December 7, 2019

Grateful Dead Geography

Where do Grateful Dead songs take place? 

Most songs have no location – they deal with feelings, relationships, affairs of the heart, and could be set anywhere. Some songs tell stories but take place in nameless locations, unknown and indeterminate. But the Dead sang quite a few songs that happen in specific places. Their repertoire is full of place-names of cities, states, and even a few spots outside the USA. From earlier American song traditions they inherited lyrics set in different regions around the country, and continued these traditions in their own lyrics, mapping out the US in song.

I’ve gathered together a list of all the geographic places named in Grateful Dead songs – a Dead map of the USA, if you will (and a few areas beyond). Some of these places are imaginary; some are the cities of the modern world; some are more mythical regions handed down in folk songs. The Dead’s songs span the breadth of the continent “from coast to coast,” “from sea to shining sea,” “New York to San Francisco.” They have a fondness for stories about travelers crossing the country, heading from one city to the next. As you might expect, the American West gets a lot of attention – California in particular – but the Dead’s blues and country roots also bring in many areas of the South, and a few traveling songs cover the expanse of the US.

Sometimes the location is just implied, and we find ourselves in unnamed towns with no bearings. The West is often evoked – a number of Hunter’s songs are vaguely Western in feel but don’t have any specific setting. Sometimes a mood is all that’s needed. Hal Kant wrote about songs of the western frontier in the Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics book:
“In lyrics, the Old West of drifters, free spirits, living by one’s wits and fists, and traveling light, come alive… Song celebrated the desire to quit the safety of home, family ties, traditional job – the romance of being on the road with no specific direction and taking your chances in the next saloon with a poker game running. Ballads celebrated whisky and wild women and staking it all on a single hand…” (p.146)
As we’ll see, these themes of the Wild West would carry great importance in the Dead’s own songs.

The various Dead songwriters had different habits in their lyrics. Robert Hunter, the most conscious of older song traditions, takes the lead by far in naming places in his songs. Most of the geographical mentions in the Dead’s original songs are Hunter’s. John Perry Barlow veers between grimy urban tales and pastoral paeans, but doesn’t usually name specific spots in either case. (Weir makes up for this by singing lots of cover songs stuffed with place-names.) Pigpen, suffused in the blues, usually sings of empty bedrooms and broken hearts, but not many sites on the map. Phil’s songs tend to be very poetic and evoke grand scenes of nature, without much reference to mundane locations. Brent’s songs are devoid of anything but his emotional states and “the caverns of my heart,” rarely mentioning the outside world.

Covers and originals are treated equally here – if the Dead recorded or performed a song, it’s considered a “Dead song,” and a lyric they sang once might be quoted as much as one they sang 500 times. However, Garcia and Weir’s solo songs outside the Dead are not included; nor are songs done by guest singers. Also left out are rejected lyrics and outtakes (hence, no Hollywood Cantata here).

Thanks to Alex Allan:       



“I’d shine my light through the cool Colorado rain”
“Stay here in Frisco, be treated like a dog” (early versions)
I Know You Rider

“You’ll be Nashville bound”
Viola Lee Blues 
(Viola Lee might be a placename as well.)

“Mississippi river, so big and wide”
“Saw her in Dallas, in El Paso”
Sitting on Top of the World

“If you’re ever in Memphis, better stop by Minglewood”
“I’m a wanted man in Texas”
“It’s T for Timbuktu” (and T for wherever the band was playing)
New Minglewood Blues

“They’re dancing in Chicago”
“Down in New Orleans”
“in New York City”
“Philadelphia, PA”
“Baltimore and DC”
“Can’t forget the Motor City” [Detroit]
“Down in L.A. every day”
Dancing in the Street

“South Colorado, West Texas bound”
“We stopped over in Santa Fe”
“I’m as honest as a Denver man can be”
“We hightailed it down to Mexico”
Me & My Uncle

“If you go down to Deep Elem” [in Dallas]
Deep Elem Blues

“Up on the Blue Ridge mountain” [Appalachians]
I’ve Been All Around This World

“They overtook me in Jericho”
“the sheriff from Thomasville” [possibly North Carolina]
Little Sadie

“Out in the west Texas town of El Paso”
“Up through the badlands of New Mexico”
El Paso

“Walking in Jerusalem just like John”
And We Bid You Goodnight

“Look at that cold Jordan” [Middle Eastern river]
Cold Jordan

“I looked over Jordan”
Swing Low Sweet Chariot

“Jesus who died on cruel Calvary” [in Jerusalem]
A Voice From On High

“Deep down in Louisiana, close to New Orleans”
Johnny B. Goode

“Busted flat in Baton Rouge”
“Took us all the way to New Orleans”
“From the coal mines of Kentucky to the California sun”
“Somewhere near Salinas, I let her slip away”
Me & Bobby McGee

“I met her accidentally in St. Paul, Minnesota”
“Went back downstream cavorting in Davenport”
“I followed her to St. Louis”
“I found her trail in Memphis”
“Bat it down by Baton Rouge”
“Take that woman down to New Orleans”
“Dump my blues down in the Gulf” [of Mexico]
Big River

“I left my home in Norfolk, Virginia,
California on my mind”
“rode him past Raleigh,
and on across Caroline,
we stopped at Charlotte, we bypassed Rock Hill”
“ninety miles out of Atlanta”
“rollin’ ‘cross Georgia state”
“halfway across Alabam’”
“stranded in downtown Birmingham”
“ridin’ ‘cross Mississippi clean”
“the Midnight Flyer out of Birmingham
smokin’ into New Orleans”
“out of Louisiana”
“get to Houston town”
“I woke up high over Albuquerque”
“flyin’ over to the Golden State”
Promised Land

“As we rode out to Fennario” [also in Dire Wolf]
“He’s buried in the Louisiana country-o”

“In London he did dwell”

“werewolves of London”
“the streets of Soho”
(also “Kent,” “Mayfair,” “Lee Ho Fuk’s,” and “Trader Vic’s”)
Werewolves of London

“When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez” [Mexico]
“I’m going back to New York City” (or wherever – Phil sometimes changed the line to “San Anselmo,” “Foggy Bottom,” etc.)
Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues

“Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again”
(also “Texas medicine,” “Panamanian moon,” and various city locations)
Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again

“the streets of Rome”
“I left Rome and I landed in Brussels”
(also “the Spanish stairs” and “the Coliseum”)
When I Paint My Masterpiece

“She got the Elgin movement”
Walkin’ Blues
(Elgin was a watch company based in Elgin, IL.)

“I pulled into Nazareth” [Pennsylvania]
The Weight

(See also Rare Covers below.)


