Rosemary is one of the simplest, shortest songs to appear on a Grateful Dead album. A graceful tune, accompanied by only a couple acoustic guitars, it tells the mysterious, atmospheric tale of a solitary lady in an ominous garden.
The actual narrative is left out, and we’re left with a few lines that allude to some unknown story. Rosemary herself is only indirectly described – “boots were of leather, a breath of cologne” – as she sits by her mirror and leaves her garden. She’s given the name of an herb that was long associated with mourning and remembrance, strewn on people’s graves, but was also a love charm worn at weddings. (Hunter very likely had these folkloric associations in mind when he wrote the song.)
The song has a wistful, lonesome setting, starting with one person “quite alone” and ending with an empty sealed garden where “no one may stay;” but nothing is explained. We’re left only with questions – is she waiting for someone? pining for a lover? in mourning? – that the song doesn’t answer.
Blair Jackson wrote that “lyrically, Rosemary feels almost fragmentary, as if it’s just a part of some larger song.” This was deliberate. As a song consciously written in ‘the folk tradition’ (though not, as far as I know, based on any particular song), ambiguity was key to Rosemary for its writers.
Garcia told Jackson in an ’88 interview, “I love it when a song is ambiguous... Hunter is able to leave just enough out… He actually writes more clearly than I let him; he explains things if I let him… Sometimes it doesn’t have to mean anything and it can still evoke a great something.” Jackson observed that Garcia would even “deliberately cut out verses of songs if they seem to be explaining things too much.”
Hunter told Jackson in ’88, “Jerry favors a certain type of folk song. He loves the mournful death-connected ballad, the Child Ballad stuff. This is a venerable source which has always spoken to him, and to me as well, which is one reason we got together writing songs – because of that haunting feel certain traditional songs have… I’m generally deep-sea diving in imagery and getting things that sometimes, as in folk music, you don’t know quite what it means, but it’s resonant. Like that line in that folk song, ‘ten thousand was drownded that never was born.’ It makes the hair stand up on your arms.”
In a 1991 interview with Garcia, Hunter brings up the same line: “You know, Jerry, you once said something to me about a lyric that really impressed you when you were young, and it impressed me the same way, and I almost feel that line is where we took off.” Garcia agrees: “That line really scared me. It’s from a tune called ‘The Mummer’s Song,’ that Jean Ritchie used to sing. It’s an a capella song with only two verses, and they’re nonsense insofar as that if they have any sense, it’s so deeply symbolic we don’t know what it’s actually about… Not knowing, though, is part of what makes it so evocative. The mystery is part of what makes it interesting to me.”
(Garcia was slightly off: the tune was Nottamun Town, which was sung in medieval English mummers’ plays.)
http://blog.allmusic.com/2008/06/27/when-down-is-up-2/ (the story of Nottamun Town)
“Sat down on a hard hot cold frozen stone
Ten thousand stood round me and yet I’s alone
Took my hat in my hand for to keep my head warm
Ten thousand got drownded that never was born.”
Hunter & Garcia brought this sensibility to Rosemary: what Hunter called “the notion of evocativeness,” or Garcia, “the lack of specificness, the power of the almost-expressed. It seemed to speak at some level other than the most obvious one, and it was more moving for that reason., since you don’t know what it’s about.”
Garcia talked about the Lord Randall ballad as an instance: “The versions that made it to Appalachia were two hundred years after the fact for those English ballads – they got sung from father to son or mother to daughter so much that eventually nobody remembered who Lord Randall was, but they did remember the guy’s head rolling down the stairs in that verse. (Hunter added, “You’ve got all those incredibly evocative lines like ‘black eel and black broth, mother’ and ‘I fain would lie doon.’”) You get these little hunks of good stuff and you don’t need all 29 verses to get the feeling of it. You only get three or four verses, but they’re so rich in weirdness because they’re the ones that made enough of an impression that they could last…through the generations.”
