‘Sugar Magnolia’ is a Grateful Dead song that was written by Bob Weir and Robert Hunter and it was first released on the 1970 American Beauty album and it made it to #91 on the charts. It is one of three songs that were written solely by Bob Weir and Robert Hunter, the other two being ‘Jack Straw’ and ‘Playing in the Band’. Bob Weir stated that this song was his take on Southern Rock, and he was inspired by hanging out with Delaney and Bonnie, who were on the 1970 Festival Express tour of Canada with the Grateful Dead and many other groups. He really admired Delaney Bramlett’s rhythm guitar playing and he decided to make a rock and roll song that incorporated some Cajun fiddle music. At this same time there was an outbreak of Cajun fiddle music, with guys like Doug Kershaw becoming popular. Bob said the chorus uses a trick straight out of Cajun fiddle tunes, where you go to the fourth chord progression, then walk to the fourth chord of that and back and Delaney was using double-stop and triple stop slurs into a note.
Weir wrote the music and Hunter and Weir traded off verses. Hunter would write a verse and then Weir would write a verse. Weir had a girlfriend who was inspiring him at the time, so he took that and used it. The song fit right in with Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty when the Grateful Dead were getting away from their psychedelic era, as the band was not regularly taking psychedelics as much as they did before and this grounded them, to make more American music which resulted in some great albums.
‘Sugar Magnolia’ is the most-performed original song that the Grateful Dead had in their entire repertoire, and it is also the second most-performed overall, following ‘Me and My Uncle’, that is if you don’t count their space and drum jams. This song is about a fantasy woman and it may be thought to be slightly sexist by some, but it is basically a hippie song about sunshine and free love that their fans enjoyed twirling around to when it was played. As far as I know there is no bush or tree that is an actual Sugar Magnolia, but Magnolias are one of the great heralds of spring. These wonderful trees usually bloom before the other trees have even sprouted foliage. The sight of these trees covered in thickly petaled blooms is truly stunning, and as an added perk, many are also wonderfully fragrant.
In this song Bob Weir sings about seeing a Sugar Magnolia, while his head is empty of thoughts, but it really looks beautiful, so he doesn’t care. He sees his baby, a pretty girl who is down by the river and maybe she is skinny dipping, because he knows that soon she will have to come up for air and then he will be able to see her body glistening with water. He calls her Blossom and they have a secret spot back under the willow where they make love, which he calls high times. They will lay there and take in the breath-taking images of things not created or significantly altered by humans which he calls the wonders of nature, while they are “Rolling in the rushes down by the riverside.” This delightful girl has everything that he needs and she is able to satisfy any man.
J. R. R. Tolkien wrote about a character named Goldberry in a 1934 poem called The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, where she was the wife of Tom Bombadil. She is also known as the “River-woman’s daughter”, and she is described as a beautiful, youthful woman with golden hair. She is not well known, because she didn’t make it into the Lord of the Rings movie, but she is in the Fellowship of the Ring novel, where it says, “fair young Goldberry, sitting in the rushes”. Some people see a similarity between the character Goldberry and the girl described in ‘Sugar Magnolia’, because she is “in the rushes down by the riverside.”
This song is filled with poetry, as “She comes skimming through rays of violet”, which is cryptic, but at the same time it elicits a picture that can fuel fantasies. “She can wade in a drop of dew”, doesn’t mean that she is a shapeshifter, as it is probably about how graceful she is. The line, “She don’t come and I don’t follow” is supposedly a reference to the old traditional American Appalachian bluegrass folk song ‘Sourwood Mountain’, which includes the line “she won’t come and I won’t call ‘er”, where this guy is lamenting because he is separated from his true love.
Bob sings that, “She can dance a Cajun rhythm” and “Jump like a Willys in four wheel drive”, which was a lightweight, go-anywhere, general purpose reconnaissance vehicle that was made for the military and it could be considered the great grandfather of the SUV. Willys -Overland Motors pioneered the jeep and made a whole bunch of them during WW2, and after the war they continued in the 4×4 direction into the 70s. “Ringing that bluebell”, is probably the Hyacinthoides which is a tiny little flower that is associated with magic and it has been called witches thimbles and fairy flowers. Going for a walk in the sunshine along with your honey feeling a “breeze in the pines and the summer night moonlight”, while you are “Lazing in the sunlight, yes indeed”, now that is life. The last verse of this song is mysterious or it may even be obscure, as Bob mentions the cuckoo’s crying and the moon being half way down, but let’s try to make some sense out of this. The cuckoo has a distinctive cry which is often associated with the beginning of spring and this song is about spring. A moon that is half way down is a quarter moon half lit up as viewed from the Earth. Bob says that, “Sometimes when the night is dying”, he goes out and wanders around, which I guess makes sense, as it would be much safer to wonder around in the daylight.