“Going back to Timbuktu”
Tastebud (live)

“Your mother’s down in Memphis”
Golden Road

“Tear down the Fillmore, gas the Avalon” [San Francisco]

“New Speedway” (not in lyric) [Altamont Speedway]
New Speedway Boogie  

“I lit out from Reno”
“I spent that night in Utah”
“Got a wife in Chino, babe, and one in Cherokee”
Friend of the Devil

“I come in from Memphis”

“Down about Baton Rouge”
“It’s flooding in Texas, the lines are down in Utah”
“Riding a getaway bus out of Portland”

“Chicago, New York, Detroit, it’s all on the same street”
“Dallas got a soft machine”
“Houston, too close to New Orleans”
“New York got the ways and means”
“Truckin’ up to Buffalo”
“Busted down on Bourbon Street”

“I could arm a town the size of Abilene”

“Tennessee, Tennessee, there ain’t no place I’d rather be”
Tennessee Jed

“Leaving Texas”
“Catch the Detroit Lightning out of Santa Fe”
“Great Northern out of Cheyenne”
“Gotta get to Tulsa”
“Jack Straw from Wichita”
“Half a mile from Tucson”
Jack Straw

“the Mexicali blues”
“It’s three days ride from Bakersfield”
Mexicali Blues

“Just like New York City, just like Jericho”
Ramble On Rose

Chinatown (not in the lyric)
Chinatown Shuffle

“I left St. Louis, the city of blues”
Black-Throated Wind

“Mississippi uptown toodleloo”
“Across the Rio Grand-eo”
Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleloo

“You can call this song the United States blues”
US Blues

“As I was walking round Grosvenor Square” [London]
Scarlet Begonias

“Pride of Cucamonga”
“I came down from Oregon”
Pride of Cucamonga

“Arabian wind…the desert stars”
Blues for Allah

“It was midnight in the Mission” [SF district]
“There’s some satisfaction in the San Francisco rain”
Mission in the Rain

“Down in Carlisle he loved a lady” [England]
Terrapin Station

Estimated Prophet

“Leave her in L.A.”
I Need a Miracle

“Way down in the south of France”

Antwerp’s Placebo
(album instrumental titles, no lyrics)

“Alabama getaway”
Alabama Getaway

“West L.A. fadeaway”
West L.A. Fadeaway

“I see the Gulf of Mexico”
“The coast of California”
“I see all of Southeast Asia”
“I can see El Salvador”
“Somewhere in San Francisco”
Standing on the Moon

“South of Market in the land of ruin” [Market Street, San Francisco]
Picasso Moon

“Reuben walked the streets of New Orleans till dawn”
Reuben and Cerise

“Thought I heard that KC whistle” [train line]
“Underneath the Kokomo”
“New York to San Francisco”
So Many Roads (see also imaginary places)

“Walking to New Orleans”

“Salt Lake City, just really makes Des Moines look second-rate”
Salt Lake City

(Does not include guest covers.)

“When Washington lands in France”
Overseas Stomp

“One little piggy went to London
One piggy went to Hong Kong”
I’m A Hog For You Baby

“Down the Mississippi, down in New Orleans”
“Take a stroll down on Basin Street”
New Orleans

“Way down in Tupelo, Mississippi”
The Mighty Flood

“It froze clear down to China”
The Frozen Logger

“the warden’s door at Sing Sing”
“California, Alcatraz out on the rock”
“from Folsom on to Leavenworth”
Let Me In

“Old Colorado and the Santa Fe” [train lines]
Ballad of Casey Jones

“I was born in old Virginia
North Carolina I did roam”
I Washed My Hands in Muddy Water

“It’s the last train to Jacksonville”
Are You Lonely For Me Baby

“Down in Mobile, Alabama”
Let It Rock

“Going down to Louisiana”
Got My Mojo Working

“When I get back on that KC road”
KC Moan

“Kansas City here I come”
“Standing on the corner, Twelfth Street and Vine”
Kansas City

“She wears an Egyptian ring”
She Belongs To Me

“Me see Jamaica moon above”
Louie Louie

“JoJo left his home in Tucson, Arizona for some California grass”
Get Back

“There was a California earthquake”
“the Owens County seat”
“all the way to San Andrea”
“levelled Mission Creek”
“across to San Joachim”
“on San Francisco Bay”
“walls came down like old Jericho”
California Earthquake

“Take my money and run Venezuela”


Many places named in the Dead’s songs don’t exist. This is sometimes a fuzzy category – some places listed earlier (like the mysterious “Kokomo” of So Many Roads) may well be mythical. There were actual Cumberland mines in a few places, but Hunter probably wasn’t thinking of a particular one. Fennario may have been considered a real place-name when Peggy-O was originally sung, but it’s an imaginary place in Dire Wolf.

“Blueberry Hill”

“Down on Honky Tonk Street”
Big Boy Pete

“Joe Brown’s coal mine”
Beat It On Down the Line

“Rosa’s cantina”
El Paso

“the eagle wing palace of the Queen Chinee”
China Cat Sunflower

“the polished ice caverns of Khan”
(also “the looking-glass fields of illusion” and “the regions of lead”)
What’s Become of the Baby

“the mountains of the moon”
Mountains of the Moon

“Mangrove Valley”
Doin’ That Rag

“Central Station,” “River Junction”
Casey Jones

“In the timbers of Fennario” [also in Peggy-O]
Dire Wolf

“Gotta get down to the Cumberland mine”
Cumberland Blues

“Saint Angel”
Black Peter

“I live in a silver mine and I call it beggar’s tomb”
Uncle John’s Band

“tumbledown shack in Bigfoot County”
Brown-Eyed Women

“Muskrat Flats,” “the Graystone Hotel”
Pride of Cucamonga

“Great North Special” (train line)
Might As Well

Franklin’s Tower

Terrapin Station

Shakedown Street

“DeLyon’s Club,” “Singapore Street” (and “City Hall”)
Stagger Lee

“Club D’Jour”

“Bluebird Hill,” “the land of the midnight sun”
So Many Roads

“Sycamore Slough,” “Shadowfall Ward,” “Seminole Square,” “Lazy River Road”
Lazy River Road

“Wild Hair Boulevard,” “Kangaroo Cave”
Revolutionary Hamstrung Blues

“Rue Morgue Avenue,” “Housing Project Hill”
Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues

A number of Dylan songs are also set in imaginary places: All Along the Watchtower, Desolation Row, and Maggie’s Farm.  


There are only a few examples of these but, along with the “California grass” of Get Back, you’ll notice a trend here:

“a bush of that bright Oaxaca vine”
Pride of Cucamonga

“sweet as Spanish sherry wine”

“drunk on Burgundy wine”
Wharf Rat

“I started out on burgundy”
Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues

“the water in the city taste like Georgia Pie” [cocktail]
“buying Kansas City wine”
Kansas City

(Also, Revolutionary Hamstrung Blues originally had a drinking verse featuring “Mendocino skunk,” “German brew,” and “Oregon boot,” but it wasn’t sung live.)


There are a few other songs that were almost, but not quite, part of the Dead’s repertoire:
Wandering Man (“going out to Jerusalem”) – known from a 1966 demo but possibly never played live.
Alabama Bound (“I’m Alabama bound”) – played by David & the Dorks in 1970, and at a 1993 soundcheck.
Whiskey in the Jar (set on the apparently fictional “Gilgarra mountain” of Ireland) – rehearsed & soundchecked in 1993.
Weir’s song Heaven Help the Fool has some notable geographic references, but when the Dead played it in 1980, it was only as an instrumental, so it’s not included here. 
"L'Alhambra" (named for the Moorish palace in Granada) is another borderline case - no actual Dead song has that name, but Hunter had a song "written to a Moorish setting composed by Mickey Hart that eventually evolved into a wordless melodic segment of Terrapin Station." There's some doubt over just what segment this was (perhaps 'Terrapin Transit'), but the Deadbase setlist for 3/18/77 confidently called the only live performance of 'At A Siding' "Alhambra," thus adding a bit of Spain to the Dead's repertoire.


