, the rest of the song confuses me as much as it does you. Why are cows giving kerosene and the kid can’t read at 17? And that alphas and the bakers and the Cs? I’ve read many different interruptions of these words, and they all say something different so go with whatever you wanna. I like the idea of anti-war, cause peace and love, and a touch of grey.

Best advice on letting things go: “Sorry that you feel that way, the only thing there is to say is that every silver lining’s got a touch of grey”.

10. Franklin’s Tower

“In another time’s forgotten space” is where we find this final calm and cool melody. A favorite of mine to sing in the car to, “Franklin’s Tower” talks about Ben Franklin’s creation of the Liberty Bell, so Garcia and Hunter get history points with me. But the song has a much more personal meaning to me; when my father was in the hospital, he had to miss a concert he was going to go to with his friends. They made a sign for him that read “May the four winds blow you safely home” and sent it to him. The sign eventually made it to his funeral, and the words became my mantra, a promise that the four winds would blow my daddy safely home to me as my guardian angel.

Final words from Garcia and Hunter: “Wildflower seed on sand and stone, may the four winds blow you safely home.

You can search high and low on the internet for different listen-to lists of the Grateful Dead, but why trust those people, who have credentials, or music degrees, or experience, when you have me, the little wanna-be hippie whose life you know way to much about? I hope you’ve found some Grateful Dead songs that you like, have discovered that they really are beautiful songs, or maybe none of the above and don’t like jam bands. What songs spoke to you? Did I leave any out? Regardless where you stand, stay groovy and may the four winds blow safely home (aka back here)

Peace, love, and dancing bears,


Wax Jerry Garcia and I straight chilling in New York last spring

Wax Jerry Garcia and I straight chilling in New York last spring


One thought on “A First Timer’s Guide to the Grateful Dead

  1. Pingback: (#) Summer Blogger Challenge 5 | eyes of the universe

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