Though it has the timeless feel common to many of Hunter’s songs, Rosemary has a particularly medieval tone. The lyrics seem reminiscent of ancient Arthurian ballads: “On the wall of the garden, a legend did say, ‘No one may come here, since no one may stay.’” (The acoustic setting and medieval-inspired lyrics are also shared by Mountains of the Moon, which is kind of a sister song to Rosemary.)
The annotated GD lyrics site speculates on some of the literary influences that may have been floating around Hunter’s head:
The lady in her private walled garden is a staple of medieval literature, for instance in the famous Romance of the Rose and many of Chaucer’s poems:
One historical reference is Rosamund, the mistress of Henry II in the 12th century, who became famous in English romance and folklore. The story goes that Henry hid her in a bower garden surrounded by a forest labyrinth, so only he could find the way in; but his jealous queen Eleanor used a thread to discover the path, and poisoned Rosamund. This is one old ballad on the subject:
One possible inspiration for Rosemary is Hawthorne’s story “Rappaccini’s Daugher,” about an alluring but toxic young lady in a garden of poisonous plants:
http://www.shsu.edu/~eng_wpf/authors/Hawthorne/Rappaccini.htm “All around her the garden grew scarlet and purple and crimson and blue.”
(This story was also featured in a Vincent Price movie, Twice-Told Tales, in 1963.)
Another parallel is Tennyson’s poem “Lady of Shalott,” about a lady who pines alone in her walled isle while gazing in a mirror, and comes to a solitary end:
http://charon.sfsu.edu/tennyson/tennlady.html “Her mirror was a window, she sat quite alone.”
(Hunter in the 1991 interview even mentions that the British folk tradition he admires “reaches its culmination with Alfred Lord Tennyson, things like Morte d’Arthur. Certainly I liked that sort of writing.”)
There may also be an echo of Shelley’s poem “The Sensitive Plant,” about a lady who tends a garden – when she dies, the garden dies with her:
http://www.kalliope.org/digt.pl?longdid=shelley2003060601 “She came and she went and at last went away; the garden was sealed when the flowers decayed.”
And so on. There are many such literary pieces about women in gardens that could be found; but which exactly Hunter might have been thinking of, is uncertain. It’s possible he had particular old folk songs in mind, though in general Hunter seemed to take inspiration more from poetry and literature than from older songs.
(Oddly enough, he had recently written another song with a prominent garden: “Saint Stephen with a rose, in and out of the garden he goes.” But Hunter’s later songs would tend to leave English gardens for more American themes.)
How Hunter & Garcia came to write Rosemary is a story in itself – the song came right at a turning-point in the Dead’s music, as they shifted from writing weird acid-rock tunes to more straightforward, acoustic-based, traditional-flavored songs.
The Dead’s songwriting patterns changed in mid-1968. Up til then, most songs had been written by the whole band, with each person pitching in – many of their best songs came out of band jams. Anthem of the Sun is a good example of a true Dead collaboration, with six different songwriters contributing to the songs. Lesh and Garcia both felt equally free to work with Hunter’s lyrics, with Lesh arranging Clementine and the Eleven – and the first Hunter song the band did, Alligator, was also co-written by Pigpen.
Suddenly, once the Anthem album was finished in spring 1968, the band’s compositions narrowed drastically. Several of the bandmembers quit writing songs: each for their own reasons, neither Lesh, Weir nor Pigpen would write another song until 1970.
Into the breach stepped Robert Hunter. The band had enthusiastically accepted some lyrics he’d mailed from New Mexico back in ’67 (Alligator and China Cat) and invited him to join them as songwriter, since they felt their own lyrics were lacking. He had been writing an occasional song for them (Dark Star and Clementine) since arriving in summer ’67. St Stephen, in a way, was the last song from this initial Hunter phase – it was a song he had been working on in New Mexico and was apparently one of the ones he’d mailed in spring ’67, though Garcia and Lesh didn’t get around to working up an arrangement until spring ’68.