As a visual aid, I’ve made a map marking all the locations named in Dead songs within the US and Mexico. (The blue spots are cover songs, the red spots originals.) It’s not meant to be exact – the locations are often approximate, and sometimes conjectural, and a few areas are named so often that the markers all overlap. I had to space them apart a little bit for a broad view (so if you zoom in it becomes obviously imprecise). But it’s now easy to see what territories the Dead covered in song. 

Here’s another list of Dead locations, this time sorted by city, state, and section of the US (and some places beyond).

United States – US Blues

California – Bobby McGee
California – Promised Land
California – Get Back
California – California Earthquake
California – Estimated Prophet
California coast – Standing on the Moon

Bakersfield, CA – Mexicali Blues

Cucamonga, CA – Pride of C.

Folsom prison, CA – Let Me In

Salinas, CA – Bobby McGee

Frisco – I Know You Rider
San Francisco – Standing on the Moon
San Francisco – So Many Roads
San Francisco Bay – California Earthquake (& several other CA locations)

Mission, San Francisco – Mission in the Rain
South of Market (Street) – Picasso Moon
Fillmore/Avalon – Alligator
Chinatown – Chinatown Shuffle
(Altamont Speedway) – New Speedway Boogie
Alcatraz, California – Let Me In

L.A – Dancing
L.A. – I Need a Miracle
West L.A. – West LA Fadeaway

Chino/Cherokee (prob. CA) – Friend of the Devil

Oregon – Pride of Cucamonga

Portland, OR – Operator

Reno, NV – Friend of the Devil

Utah – Friend of the Devil
Utah – Operator

Salt Lake City, UT – SLC

Tucson, AZ – Jack Straw
Tucson, Arizona – Get Back

Cheyenne, WY – Jack Straw

Colorado – I Know You Rider
South Colorado – Me & My Uncle

Denver, CO – Me & My Uncle

New Mexico – El Paso

Albuquerque, NM – Promised Land

Santa Fe, NM – Me & My Uncle
Santa Fe, NM – Jack Straw

Tulsa, OK – Jack Straw

Abilene, KS – Loser

Kansas City, KS (12th/Vine) – KC

Leavenworth prison, KS – Let Me In

Wichita, KS – Jack Straw

St. Louis, MO – Big River
St. Louis, MO – Black-Throated Wind

Davenport, IA – Big River

Des Moines, IA – Salt Lake City

St. Paul, MN – Big River

Chicago, IL – Dancing
Chicago, IL – Truckin’

Elgin, IL – Walkin’ Blues

Detroit, MI – Dancing
Detroit, MI – Truckin’

Buffalo, NY – Truckin’

New York City – Dancing
New York City – Tom Thumb
New York (City) – Truckin’
New York City – Ramble On Rose
New York (City) – So Many Roads

Sing Sing prison, NY – Let Me In

Nazareth (PA) – Weight

Philadelphia, PA – Dancing

Washington, DC – Dancing
Washington (DC) – Overseas Stomp

Baltimore, MD – Dancing

Blue Ridge mountain (prob. VA/NC) – I Been All Around

Jericho/Thomasville (prob. NC) – Little Sadie

Norfolk, Virginia – Promised Land

Virginia – Muddy Water

North Carolina – Muddy Water

Raleigh, NC – Promised Land

Charlotte/Rock Hill, SC – Promised Land

Atlanta, Georgia – Promised Land

Jacksonville, FL – Are You Lonely

Kentucky – Bobby McGee

Tennessee – T. Jed

Memphis, TN - Minglewood
Memphis, TN – Big River
Memphis, TN – Stuck Inside…
Memphis, TN – Golden Road
Memphis, TN – Candyman

Minglewood, TN – Minglewood

Nashville, TN – Viola Lee

Alabama – A. Getaway

Birmingham, Alabama – Promised Land

Mobile, AB – Stuck Inside…
Mobile, AB – Let It Rock

Mississippi – Promised Land
Mississippi – Half-Step

Tupelo, Mississippi – Mighty Flood

Mississippi river – Top of the World (also implied in Big River)
Mississippi (river) – New Orleans

Louisiana – Johnny B. Goode
Louisiana – Promised Land
Louisiana – Peggy-O
Louisiana – Got My Mojo Working

Baton Rouge, LA – Bobby McGee
Baton Rouge, LA – Big River
Baton Rouge, LA – Operator

New Orleans, LA – Johnny B. Goode
New Orleans, LA - Dancing
New Orleans, LA – Bobby McGee
New Orleans, LA – Big River
New Orleans, LA – Promised Land
New Orleans, LA – Truckin’
New Orleans, LA – Reuben & Cerise
New Orleans, LA - Liberty
New Orleans, LA – New Orleans

Bourbon Street (New Orleans) – Truckin’
Basin Street (New Orleans) – New Orleans

Texas – Minglewood
West Texas – Me & My Uncle
Texas – Jack Straw
Texas - Operator

Dallas, TX – Top of the World
Dallas, TX – Truckin’

Deep Elem (Dallas) – DE Blues

El Paso, TX – Top of the World
El Paso, TX – El Paso

Houston, TX – Promised Land
Houston, TX – Truckin’

Rio Grande (river) – MS Half-Step

Gulf (of Mexico) – Big River
Gulf of Mexico – Standing on the Moon

Kokomo (? – prob. imaginary) – So Many Roads

TRAIN LINES (not marked on map)

Detroit Lightning – Jack Straw
Great Northern – Jack Straw
KC whistle – So Many Roads
KC road – KC Moan
Colorado & Santa Fe – Ballad of Casey Jones


Mexico – Me & My Uncle

Juarez, Mexico – Tom Thumb

Mexicali, Mexico – M. Blues

Jamaica – Louie Louie

El Salvador – Standing on the Moon

Venezuela - Matilda

Carlisle, England – Terrapin Station

London – Jack-a-Roe
London – Hog For You
London (& neighborhoods) – Werewolves of L.
Grosvenor Square (London) – Scarlet Begonias

France – Overseas Stomp
France – France

Rome – Masterpiece

Brussels – Masterpiece
Antwerp – Placebo

Jericho – Ramble On Rose
Jericho – California Earthquake
Jerusalem – Goodnight 
Calvary – Voice
Jordan River – Jordan
Jordan (river) – Chariot

Arabia – Blues for Allah

Egypt – She Belongs To Me

Serengetti – Serengetti

China – Frozen Logger

Hong Kong – Hog For You

Southeast Asia – Standing on the Moon

Timbuktu – Minglewood
Timbuktu – Tastebud

Fennario – Peggy-O (& Dire Wolf)


As expected, the Dead’s immediate surroundings of San Francisco and California appear frequently in over a dozen songs. What’s more surprising is the dominance of Louisiana, especially New Orleans – that state appears in another dozen songs, with New Orleans featured so often it even has two streets named in Dead songs. It seems to be the center of the US in Dead lore, beating out Texas which only features in nine songs. But Tennessee also makes a respectable showing due to Memphis turning up in several songs – in fact, as many as New York City, which only receives some casual mentions and isn’t nearly as important as Memphis or New Orleans. In all the US, the Southeast turns out to be the most crowded with song locations, with a lighter sprinkling across the western states. But New England, the northern plains states, and much of the Midwest are left out, blank spaces on the Dead’s map.