After the song was finished, Weir asked Hunter for some type of extravaganza to cap it all off, so Hunter wrote the coda ‘Sunshine Daydream’ section which Bob liked and it was played individually and also as part of the song. Sunshine Daydream is also a music documentary film, starring the Grateful Dead. that was shot at their August 27, 1972 concert at the Old Renaissance Faire Grounds in Veneta, Oregon and it remained unreleased for many years. Besides this song being about a girl, it is also a reflection of nature mentioning summer, spring, fall, winter, the river, trees, and blossoms. It is full of beauty and life with the magnolia, the rushes which are tufted marsh plants, and it mentions violet, which could be a flower, it has the bluebell, pines, and willows, and if you include the coda it says “she is blooming like a red rose.”
Weir remained single throughout his years with the Grateful Dead, although he lived for several years (1969-1975) with Frankie Hart. Hart had been a high-energy go-go dancer at the Peppermint Lounge in New York, and she performed on the 1960s TV shows Hullabaloo and Shindig!. She was a finalist on American Bandstand and she was even a Rockette for a while. She also worked in Apple Records American marketing department as a secretary for the Beatles’ publicist, Derek Taylor, and subsequently she was an assistant to George Harrison. She was allegedly the inspiration for the Robert Hunter, Bob Weir song ‘Sugar Magnolia’, being the one who “Waits backstage while I sing to you” and also being the one that took the wheel when Bob was seeing double, and it seems that she paid his ticket when he was caught speeding. Weir made her acquaintance through Mickey Hart, who dated her briefly. Mickey met her following her first Grateful Dead show in New York in 1968. Her real name at that time was Frankie Azzara (from a previous marriage), and she changed her stage name to Frankie Hart borrowing Mickey’s last name.
Francine “Frankie” Azzara went to see the Grateful Dead in early May of 1968 when they were playing at the Electric Circus, a nightclub in the East Village of Manhattan. Following her first Grateful Dead show, she ended the night at a jam with Mickey and afterward, she and Mickey walked around Washington Square. Hart persuaded her to run away with the Grateful Dead and she got on the bus with the band. Frankie ended up moving in with Bob Weir in the 70s, taking his last name, and although they never married, she was very much a part of the family. Bob and Frankie lived together as a couple from 1969 to 1975.
Frankie Weir was born Judy Louise Doop and she grew up in San Luis Obispo. She won a dance contest in high school and eventually made her way to New York, where she began dating a member of the Rascals, New York’s preeminent white R&B band. She was small and lithe, with a slender dancer’s body, and she married a singer and a pianist named Charlie Azzara. She ran a travel agency called Fly By Night that handled tour details for the Dead and other spin-off bands in the early 70s, like the New Riders of the Purple Sage, Merl Saunders and Jerry Garcia, Garcia’s bluegrass group Old and In the Way, and a number of Bill Graham’s groups. She also sang in the obscure band James And The Mercedes, who opened for Kingfish a few times around 1975. After Frankie and Bob split, she got married where she may have become Frankie Accario and she was living in NC until she relocated to Lawrence, Kansas. She worked on a cruise ship the SS Independence and then she moved back to California to work as a waitress. Frankie Weir passed away around 2000-2001 from complications related to Lupus when she was maybe in her late 50’s.
Sugar Magnolia, blossoms blooming
Head’s all empty and I don’t care
Saw my baby down by the river
Knew she’d have to come up soon for air
Sweet blossom, come on under the willow
We can have high times if you’ll abide
We can discover the wonders of nature
Rolling in the rushes down by the riverside
She’s got everything delightful
She’s got everything I need
Takes the wheel when I’m seeing double
Pays my ticket when I speed
She comes skimming through rays of violet
She can wade in a drop of dew
She don’t come and I don’t follow
Waits backstage while I sing to you
She can dance a Cajun rhythm
Jump like a Willys in four wheel drive
She’s a summer love in the spring, fall and winter
She can make happy any man alive
Ringing that bluebell
Caught up in sunlight
Come on out singing and I’ll walk you in the sunshine
Come on honey, come along with me
She’s got everything delightful
She’s got everything I need
A breeze in the pines and the summer night moonlight
Lazing in the sunlight, yes indeed
Sometimes when the cuckoo’s crying
When the moon is half way down
Sometimes when the night is dying
I take me out and I wander around
I wander round
Walk you in the tall trees
Going where the wind goes
Blooming like a red rose
Breathing more freely
Light out singing
I’ll walk you in the morning sunshine
Walking in the sunshine
Written for Song Lyric Sunday where the prompt is Blossoms/Cherry/Flowers.