Not all of Hunter’s efforts were accepted. (Hunter: “I wrote endlessly.” Garcia: “He never stopped… The amount we set was nothing compared to the amount we didn’t set.”) In the 1991 Hunter/Garcia interview, he mentions the ‘Eagle Mall’ suite that he intended the Dead to perform: “I started writing that thing when we were down recording Anthem of the Sun. It was more a personal project – I had eyes for the band doing it, but then I was informed by [Garcia], ‘Listen, basically we’re a dance band and there’s no way in the world people will be able to dance to this sort of thing.’” (Or, as he puts it in the Box of Rain book, “It was too ambitious a lyric project for practical consideration.”)
Garcia recalled, “We did actually take a few cracks at trying to set some of it, but I couldn’t come up with anything that didn’t sound very hackneyed.” Hunter thought, “It almost had to have an old English flavor, and that wasn’t really where the Grateful Dead was going then.” Garcia suggested, “What we need is the New York Pro Musica to make this sound the way it’s supposed to go, with the bells and recorders and viola da gambas…” (The Pro Musica group performed medieval and Renaissance music.)
Though the Dead never did perform that suite, 1968 saw a shift in direction in which the “old English flavor” became exactly the mood Garcia was looking for. He admitted in ’91, “Mountains of the Moon had a little bit of the ‘Eagle Mall’ thing.” Once the band’s other songwriters fell silent, Garcia took charge of the Dead’s compositions, and he and Hunter started spinning out more antique-styled songs. These two had spent much of the early sixties seeking out forgotten folk songs, and those old traditions were now coming back up in their own songwriting.
Hunter said later that some of his early songs (like Dupree’s Diamond Blues) were “studied efforts to continue the oral tradition.” Garcia told Jackson in ’89, “Hunter and I always had this thing where we liked to muddy the folk tradition by adding our own versions of songs to the tradition… Dupree’s Diamond Blues is one of those. It’s the thing of taking a well-founded tradition and putting in something that’s totally looped.” Though the Dead would become more known for their takes on American folk (with Dupree’s being their starting-point), Rosemary and Mountains of the Moon seem to be deliberately patterned on older English folk traditions – a vein the Dead would not often return to.
Perhaps since Garcia & Hunter were working up most of the songs themselves at home, particularly at the end of the year, Aoxomoxoa featured more acoustic-based songs than before, some of them downright acid-folkish. Though the recordings didn’t necessarily include “bells and recorders and violas,” the Dead did throw in glockenspiels, choirs, or harpsichords as needed. Garcia & Hunter felt free to indulge themselves in epics like What’s Become of the Baby – as Garcia said in 1971, “Hunter and I were being more or less obscure, and there are lots of levels on the verbal plane in terms of the lyrics being far out – too far out, really, for most people.”
The songs recorded for Aoxomoxoa, in the order they appeared:
China Cat Sunflower – first played January ’68, but left off the Anthem album, and considerably overhauled for Aoxomoxoa.
Clementine – also debuted January ’68 and recorded for Aoxomoxoa, but abandoned.
St Stephen – probably composed in May ‘68; our first live tape is from June.
What’s Become of the Baby – improbably, one of the first songs the band tackled once they started Aoxomoxoa in September.
Cosmic Charlie – another of the first-recorded album songs, and played at a Hartbeats show on Oct 8.
Barbed Wire Whipping Party – an experiment done during the October recording sessions, but rejected.
Rosemary – we don’t know when this was recorded, but the song was finished by late November.
Mountains of the Moon – live debut Dec 20.
Dupree’s Diamond Blues & Doin’ That Rag – live debuts Jan 24 ’69.
Garcia said in his 1971 Rolling Stone interview that many of the Aoxomoxoa songs were “new tunes that I had written, that I hadn’t really bothered to teach anyone in the band, and I was trying to record them from the ground up and everyone was coming in and doing overdubs… We went about it in a very fragmentary way; we didn’t go about it as a group at all.”
One thing the Aoxomoxoa outtakes tape reveals is that for many tracks, Garcia would go in with just one drummer and record a rhythm track, and the rest of the band would overdub themselves later. Tom Constanten wrote about the process for Skeleton Key: “It was decided to record [the tracks] separately, About half a dozen tracks were dedicated to the drums, and at least two to the bass. Next, the guitars, and then my keyboard. Then came whatever trimmings – glockenspiel, cowbell, whatever – we’d thought of… Finally the vocal tracks were added.”