The Dead did not have much interest in Europe. Due to Hunter’s Anglophilia, a couple English locations are mentioned in Dead songs, and France shows up a couple times. Oddly enough, by coincidence the most common European nationality mentioned is Spain, even though no songs are set there – the “Spanish lady” in the Other One, the “Spanish sherry wine” in France, “the Apache in Spain” (one of the dances in Samba in the Rain), and “the Spanish stairs” (the Spanish Steps in Rome) in When I Paint My Masterpiece.
A few other spots around the globe are named at random, with an emphasis on biblical locations. Some of these names are just meant to conjure up distant locales – as David Dodd describes Timbuktu, “It serves as a stand-in name for any far-off place in the middle of nowhere.”

A word on Fennario: Peggy-O originated long ago as an 18th-century Scottish song called The Bonnie Lass O'Fyvie - Fyvie is an actual town in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. When the song migrated to America, over the years Fyvie somehow turned into Fennario, and the captain's burying-place became Lousiana. In time, the Scottish setting became remote and forgotten. Robert Hunter thought of Fennario as a "mythic territory," and Alan Trist called it "a place in the imagination." (Dodd discusses Hunter's choice of Fennario in his notes on Dire Wolf.) In any case, the town where a "lady like a dove" romances a captain is clearly not the "black and bloody mire" where wolves run round.


A few early songs take place in some other realm – for instance Clementine which is set in “the meadow of bottomless time,” “the forests of linear time,” and “the lava rock canyons.” Several of Hunter’s early songs are equally unreal and fanciful, such as the colorful China Cat and Eleven, and What’s Become of the Baby with its “ice caverns,” “looking-glass fields,” and the regions of rhyme and lead. (And then there’s Dark Star, which doesn’t take place on earth at all.) Mountains of the Moon is set in fairyland, with its “kings and wives assembled in the hall.” The other songs on Aoxomoxoa are almost realistic in comparison.

After that album, the Dead returned to earth. Aside from the early Hunter songs, Dead songs are not set in exotic locales – few foreign lands or fairy-tale kingdoms are to be found. Due to all the blues and country covers, many songs are set in rural environments. Some of the Dead’s originals also take place out on the fields, hills, and highways; and scenes of nature are found throughout their lyrics. But the Dead were most at home in urban settings, and probably more of their original songs take place in the city. So their repertoire is divided between songs set in the old countryside and songs of city life.

(The country/city split in the Dead's songs is also apparent on some of their album covers - Aoxomoxoa, Wake of the Flood, and Terrapin Station feature pastoral or rural images on the covers, while Workingman's Dead, Shakedown Street, and Dead Set have pictures of cities. Mars Hotel splits the difference with a cover set on an alien planet.)

A shift is noticeable in the Dead’s later songs – they become increasingly remote from everyday life, and more metaphorical. There are fewer solid locations and more urban environments, and rural settings become rare. You might say, Fennario is traded for L.A. (Some settings are purely metaphorical – such as the Ship of Fools, the “forest of dreams” in I Will Take You Home, and the scenery in When Push Comes to Shove – so I haven’t listed those.)

Since these are songs and not screenplays, usually few details are given about the locations, which are often only implied; listeners must lend their own imaginations. To take a few early Hunter songs as examples, Dupree’s Diamond Blues has a scene set in court, Cumberland Blues in Melinda’s dwelling, Dire Wolf in some sort of cabin, and Wharf Rat out on the street – but these places are never mentioned; the interactions between characters are more important. While Hunter could be specific, more often he preferred to be vague, focusing on thoughts and conversations rather than settings. (For instance, just where is the Candyman, or the Loser, or Tennessee Jed?)

Hunter once revealed his approach to song-setting in comments on Dire Wolf: "The situation that's basically happening in Dire Wolf is it's the middle of winter, and there's nothing to eat for anybody, and this guy's got a little place... Out there in a barren setting, stripped; there's no setting, really, just blank white, and these characters in the middle of it." Though Dire Wolf isn't quite barren of scenery, the approach here is true for songs in general - the characters are more important than the background, which usually remains unseen.

The Western songs illustrate the vagueness of scene-setting in many of the songs. El Paso doesn’t have any location except for “Rosa’s cantina” (which has a back door) and a hill overlooking town. Me & My Uncle has “the stall” and “the bar-room,” and later on “the road.” Mexicali Blues is much more descriptive, with “an old saloon,” “dusty streets,” Billie Jean’s perfumed room, and “desert sands.” (Barlow tended to use many more specific details than Hunter did; he had a narrative gift that he rarely used in songs.) Jack Straw, on the other hand, is lacking in many details – there’s a fence, a train, and a shallow grave somewhere, and the surrounding western expanses are only implied by a line about the Texas sky. Here all those names of western towns help fill in the picture.

This is a partial list of some vague or generic settings named in Dead songs. Covers and originals are separated, and the list moves from rural to urban sites. Locations that recur in numerous songs (such as railroads, rivers, prisons, etc.) I’ll discuss later, so don’t fret if some obvious ones are missing.

Little Red Rooster – “the barnyard”
Death Letter Blues – “the graveyard”
One Kind Favor - “the burying ground” (shows up again in Althea)
Slewfoot – “high on the mountain,” “the gate,” “the gully,” “the well,” a frozen river
Old House – “an old house,” “the garden”
Green Grass of Home – “the old hometown,” “the old house,” “the old oak tree”
Johnny B. Goode – “a log cabin… in the woods,” a “tree by the railroad track”
Rosa Lee McFall – “the lonely hillside, in a cabin”
Tom Dooley – “the hillside,” “some lonesome valley”
Iko Iko – “the bayou”
Sawmill – “the sawmill”
Little Sadie – “the county jail”
Big Railroad Blues – “the depot”
Beat It On Down the Line – “the station,” “that shack way across the railroad track”
Early Morning Rain – “this old airport”
Frozen Logger – “a small cafe”
Jack-a-Roe – “a tailor’s shop,” “a vessel”
Dark Hollow – “some big city in a small room”
Something On Your Mind – “the pawnshop” downtown
Wang Dang Doodle – “the union hall”
Around & Around - “the joint was rockin’”
Big Boy Pete - “the joint was jumping”
Good Golly Miss Molly – “the house of blue light”

Other One – “the lily fields” 
Rosemary – “the garden”
St. Stephen – “the garden,” “wishing well,” “seashore”
Easy Wind – “the great highway,” “the bayou”
Friend of the Devil: “the levee,” “a cave up in the hills”
Brown-Eyed Women: “the fields” (also a bar & a shack)
Row Jimmy – “the levee,” “the jukebox,” “grass shack”  
Weather Report Suite – “golden hills,” “the river shore,” “the furrowed field”
Music Never Stopped – “the river,” “the highway,” “the fields”
Estimated – “that highway,” “the beach/the burning shore”
Pride of Cucamonga – “the empty highway,” “golden forests”
From the Heart of Me – “the mountains,” “the valley”
Unbroken Chain – “out on the mountain”
Valley Road – “the old plantation,” “the long valley road”

