Ripple: The Grateful Dead (lyrics by Robert Hunter); New Riders of the Purple Sage; Playing For Change.

Hello there! This week our blog features a lovely folk-rock tune, Ripple. We will first discuss the original version by the Grateful Dead, with a special appreciation to their lyricist Robert Hunter. Next, we will review a cover by New Riders of the Purple Sage. We will conclude by screening a cover from a world-wide organization called Playing for Change.

The Grateful Dead and Ripple:

The Grateful Dead are a Bay Area band that eventually became a legendary ensemble. In the mid-60s, the band coalesced from a number of musicians who had played folk music with groups such as Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions. Originally they were known as The Warlocks, but the band changed its name after discovering that an East Coast group had also adopted it.

Below is a photo of an early Grateful Dead performance, from Aug. 1967 in Ann Arbor, MI. From L: Pigpen McKernan, Bill Kreutzmann, Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh and Bob Weir.

Embed from Getty Images

In December 1965, more or less immediately after they adopted The Grateful Dead as their new name, the group began performing at psychedelic fairs on the West Coast. At first, the Dead were notable residents of the Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco, until the atmosphere in that area became more of a hassle, at which time the group members relocated to Marin County.

Early on, the Dead teamed up with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, who took their bus “Furthur,” their music and their LSD-manufacturing operation all across the U.S. Along the way, the Dead took part in both the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and Woodstock in 1969.

The psychedelic painted bus “Furthur,” used by Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters.

For most bands, the litmus test of success was producing single records that cracked the Billboard Top 40 pop charts. The Grateful Dead only placed one song in the top 50, and that was late in the band’s career. However, that didn’t stop the Dead from selling over 35 million albums and being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.

The Grateful Dead’s leader and frontman was lead guitarist Jerry Garcia, who shared lead vocal duties with fellow founding member Bob Weir. Garcia was also an excellent banjo and steel guitar player, and from time to time in his early career moonlighted on those instruments with various West Coast folk and bluegrass combos.

In this post we feature the long-time collaboration between the Grateful Dead, mainly Jerry Garcia, and lyricist Robert Hunter. Below is a photo of Hunter (L) and Garcia.

Robert Hunter (L) and Jerry Garcia January, 1991.

Garcia and Hunter met in 1961, and for a short period they played as a duo in coffee houses around Palo Alto. However, Garcia’s musical talents quickly outstripped Hunter’s, so Robert decided to concentrate on writing. Shortly after the Dead formed in 1965, Garcia and Hunter began a collaboration that lasted until Garcia’s death in 1995. Hunter would write the lyrics while Garcia supplied the melody.

In a recent NY Times column, Jennifer Finley Boylan points out that Hunter wrote the song Ripple while staying in a London hotel in 1970. Amazingly, Hunter wrote the lyrics for two more Grateful Dead classics on that same day – Brokedown Palace and To Lay Me Down.

The song Ripple is a poetic monologue where the singer muses about the song, life in general, and an inability to help his lover find a path forward.

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

So here is the Grateful Dead in a live performance of Ripple. This took place at Radio City Music Hall on Hallowe’en, 1980.

Isn’t this lovely? Robert Hunter’s beautiful words plus Jerry Garcia’s melody make for an irresistible combination. I find some of the Ripple lyrics deeply moving, including “Let it be known there is a fountain that was not made by the hands of men,” (this was Hunter’s favorite line from any of his songs) and of course the concluding line “If I knew the way, I would take you home.”

The audience breaks out in applause as they recognize the first chords. Jerry’s vocals start out softly, even halting, but he picks up steam as the song progresses. In this performance, keyboards substitute for the lovely, lilting mandolin that accompanies the album release of this tune. Following the final line, the song ends with a hummed “da da da da,” sung enthusiastically by the crowd of Deadheads, who break out in thunderous applause at the end. This is appropriate for a tune that has been called the `Hippie National Anthem.’

Hunter’s lyrics are sometimes puzzling, and (like Bob Dylan) he refused to ‘explain’ the meaning behind his words.  Fair enough: we should simply take his lyrics as written, and see if they move us.

