Grateful Dead

Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Black Muddy River"

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!)

"Black Muddy River"

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?

Thomas Moore.

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.


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Joined: Jul 3 2007
Garrison Kelilor singing BMR?

I am here on Nov. 13, 2017 because I was trying to find some evidence of Garrison Keillor singing BMR on PHC. When I first heard it live in 1987 my impression was that it could have been written 100 years ago. It was an "instant classic" in that sense. And I recollect hearing GK sing it shortly after it came out, as if he thought the same. .. who knows. But would love to nail it down.

liketohike's picture
Joined: May 29 2015
A glimpse of Utopia

Well said sweendog, spot on!

liketohike's picture
Joined: May 29 2015
A glimpse of Utopia

Well said sweendog, spot on!

So spot on I had to say it twice...

marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007
nice post, sweendog


sweendog67's picture
Joined: Jan 12 2009
Cover Song

I have heard and been listening to BMR as of late. Looking for sweet covers and best versions, etc.... Then it hit me.... The imagery produced by the lyrics is the time tested broken person tastes redemption recipe that has helped many a song and story stand the test of time. We bond with the song as we see reflection of self in the lyrics. Hunter talks about being 45 when he wrote this and how a man mid-life begins to look back upon his. For me I become more aware of my mortality while remembering or dwelling a bit more on the pains I have caused others. While I refuse to have regrets I do still have a conscience. I wonder if hunter did this on purpose....(?) I digress
So Hunter writes this when he is 45. I'm in my early 20's when I first hear it. So he offers up the PRICELESS GIFT OF WISDOM to fans who are more likely willing to let that beautiful Lady Wisdom in. For me, she got in. Though I did not see it at the time. Still, I am only 49 and while I will happily admit that I DO NOT KNOW IT ALL knowing I have just a hint of wisdom gives me the confidence to say I KNOW WHAT I KNOW!
This is one of those Grateful Dead Gifts. The kind you can't explain. Just like the people who can't "get the dead" and/or don't understand why WE do... I am very grateful to be a Grateful Dead Head. The music, the vibration, the frequency, fueled by the high electric energy of the crowed. The songs, the lyrics, connecting us like a patchwork quilt. We were given a glimpse of utopia. We know that true happiness and freedom exists. It may leave when the show is over but it is too late the imprint has been made. I will return to that place as often as I can until I am finally asked to stay. When I get there??? The Music Never Stops.

DeadGeek's picture
Joined: Dec 12 2014
Death as final freedom

I am a newbie and I've just begun listening to it so not an expert in any way. I can only bring my own life experiences to it. While the overtones feel sad, the undertones feel like a welcoming for what may be beyond, however muddy it seems from this side. Perhaps a loss of the beauty experienced in life but also a lifting of weights that can only come in death. I find it both mournful and hopeful. The river "rolls on forever" if you believe that death is not the end.
Dream me a dream of my own
Sing me a song of my own

A couple of Jerry's quotes really hit home for me after hearing it...I mourn because they gave me joy and it put me in a place to remember that.

Whatever kills you, kills you,
and your death is authentic
no matter how you die.

Don’t be sad because it’s over –
be glad ‘cause it happened.

Strider 88's picture
Joined: Jun 20 2007
Water of Life

As many of you who read this were at the first performance of Black Muddy River in December 1986 in Oakland you understand how powerful a song it is. The harmonies are like a celestial quire. The mood of the piece feels like dark shades of blue and purple. The harmonies like a ray of sunlight through storm clouds. I revere the symbol of the river as an allegory of life's journey. I just read that the Ganges River in south Asia was named for the Hindu Goddess Ganga. The Sadhus are also onto something. If my memory serves me well some of the ashes of Jerry Garcia were offered to the Ganges and some to the Pacific Ocean at Stinson Beach. Powerful concept. Whenever I travel south from my place of work and arrive at my home in southwest New Mexico I try to remember to walk the quarter mile to the Gila River to give thanks and bless myself with the water. Try to go a few days without food you will be OK. Try to go a few days without water and you're a gonner. This time of year the birds that summer on the river start to sing big time at 4:30 AM. Listening to their songs at that time is analogous to the Amazon. It's dawn bursting with the joy of life. So all the overlapping references within the songs of the Grateful Dead to rivers, roses, bird songs, high cold mountains, outlaws, in-laws, and the rest spring from the well of the Water of Life. Also along with the references in their songs from the Old Testament and New Testament its quite possible to find connections to Buddhism, Hinduism, Nature worship, Islam, and to be equal opportunity atheism.

Charbroiled's picture
Joined: Jun 19 2007
Com'on Children Down to the River of Goodness

This was one of those songs that Jerry always seemed to add that little extra emotional feel to. First saw it 3/24/87 after a second set opener of Gimme Some Loving which was weird, luckily it found it's home as an encore shortly after this.

Listen to the ripples moan.

Black Muddy River Roll

slo lettuce's picture
Joined: Jul 20 2012

living in his neck of the woods, I have enjoyed listening to PHC for years and you never know when it's going to happen, but quite often there will be a humorous reference to being at a GD concert. I love his voice and his mellow, yet sly, demeanor.

I wouldn't be surprised at all if he was a head.

marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007

he could do worse!


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