Dupree’s Diamond Blues – “the jewelry store”
One More Saturday Night – “the local armory”
Operator – “a steel mill,” “a house of blue light”
Wharf Rat – “the docks of the city,” “downtown”
Stella Blue – “the pavement,” “blue-light cheap hotel”
Money Money – “a bank”
Loose Lucy – “the alley”
Stagger Lee – “downtown,” “the bar,” “City Hall”
Alabama Getaway – “the courthouse”
Feel Like a Stranger – “the neon avenue”
West L.A. Fadeaway – “a chateau”
Throwing Stones – “rat cat alley,” “ghetto night” (also “the rich man in his summer home”)
Reuben and Cerise – “the bandstand”
Hell in a Bucket – “your carpeted halls”
Standing on the Moon – “a back porch”


A few words on some unusual locations that show up in two Dead songs:

The bayou – Easy Wind, Iko Iko
Iko Iko is specifically a New Orleans song, and given the Dead’s frequent references to Louisiana, that’s probably where Easy Wind is set as well.

The levee – Friend of the Devil, Row Jimmy
No details on where these levees are set, but in old blues songs, typically a levee indicates the Mississippi River. (It wouldn’t be a surprise to find the friend of the devil running clear to Louisiana.)

The lion’s den – New Minglewood Blues, Terrapin Station
Samson also fights a lion in Samson & Delilah. Whether the sailor in Lady With a Fan had to fight with lions is left untold.

The garden – Rosemary, St. Stephen
Rosemary’s strange multi-colored garden is a very different place from Stephen’s bustling but rain-parched garden of lavender, manzanitas, and vines of ivy. Both gardens, though, appear to be abandoned – Rosemary’s flowers decay, and Stephen’s plants droop without water. Weir also has a couple rare songs (Old House, This Time Forever) featuring home gardens associated with lost loves.

The house of blue lights – Operator, Good Golly Miss Molly
Where Pigpen’s rider might be working, and where Miss Molly rocks from morning to night. These could just be nightclubs, but I suspect they’re actually brothels. The “blue-light cheap hotels” of Stella Blue may be unrelated, but seem to be cheerless places. 

The stairs - Peggy-O, Cold Rain & Snow 
Doors and windows show up in numerous Dead songs, but stairs in few. In fact we get the same line in both folk songs: 
"Come stepping down the stairs, combing back your yellow hair" 
"She's coming down the stairs, combing back her yellow hair" 
Which brings up the possibility that it might be the same (archetypal) woman in both songs, bringing trouble to any man who wishes to wed her. 


There are dozens of generic “towns” in Dead songs which don’t really convey any setting – “a strange old town,” “the old home town,” “a sawmill town,” “a silver shining town,” “this goddamn town,” etc. Characters go “downtown” in some songs, where “the women sure look good,” where you might find clubs or bus stations or courthouses.
Lots of action happens on corners – “the joint was jumping on the corner” in Big Boy Pete; there’s a “three-piece band on the corner” in Stagger Lee; and characters stand on corners in Don’t Ease Me In, Little Sadie, Kansas City, and of course, Standing on the Corner.

Numerous streets fill Dead songs, from Dancing in the Street to Shakedown Street. Here the Dead betray their urban origins. City streets are generally portrayed positively, as lively attractive places to be: “There’ll be laughing and singing, music swinging, dancing in the street.” Golden Road also portrays a “party” in the street, with a girl “barefooting along, whistling and singing,” laughing and dancing “on the street.” Alice D. Millionaire is invited to “come out in the street” and “see the love is in the air.”
A continual party goes on in New Orleans: “Come on take a stroll down on Basin Street and listen to the music.” In Reuben and Cerise, the streets of New Orleans are filled with dancers and music in “the Carnival Parade.” Truckin’ describes the “arrows of neon and flashing marquees out on Main Street.” Delia whistles on the street in Stagger Lee as a three-piece band plays. And even in France, “When the club can’t contain the beat, it just rolls out in the street” (It seems an exhausting place: "these folks don’t ever sleep till they’re passed out in the street.”)

Other times, characters are out on the streets looking for romance, as in Don’t Ease Me In and Tell It To Me: “I’m walking down the street with a dollar in my hand, I’ve been looking for a woman ain’t got no man.” Pigpen remarks in Easy Wind that “there’s a whole lotta women out in red on the streets today.” And “the neon avenue” is the backdrop for an encounter in Feel Like a Stranger, which is compared to “running a red light.”
Other characters just go “walking down the street” meeting people, as in West L.A. Fadeaway – “looking for a chateau,” “met an old mistake,” “met a west L.A. girl.” Cosmic Charlie goes “truckin’ in style along the avenue.” Poor weather doesn’t prevent people from going out – the “streets turned grey” in Estimated Prophet; Garcia walks along the Mission street “in the San Francisco rain;” and a werewolf goes “walking through the streets of Soho in the rain.”

Some streets are less appealing – on Shakedown Street there’s “nothing shaking” and even “the sunny side of the street is dark.” Throwing Stones is even darker (“click flashblade in ghetto night”). Garcia gets jumped by a “shadow in the alley” in Loose Lucy. And “if you go down to Deep Elem, put your money in your shoes….they don’t give a man a chance.” The streets in Stagger Lee are full of violence and “girls turning tricks;” a policeman even pleads, “Don’t ask me to go downtown, I wouldn’t come back alive.”
The police appear in several other songs too, including Around & Around, Gentlemen Start Your Engines, and “the heat” in the Other One. In contrast to their other New Orleans songs, the Dead warn of being “busted down on Bourbon Street”: “they’re gonna kick the door in again…it gets to wearing thin.” Dylan songs such as Desolation Row, Tom Thumb’s Blues, and Stuck Inside of Mobile also paint a rather menacing picture of city life. Even the “dusty streets” of western songs are full of “flies and children” and gunfights. Occasionally Dead songs will mention “deserted streets,” “some forgotten street,” or “every lonely street,” so streets are not always welcoming places:
“You’re both out in the streets and you got no place to go” (Cream Puff War)
“Your streets run deep with poisoned wine” (Pride of Cucamonga)
“Out of the door and into the street all alone” (Truckin’)
As Sweet Jane’s fate indicates, not every street is full of dancing and music.


In contrast to “the asphalt land” where “little still grows,” the Dead also sang many songs of rural life. Most of their original songs were implicitly set in the city, but a lot of their covers were located in small towns or the countryside, bringing older facets of American life into the Dead’s repertoire, and inspiring the Dead to write some of their own rural songs set in some timeless past.

A lot of the older folk songs the Dead covered don’t have any descriptive details at all; their settings are just assumed or unimportant. (For all we know, ballads like Peggy-O and Cold Rain & Snow could be set in bustling cities.) In some of Weir’s more recent country covers as well, small-town life seems to be implied but isn’t directly stated. For instance, the “old hometown” in Green Grass of Home seems to be a small place, with an “old oak tree,” an old house with “cracked and dry” paint, and a lane (but also a train stop). Likewise, the Old, Old House is “on a hill overlooking the town,” and used to be a mansion but soon “will tumble down,” while “the rain starts to drip through the trees” and the autumn leaves fall in the garden. We can tell right away we’re not on the edge of some metropolis. On the other hand there’s a song like Slewfoot which is packed with details of life in the boondocks – pigs in a gate, honey in the trees, a gully and a well and a bear being hunted.