Over a 40-year stretch, Robert Hunter wrote scores of songs for the Grateful Dead. In fact, nearly every song that I recognize as “quintessential Grateful Dead” has lyrics by Robert Hunter. This starts with the Grateful Dead’s most recognizable signature tune, Truckin’.

But it also includes Box of Rain, Casey Jones, Dark Star, Friend of the Devil, Saint Stephen, Sugar Magnolia, and Uncle John’s Band. I saved a special shout-out for the last single hit from the Grateful Dead, the 1987 Touch of Grey. That tune went to #9 on the Billboard Hot 100, and (amazingly) was the highest-charting single ever for the Dead.

Fittingly, when the Dead were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, Robert Hunter was inducted along with them; he is the only non-performer to be inducted along with a band.

Remarkably, Hunter was the first member of the Grateful Dead to experience psychedelic drugs. In 1962, researchers at Stanford recruited volunteers to try out new drugs (it later turned out that the research was covertly funded by the CIA’s MKULTRA mind-control program). Hunter volunteered for the study, which also included participants Ken Kesey and Allen Ginsberg. They were paid to take drugs such as LSD, psilocybin and mescaline, and to report on their experiences.

Apparently some of Hunter’s later lyrics, such as those in China Cat Sunflower and Dark Star, were inspired by the ‘drug trips’ he experienced in this Stanford program.

After Garcia’s death, Hunter collaborated with other musicians such as Bruce Hornsby, Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan. Hunter was the only lyricist who has collaborated with Dylan.

Robert Hunter died at his home in San Rafael, California on Sept. 23, 2019. I dedicate this post to Robert Hunter. As Ripple is one of her favorite tunes, I also dedicate this to my daughter Jennifer.

We’ll conclude with some more history of the Grateful Dead.

The group is believed to have given more than 2,300 concerts – or perhaps more precisely, jam sessions. The Dead generally did not prepare a set list for any given concert, preferring instead to pick songs on the spot from a playlist that usually contained about 100 songs. During their life span, the Grateful Dead played over 500 different songs at their various performances.

Perhaps the most unique feature of the Grateful Dead was their relationship to their fans, or Deadheads. It was not unusual for Deadheads to follow the band on concerts from town to town – since each concert was a unique live jam, Deadheads would have a different experience in each venue. The Dead actively welcomed having devotees tape their shows, and even allowed fans to tap into their own soundboards.

The result was that the Deadheads resembled more a gigantic extended commune than the ‘normal’ followers of musical groups. Deadheads were an exceptionally eclectic lot, ranging from 60s-era hippies to professional athletes, from panhandlers to distinguished scientists.

The constant touring, coupled with the immense quantities of drugs ingested by the Dead band members over the years, took its toll on the band. Three separate keyboards players for the Dead passed away (Pigpen McKernan in 1973, Keith Godchaux in 1980 and Brent Mydland in 1990). And Phil Lesh had a liver transplant in 1998.

Jerry Garcia experienced a variety of health problems, largely as a result of addiction issues, compounded by the band’s nearly incessant touring. As he struggled with dependence on cocaine and heroin, Garcia gained a great deal of weight and became easily fatigued. In summer 1995, Jerry checked into a rehab clinic. On Aug. 8, 1995, he was found dead in his room of a heart attack, at age 53.

Jerry Garcia’s death marked the end of an era. However, several surviving members of the Grateful Dead are keeping on truckin’ as Dead & Co. What a long, strange trip it’s been.

New Riders of the Purple Sage and Ripple:

The New Riders of the Purple Sage is a psychedelic Bay Area country-rock band that materialized in the mid-60s. Their name was taken from the title of a Zane Grey novel; they are also referred to as New Riders or NRPS. They were so closely associated with the Grateful Dead that several Dead members (including guitarist Jerry Garcia, bassist Phil Lesh and drummer Mickey Hart) played at one time or another with NRPS. In fact, in the beginning the two groups would occasionally hold joint concerts where
an acoustic Grateful Dead set that often included Dawson and Nelson as adjutant members would then segue into New Riders and electric Dead sets, obviating the need to retain external opening acts.