What’s Become of the Baby is another track that, instrumentally speaking, started out as just Garcia and acoustic guitar – though it was then layered over with sound effects. (The guitar-only version on the outtakes tape is much simpler than the weird album version, though identical song-wise.) Mountains of the Moon was also relatively easy, as Constanten recalled: “Jerry, Bob, Phil and I recorded the basic tracks in the same room at the same time.” (They couldn’t help adding a choir later, though Garcia stripped it off again in the ’71 remix.)
But Rosemary was kept simple: the Dead did not record a full band version that we know of. Garcia’s solo effort was just put straight on the album as it was.
Garcia recorded Rosemary as a four-track demo by himself, and brought it finished to the band. It seems he only used three tracks, two guitars and a vocal. (Though he unfortunately applied an electronic effect to his voice, running it through a Leslie organ cabinet, which makes him sound like a singing lamb.) One guitar plucks the chords, and the other provides a vaguely Spanish-sounding accompaniment. Musically, Garcia enhances the desolate air of the lyrics by pausing in-between each verse, then repeating the chords in cyclical fashion.
The recording was simple enough that Garcia made few changes to Rosemary when remixing the album in 1971. He basically made it more ‘straight’ – the two guitars are on each side while the voice is in the middle. On the original album, each track floated randomly around the stereo channels, and the voice was much lower in the mix, somewhat buried beneath the guitars (making the words even harder to decipher). The original mix is also about five seconds longer, as the guitars slowly wind out to a concluding chord at the end – as with most of the tracks on the album, Garcia faded a bit early in the remix.
Rosemary on the Aoxomoxoa outtakes tape is, of course, the exact same track, just in mono. It fades out a little too early, too. (However, you can actually hear the first line, “Boots were of leather.” This doesn’t actually appear on the album track, as Garcia’s voice fades in on “leather”! He sings it on the one live version, though.)
Rosemary was long thought never to have been played live, until a stash of December ‘68 live tapes turned up in 1999. One of these was a loose, tripped-out show at Bellarmine College in Louisville, KY, from December 7. It was the last show of a midwest tour, and the Dead may have been a little tired after playing in Philadelphia the previous night - they also faced some equipment problems early in the set, abandoning the Eleven.
After a meandering New Potato, Weir announces a little break; and when they return, it’s with just one drummer. (Garcia explains a little later on that “one of our drummers broke down.”) They have no plan about what to play next, and Garcia abruptly starts playing Rosemary, perhaps to fill up a long wait. (Bear stopped taping in the break, so the recording cuts back in during the opening notes.)
It’s a quiet, delicate performance – unfortunately, the tapesource is a mono cassette recording which sounds particularly hissy at this point. Nonetheless, the unique live Rosemary is done somewhat differently than the album track – for one, Lesh plays along with Garcia, so we get to hear what the bass line for Rosemary would have sounded like. Weir also seems to join in unobtrusively by the end, filling out Garcia’s guitar part. (This makes me think they may have attempted a fuller band version in the studio prior to this. Then again, they may have been catching the song on the fly – Garcia himself sounds a little shaky.) Garcia sings the same verses as on the album (though he slightly forgets the line, “The garden was sealed when the flowers decayed”), but the song is extended by a minute with a longer instrumental ending. Very impromptu and fragile, but nicely done! Then it’s time for some tuning…
Unless another version is hiding in an unknown live show in the Vault, that’s the last we hear of Rosemary. A couple weeks later on December 20, Mountains of the Moon shows up live for the first time – after the Dead abandon another Eleven, Garcia actually pulls out his acoustic to play it (possibly for the first time in a Dead show), and is only accompanied by a few notes from Constanten. Since Garcia particularly liked that song, Mountains became a regular feature of Dead shows in early 1969, but Rosemary was left behind.
“She came and she went and at last went away…”
Someone at Warner Bros must have liked Rosemary, though, for it later appeared on the 1974 best-of compilation Skeletons From the Closet.