One way to give a song a country atmosphere is to sing about trees and flowers, and the seasons. The song New Orleans focuses on the regional plant life rather than the city itself, with “magnolia blossoms,” “honeysuckle blooming,” and “sweet moss hanging from a big oak tree.” Sugar Magnolia follows this cue with its willows, rushes, pines, blossoms, and various flowers, and of course a river. In a similar vein, a song like Seasons of My Heart doesn’t have any specific location, but with its descriptions of “autumn sorrow,” “weathered leaves,” bare trees and “cold winds” and so on, it’s easy to spot as a country song. (You almost never find trees or cold winds in a city song.) The Dead picked up on this with their obsessive interest in the weather and seasons, the foremost example being the Weather Report Suite.

Some of the Dead’s songs just have small hints of rural life: the ox plowing the fields and the whiskey still in Brown-Eyed Women; the jukebox that gets torn down in Row Jimmy. High Time doesn’t have any setting, but there seems to be no automobiles, only horse-drawn wagons: “the wheels are muddy, got a ton of hay…wheels broke down, the leader won’t draw, the line is busted.”
Childhood’s End briefly mentions “makin’ payments on the farm” (but quickly heads into space). Valley Road has a rural setting “deep in the woods…on the old plantation.” The little town in Music Never Stopped has corn fields (“the corn’s a bumper crop”), and even Mountains of the Moon has a marsh, laurels, and “wild wheat waving in the wind.” Let It Grow is a full-blown ode to agriculture, set on a riverbank and a farmer’s field as it’s plowed. (Corn and barley are being planted.) Eyes of the World follows suit with its purely symbolic wagon “loaded with clay” that causes the seeds to “burst into bloom.”

Sometimes we find cabins, such as the cabin by the river the alligator creeps around in Alligator, the “cabin low and small…on the lonely hillside” in Rosa Lee McFall, or the “log cabin made of earth and wood…way back up in the woods” where the “country boy” lives in Johnny B. Goode. Some characters live in shacks, as in Beat It On Down the Line, the “tumble-down shack” in Brown-Eyed Women, and perhaps the “grass shack nailed to a pinewood floor” in Row Jimmy. There’s one barnyard where the Little Red Rooster crows and hounds howl. The place in “the timbers of Fennario” where the singer of Dire Wolf lives isn’t described, but it must be pretty primitive, since Fennario is described as a “black and bloody mire” where “the boys sing round the fire.”

By and large, rural life is shown in a positive light; in fact, some characters are unimpressed by city life and ready to head for the hills. The singer in Dark Hollow is stuck “in some big city in a small room,” but heads off for “some dark hollow” (and the singer in I Know You Rider has the same reaction to Frisco). The singer in Rosa Lee McFall has been to “cities great and small” but thinks only of his old love in the hillside cabin. The singer in Pride of Cucamonga leaves the stinking cities for “golden forests in the sun.” I’m not sure if there’s anyone in Dead songs who leaves the hollow for the city… (Maybe Johnny B. Goode, ready to catch a train out of the backwoods).

Not that the woods are always warm and sunny – the outcast In the Pines finds himself shivering in “the cold winds…where the sun never shines.” A few of Hunter’s songs have bittersweet portraits of rundown communities where the best days are past: “gone are the days…” And rural workers face hard times in some songs. Beat It On Down the Line protests:
“This job I got is just a little too hard,
Running out of money, Lord I need more pay”
Cumberland Blues features a “poor man” desperate to “make a five dollar bill” in the mine (“if I made any more I might move away”). Nor is there much employment opportunity for the “poor boy” in Sawmill, where “my work was so hard at the sawmill” (and “my wife left this sawmill town” to boot).

Weir sang a few songs about poor country boys and liked nostalgic country songs dripping with sentiment, but few of his covers actually feature the rural farmer’s life. There’s a hint in Silver Threads & Golden Needles (“I grew up in ragged gingham”), and also some implied resentment in Long Black Limousine against “your rich friends.” Otherwise Weir tended to sing about cowboys and travelers rather than poor working stiffs. (“Rich man step on my poor head” is hardly ever a theme in Dead songs, except for a couple of Barlow’s. Garcia generally wasn’t interested in social divisions.)


Mountains are often referred to in Dead songs, the most well-known being Fire on the Mountain. We find “cold mountain water” in Mountains of the Moon, a “high cold mountain chain” in He’s Gone, and a desperado “up on the Blue Ridge mountain” in I’ve Been All Around This World. Mountains are prominent in From the Heart of Me, where “horses slide down off the mountain,” and the old bear Slewfoot roams “high on the mountain” among the trees. The singer in Unbroken Chain listens to winds and owls “out on the mountain.”
But overall, mountain journeys are pretty vague in Dead songs – for instance, “I think I’ll go up on a mountain” in Standing on the Corner, “I spent a little time on the mountain” in New Speedway Boogie, “I went down to the mountain” in One More Saturday Night, and “stood upon a mountaintop” in Days Between, among others. These are mere metaphors, not actual mountains, and it’s rare for a mountain to be a specific location in a song (such as the Gilgarra mountains in Whiskey in the Jar).

The same goes for hills, which appear now and then, but usually in a brief, nondescript fashion. There are a few named hills, “a cave up in the hills” in Friend of the Devil, a “hill overlooking El Paso,” “golden hills” in the Weather Report Suite, and distant music from the hills in So Many Roads. Remote hillsides can be found in folk songs like Tom Dooley, where a girl’s killed on a hillside. And in Believe It Or Not, “the sun shines on the crest of a hill with a breeze in the pines and a grey whippoorwill.” (Hills and mountains are sometimes used just as scenic settings – “three blue stars rise on the hill” in Built to Last, “the last bolt of sunshine hits the mountain” in Black Muddy River, and in From the Heart of Me we see “sunlight turning red” and “the glow in the twilight” on the mountains.)

There are not that many forests in Dead songs – they don’t go out into the wilderness very often. The singer “in the pines where the sun never shines” won’t find much company there, unless the singer from Dark Hollow is in the same spot. However, the pines are presented as a nice place to be in other songs – Sugar Magnolia boasts of “a breeze in the pines and the summer night moonlight.” (No shivering in the cold wind there.) Lovers also go “deep in the woods” in Valley Road. The isolated refugee in Pride of Cucamonga sees “golden forests in the sun,” although he’s really just heading to “where the weed grows green and fine.” Johnny B. Goode is a true rustic dweller, living “way back up in the woods among the evergreens.” Otherwise forests are just implied in some other rural songs; “redwood trees” are mentioned in Can’t Come Down; and oak trees turn up in a few spots.
Like mountains, forests in Dead songs are sometimes only metaphorical – the “razorblade forest” in Barbed Wire Whipping Party, the “forests of linear time” in Clementine, the “forest of dreams” in I Will Take You Home. The Dead’s most famous forest is purely imaginary: “the timbers of Fennario,” where it’s unwise to venture since “the wolves are running ‘round.”