Embed from Getty Images

The photo above shows the New Riders of the Purple Sage circa 1970. L to R: Spencer Dryden, John Dawson, David Nelson, Skip Battin, Buddy Cage.

The group was inspired by traditional bluegrass music, the “Bakersfield sound” of country music from Buck Owens and his collaborators, and by the emerging folk-rock genre. Guitarist John “Marmaduke” Dawson introduced his bandmates to new-age gurus Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey, so naturally the NRPS guys tuned in and turned on. The New Riders of the Purple Sage changed members so frequently that you could only keep track of them with a scorecard.

The New Riders released their first album in 1971, and it was moderately successful, reaching #49 on the Billboard album charts. At that time their commercial success was equal to or greater than that of the Grateful Dead. Alas, the commercial fortunes of New Riders of the Purple Sage spiraled downhill from there. Subsequent albums and singles generally went nowhere, with the exception of a 1973 album that included a cover of the song Panama Red, which became a minor hit and the ‘signature song’ for the group.

Unfortunately for the New Riders, the 70s West Coast country-rock scene was just too crowded. The landscape was littered with groups such as The Grateful Dead; The Eagles; Buffalo Springfield; Crosby, Stills and Nash; the Flying Burrito Brothers; Poco; Country Joe and the Fish; and Big Brother and the Holding Company. A result of this congestion was that a few groups became superstars while everyone else was relegated to eking out a living, hoping for a smash hit to change their fortunes, and constantly re-shuffling lineups.

Today, only guitarist and lead vocalist David Nelson and pedal steel guitarist Buddy Cage still survive from the original NRPS. Since 2005, they are joined by guitarist Michael Falzarano, bassist Ronnie Penque and drummer Johnny Markowski. This is the group that performs the following cover of Ripple.

This is from a November 2008 concert in Beverly, Illinois,a town on the southwest side of Chicago. Somehow, the presence of a pedal steel guitar on Ripple seems just right; Buddy Cage plays some lovely licks on this song, while Ronnie Penque keeps the tune moving along with his bouncy bass.

With their close historical connection to Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, Ripple seems like a most appropriate cover for NRPS. We wish the members of the band, still going after 55 years, all the best.

Playing for Change and Ripple:

Playing for Change is an international group of musicians that raise funds for the construction of music and art schools around the world. The group was founded in 2002 by engineer and producer Mark Johnson and film producer Whitney Kroenke.

Since 2008, the Playing For Change Foundation has created three music schools and inaugurated twelve music programs in third-world countries. In 2011, the Foundation inaugurated Playing For Change Day in mid-September. For example, the 2016 PFC day sponsored over 300 events around the world and raised $150,000 for the Foundation.

So here is one of their releases. This features musicians from all over the world performing the same song, Ripple by the Grateful Dead.

First of all, this is a really fun idea and a great way to raise funds. Second, they get some superstars to sing verses from Ripple. This features David Hidalgo from the band Los Lobos, Jimmy Buffett, and David Crosby. Third, the inspirational Ripple is a great choice for a group song. And perhaps most important, the project provides terrific exposure for first-rate musicians from third-world countries.

You can donate to Playing for Change here. Take a look at this website – you can click on various projects and music schools this group has fostered. The idea that music and art can connect people across cultures is not new, but it is nevertheless true. This is a group that seems worthy of support.

And the PFC music video of Ripple was sure fun! We wish each of these musicians much success.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Ripple (song)
Wikipedia, Grateful Dead
Wikipedia, Jerry Garcia
Wikipedia, Robert Hunter (lyricist)
Jennifer Finney Boylan, The Genius Behind the Grateful Dead, New York Times Oct. 16, 2019
Wikipedia, New Riders of the Purple Sage
Wikipedia, Playing For Change

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. From 2002 to 2018, he and his wife shared their college-town experiences with two delightful cats, siblings Lewis and Clark, who enormously enriched their lives. Together with his colleague Steven Vigdor, Tim is co-author of a blog "Debunking Denial," that discusses the difference between skepticism and denial as manifested in various current issues. He is also co-founder of "Concerned Scientists of Indiana University," a group that supports evidence-based science, funding for science research, and policies based on the best available scientific information. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
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