Here we go again, hang on to your seats, as I am writing about another Grateful Dead song again. ‘Ripple’ may be the loveliest song that the Grateful Dead ever composed, as the melody is irresistible, and the group vocals are a thing of wonder. Grisman makes the song special by working his magic on the mandolin. Robert Hunter wrote three songs ‘Ripple’, ‘To Lay Me Down’ and ‘Brokedown Palace’ all on the same afternoon in London after drinking half a bottle of retsina, a salty-sweet wine that dates back to ancient Greece. ‘Ripple’ is the sixth song on the 1970 Grateful Dead mostly acoustic album American Beauty, which was their fifth studio album. American Beauty may be the Grateful Dead’s best album, as the band had recently learned a lot about harmonizing from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
The unique parts in this song were played by mandolin player David Grisman. Garcia and Grisman first met at a concert in 1964 by bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe at a nightclub in Pennsylvania. This eventually led them to forming a long relationship that started out with the short-lived bluegrass outfit Old and in the Way back in the 1970s. Grisman was in San Francisco playing with a band called Earth Opera with guitarist Peter Rowan when he heard that Jerry Garcia was playing softball with some members of Jefferson Airplane. When Jerry spotted his old pal David Grisman in the stands he said, “Great man hey, you know we are making a record and I got some songs that would be perfect for you. Could you come and play some mandolin?” Grisman showed up the next day, to play overdubs for ‘Ripple’. Grisman stated that he would have played this song differently, if the group allowed him to come in earlier on this recording. Grisman also played mandolin on ‘Friend Of The Devil’, which was on the same album.
Hunter said that this song was written on the second day of his first visit to England. He was alone in a flat on Devonshire Terrace in West Kensington owned by Alan Trist Garcia and Hunter’s buddy from Palo Alto, who runs Ice Nine publishing. There was an ample supply of very nice thick linen paper, the sun was shining brightly through the window, and there was also a bottle of Greek Retsina wine to give him inspiration. The songs he wrote that day flowed like molten gold onto the page as he was reunited with his girlfriend a flamenco dancer named Christie Bourne, who he shared a great house in Larkspur after the Grateful Dead left Haight Ashbury with Jerry and his wife Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Adams and her daughter Sunshine who she had with Ken Kesey. Hunter said that the line, “Let it be known there is a fountain that was not made by the hands of men”, is probably the best one that he ever wrote for any song.
Hunter was born near San Luis Obispo, California, in 1941 and he is the great-great grandson of noted Romantic poet Robert Burns. In 1961, Robert Hunter met Jerry Garcia in Palo Alto and soon after they attended a party where Robert found a guitar. He got through perhaps half a song before Garcia grabbed it with the comment, “Hey, give me that.” They remained musical partners, playing in public for the first time as “Bob and Jerry” on May 5, 1961 and they became lifelong friends. Around 1962, Hunter was an early volunteer test subject (along with Ken Kesey) for psychedelic chemicals at Stanford University’s research covertly sponsored by the CIA.
By 1965, the Warlocks who would eventually become the Grateful Dead, with Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, a blues harpist/vocalist, Garcia on lead and vocals, Bob Weir on rhythm guitar, Bill Kreutzmann a R&B drummer, and Phil Lesh on bass began covering Rolling Stones, the Lovin’ Spoonful and Dylan songs, while Hunter continued to write. The first lyrics he wrote for the Grateful Dead were composed while he was on LSD, and that was a suite that would later become known as ‘China Cat Sunflower’ and ‘The Eleven’. He joined the Grateful Dead on the first weekend in September 1967, and that weekend he wrote the first verse of ‘Dark Star’. The song ‘Dark Star’ ends very simular to the way T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock opens, but instead of “Let us go then, you and I”, Hunter says, “Shall we go, you and I, while we can.”
Alright, what the hell is this song about? Questions that pertain to glowing words and tunes played on a harp that is not strung, create a vivid heavenly image. Two more questions follow wondering if the listener is able to hear his voice coming through the music, and if so, is it being appreciated. The lyrics in this song are described as being a hand-me-down, so maybe it is not an original, it was just passed on from another person. “The thoughts are broken” is probably a reference to Hunter wondering if his lyrics are coherent, as he wonders if maybe he should not have ever written this song.
Well anyway, he wrote the damn song and he feels that he should stop analyzing it, so there will “be songs to fill the air.” When the wind blows across a lake, or a pebble is thrown into a lake, you may see water ripples moving across the surface of the water, but Hunter sees a ripple in still water with no pebble, or influence from the wind. Many listeners see similarities with Psalm 23 lines as in, “He leadeth me beside the still waters” and “Thou annointest my head with oil, my cup runneth over”, as Hunter says, “Reach out your hand if your cup be empty…If your cup is full may it be again.” Here comes the poetic part with a fountain “not made by the hands of men” and a road “Between the dawn and the dark of night.” The fountain makes me think about the fountain by the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden and man’s quest for Life, Hope & Truth, or the fountain of youth, while the road between might represent birth and death. These lines certainly do provide the listener with some deep things to think about.
“And if you go no one may follow…That path is for your steps alone” invokes the concept of free will and this says that we all must make choices. “You who choose to lead must follow…But if you fall you fall alone”, brings up thoughts of section 46 of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself where he writes, “Not I, not anyone else can travel that road for you, You must travel it for yourself.” Ripple ends with, “If you should stand then who’s to guide you?…If I knew the way I would take you home”. This always makes me think of Dorothy clicking the heels of her ruby slippers together, because everybody want to return home.
If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung
Would you hear my voice come through the music
Would you hold it near as it were your own?
It’s a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken
Perhaps they’re better left unsung
I don’t know, don’t really care
Let there be songs to fill the air
Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow
Reach out your hand if your cup be empty
If your cup is full may it be again
Let it be known there is a fountain
That was not made by the hands of men
There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone
Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow
You who choose to lead must follow
But if you fall you fall alone
If you should stand then who’s to guide you?
If I knew the way I would take you home
Written for Song Lyric Sunday where the prompt is “Dawn/Noon/Dusk/Midnight/Nocturnal/Diurnal”.