Rivers are the most important geographical features in the Dead’s repertoire, appearing often in some thirty songs. Two actual rivers are named in Dead songs, the Mississippi and the Rio Grande.
In some songs, rivers are more or less the main characters –
Big River (“I followed you, big river, when you called”)
Cold Jordan (“look at that wide river”)
Brokedown Palace (“river gonna take me”)
Black Muddy River (“roll, muddy river”)
Childhood’s End (“river run deep”)
Lazy River Road (“down where the water flowed”)

In other songs, rivers are crucial to the setting –
Alligator (“lying by the river”)
Easy Wind (“the river keeps a-talking”)
Let It Grow (“she follows the path to the river shore”)
Mississippi Half-Step (“across the lazy river”)
Sugar Magnolia (“saw my baby down by the river”)
Uncle John’s Band (“by the riverside”)
Sittin’ On Top of the World (“Mississippi river, so big and wide”)
Take Me to the River (“drop me in the water”)

And in other songs, rivers make important cameo appearances –
Music Never Stopped (“there’s mosquitos on the river”)
Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (“picture yourself in a boat on a river”)
Goodnight Irene (“I want to jump overboard in a river and drown”)

And other songs feature brief interactions with rivers – “wash your lonely feet in the river” (Doin’ That Rag), “wade across the river” (Wave to the Wind), “search for where the rivers end” (Foolish Heart). But even rivers don’t last forever – in a few songs, “the spring has dried up” (Clementine), “the river’s gone dry” (Believe It Or Not) and “the rivers all are dry” (Weather Report Suite).

Rivers are commonly associated with singing and music –
Brokedown Palace (“listen to the river sing sweet songs”)
Black Muddy River (“sing me a song of my own”)
Lazy River Road (“I sang love’s sweet song”)
Uncle John’s Band (“playing to the tide”)

Rivers are also connected with love and romance, as in Lazy River Road, Sugar Magnolia (“rolling in the rushes down by the riverside”), Weather Report Suite (“like a desert spring my lover comes”), and other female presences by the waterside. “Lovers come and go” by the river in Brokedown Palace. On the other hand, sometimes it’s a lost love, as rivers also bring partings in Big River (“she loves you, big river, more than me”) and Sittin’ on Top of the World (“blonde-headed woman on the other side, now she’s gone”). And in some songs (Brokedown Palace, Black Muddy River), rivers are more like portals of sorrow and death.

Willows are often found by rivers – weeping willows in Big River and Brokedown Palace, laughing willows in Crazy Fingers and Sugar Magnolia. (Well, maybe not laughing, but dripping with good cheer.) The river in Music Never Stopped has fish in it, but the only time anyone goes fishing is in Doin’ That Rag. Oddly, rivers are rarely used for swimming or sailing – more on this later.

The sea shows up frequently in a couple dozen Dead songs, as a source of expansive imagery – “the deep blue sea” in Childhood’s End, the “silver sea” in Corrina, the “sweet calm face of the sea” in Crazy Fingers, the “misty swirling sea” in Lost Sailor, “an endless sea,” “a cruel sea,” “boundless seas,” and so on. (Seabirds also show up in Cassidy and Lost Sailor.) These seas are more symbolic than specific; you couldn’t place them on a map. Hunter made fruitful use of watery images, as in the Eleven (“ride in the whalebelly…sink beneath the waters to the coral sands below”), and mermaids even show up in a couple of the more surreal songs.

The “ocean” is mentioned less often, but tends to indicate the Pacific – as in California Earthquake (“we may fall off in the ocean”) and the “ocean breezes” of Estimated Prophet (“on the burning shore…the sea will part before me”). A few songs have settings on the shore (the Estimated Prophet “standing on the beach,” St. Stephen on the “seashore washed by the suds and the foam”), or off-shore (“the shore-lights beckon” in Lost Sailor, and the hapless singer is “swept offshore” in Down So Long). Waves are mentioned in some songs (“waves of violet go crashing,” “the crest of a wave,” “a surfer riding on a tidal wave,” “a wave upon the sand”). A whale is spotted in the Eleven, and in Childhood’s End Phil wants to “see some whales blow.” Sometimes ships set sail, but surprisingly few songs are actually set at sea – more on this below.  

Deserts are rare in Dead songs. The wanted man in New Minglewood Blues says he “was born in a desert,” but it’s only a boast. Otherwise we just have the “desert sands” in Mexicali Blues, the “nasty desert” in Salt Lake City, and the “desert stars” of Blues for Allah.

Sometimes individual places are too small, and Dead songs encompass the entire planet. A couple songs are addressed to the whole globe, seen from above as “a bright blue ball” – Throwing Stones and Standing on the Moon. (Garcia is noticeably more remote from humanity’s troubles than Weir is.) And Brent, in a rare ecological moment, reminds us “of all possible worlds we only got one” (We Can Run).
“I’ve been all around this world” is a sentiment expressed quite a few times. “The world” is used in many senses in lyrics, too many to cite, but here’s a sampling of instances where it signifies a big place that you can travel around:
“Been all around this whole round world” (Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie)
“Walked halfway around the world” (Days Between)
“I’m riding round the world” (Satisfaction)
“I’ve searched the wide world over, cities great and small” (Rosa Lee McFall)
“All over the world…I would follow you” (From the Heart of Me)
“Bad luck seems to follow you all around the world” (Alice D. Millionaire)
“Everywhere around the world there’ll be dancing” (Dancing in the Street)
“Gonna wave my way to the edge of the world and jump in” (Wave to the Wind)
“Many worlds I’ve come since I first left home” (Brokedown Palace)

But sometimes all this roaming is for naught:
“No place in this world you can be” (Lost Sailor)
And sometimes the singers just want to forget about the world:
“Let the world go by” (To Lay Me Down)
“Leave the whole world behind” (Broken Arrow)


Looking upwards, the sky is frequently mentioned in Dead lyrics, in over a couple dozen songs. It’s well-known that the Dead pay a lot of attention to the weather – the seasons and the climate are perennial backdrops in their songs. While conditions of wind and rain stand out the most, and snow, thunder and lightning also appear, clear sunny days are just as common. References to the sky are quite varied – “a clear blue sky,” “the white sky,” “a heavy sky,” “the morning sky,” “willow sky,” “high sun blue sky,” “the endless rolling sky,” “not a cloud in the sky,” “the sky was yellow,” “the sky was dark and faded,” and so on. Clouds are often found in the lyrics too, as well as rainbows, breezes, and large numbers of birds. (Another whole essay could be written on the Dead’s treatment of the sky, its moods and inhabitants.)

Beyond the sky is space, and the solar system. Most of the references to “heaven” in Dead lyrics are religious or just convey a state of bliss, but occasionally it’s recognized as a place, as in Standing on the Moon (“just looking up to heaven at this crescent in the sky”), or One More Saturday Night (“I looked up into heaven”) where God makes an appearance.

The sun is easily the most prominent heavenly body; it is mentioned in dozens of Dead songs, too many to cite, and even an album title (Anthem of the Sun). From Sunshine Daydream to Here Comes Sunshine to Sunrise, the sun constantly appears in many guises – “the hot sun,” the “sun so hot,” “the sun so dark,” “the noonday sun,” “the evening sun,” “the midnight sun,” “the summer sun,” “the California sun,” “the rising, shining sun.” (In one song it’s even blue.) Most often it simply rises, shines, and goes down, warming the earth and lighting the day; sometimes it sparkles, or sinks low; it “went down in honey” and “comes up blood red.” “Sunlight splatters dawn” and lovers go “lazing in the sunlight;” we see “splintered sunlight” and “sunlight turning red;” but “when the sun shines” people can “slip into the shade” and sit under the trees. (There are some places, though, “where the sun don’t ever shine.”) 

The moon is extremely important to the Dead, appearing in some thirty songs. It’s even the central vision of the song in Mountains of the Moon, Standing on the Moon, and Picasso Moon; “the shadow of the moon” also provides a dramatic setting for the climax of Terrapin Station. “Hazy moonlight glowed” on Lazy River Road, “summer night moonlight” shines in Sugar Magnolia, and “lady finger dipped in moonlight” greets the dawn in St. Stephen. Picasso Moon mentions a "lunar wind" unknown to science. One song accuses, “like the moon in high heaven, you’re just going through a phase” (Way to Go Home), and it can alter from “that silver-dollar moon” to “a brand new crescent moon.” Usually it’s full: “the full moon pales and climbs,” “a full moon over town.” So night-times are often well-lit in Dead songs: the “moon lights up the night,” “the moon is shining bright,” “shining through the trees.” But sometimes the moon has a more sinister cast: “the shimmer of the moon on black infested trees,” “the blood on the moon,” “the dark of the moon,” “the moon is almost hidden.”

Our nearest planets also receive some notice – Mars most of all (the Mars Hotel album title, “a slingshot on Mars” in Black-Throated Wind, “we’re the life on Mars” in Childhood’s End, and even “the other day I went to Mars” in Barbed Wire Whipping Party). “The spiral light of Venus” appears in Terrapin Station, “rising first and shining best;” sometimes Weir would also mutter about visiting Venusians in stage banter. “Nero’s Neptune” is mentioned in Desolation Row, but otherwise the more distant planets are ignored. (Astrology plays no part in Dead lyrics.) Phil longs for space travel "under multi-colored moons" in Childhood's End.

The stars are also frequent sights in song, from Dark Star onwards, lending their sparkle to many a verse. Like the sun, they rise and set and “hang up there and shine;” they “splatter in the sky,” “twinkle in your eyes,” and “fall down in buckets like rain;” they’re “out and shining,” “bright tonight,” “spinning dizzy,” “beginning to hide,” and “fading one by one.”  There’s a shooting star and a blue star; people “try to catch a star,” “wish upon a star,” “sleep in the stars,” “search beyond the stars,” and “count stars by candlelight.” Weir sings, “I just wanna be one of them little stars.” Moses makes a dramatic entrance in Greatest Story Ever Told, "riding up on a quasar." The only distant star specifically named is “the dog star” of Lost Sailor – Sirius, the brightest star in the sky.



“Come on everybody take a trip with me

Many a journey is taken in Dead songs. The band even had its own autobiographical theme song dedicated to “truckin’ on” from city to city. Dead characters are a restless bunch, always on the move, “rolling down the track,” “going down the line.” One of them even wants to be a headlight. “I got to move somewhere,” they say, “I feel like goin’ out,” “I’m going away,” “I think I’ll drift,” “gonna wave my way to places I have never been.” Jack Straw urges, “Keep on rolling…you’re moving much too slow.” (A few songs aside, they usually travel alone.)

“I don’t know where she’s going,” Pigpen admits in Operator. But in Dead song, the destination generally doesn’t matter – “never could read no road-map,” says the Saint of Circumstance. Off they go, “not knowing where I’m bound” (Mama Tried), “gonna get there, I don’t know” (Row Jimmy). Just “get out of the door, light out, and look all around” (Truckin’). Baby Blue is told, “Take what you need…leave your stepping stones behind.” And in Crazy Fingers, “Gone are the days we stopped to decide where we should go – we just ride.”

And at the end of the “long strange trip,” what else to do but pack up your bags and head off down the road again? “You pick a place to go, just keep truckin’ on.” In Might As Well, “I’d like to take that ride again,” and Casey Jones’ dying wish is “two more roads that I want to ride.”

Sometimes the Dead are more philosophical about “life’s journey.” Pigpen asks, “Where can I go, my paths are broken” in Empty Pages; the Dead sing, “That path is for your steps alone” in Ripple. At some point “you come to the end of the way” (Cold Jordan), and take your last ride, “riding in that long black limousine.”

A large number of Dead songs feature characters who are stuck in life. For instance:
‘no place to go’ (Early Morning Rain)
‘there is no place you can go to’ (Only Time Is Now)
‘there is no place to run’ (Cardboard Cowboy)
‘you got no place to go’ (Cream Puff War)
‘ain’t got no good place to go’ (Tastebud)
‘nowhere to go’ (Wharf Rat)
‘no place you can be’ (Lost Sailor)
‘got no place to go’ (So Many Roads)
And that’s just a sampling – given this outlook, it’s understandable that so many Dead characters are anxious to “walk out of any doorway,” head somewhere else and face the chances of the road.

A simple list of titles conveys how central roads are in Dead songs: On the Road Again, Going Down the Road, Golden Road, Valley Road, Lazy River Road, So Many Roads. Characters are always setting out on the roads and highways:
“I’m here by the road” (Black-Throated Wind)
“Out on the edge of the empty highway” (Pride of Cucamonga)
“Long is the road we must travel on down” (I Will Take You Home) 
“The road we ride is a long, long road” (Hey Little One)
“When I get back on the KC Road” (KC Moan)
“Let me be a travelling man, I’m a roadrunner baby” (Road Runner)

Roads almost always indicate long distances and uncertain destinations. Some of these are metaphorical – “life’s winding road,” so to speak – as in Ripple: “There is a road, no simple highway….if you go, no one may follow…who’s to guide you?” But for the Dead, it seems one and the same – the road is their way of life. The open highway brings hope and change:
“Rainbows end down that highway where ocean breezes blow” (Estimated Prophet)
“There’s a band out on the highway, they’re high-stepping into town” (Music Never Stopped)
(Pigpen is unique in working on the highway in Easy Wind but not going anywhere.)

The Dead even refer to road signs sometimes – as in Till the Morning Comes, “like a highway sign showing you the way,” or the riskier highway in New Speedway Boogie that “has no signs or dividing lines and very few rules to guide.” Red lights are mentioned in a couple songs, but clearly don’t stop anyone as they “cruise through a stop sign” or go “running a red light” (in Corrina & Feel Like a Stranger). There’s a “big green light on the speedway” in West L.A. Fadeaway; “let the green light find you,” the Dead beckon in Alice D. Millionaire. Another warning sign urges us to keep going: “Caution – Do Not Stop On Tracks.”

Even more than the road, a large number of songs are set on the railroad – Johnny B. Goode “sits beneath the tree by the railroad track;” railroad workers gamble “right on the track” in Let It Rock. Casey Jones, Might As Well, and Monkey & the Engineer are set entirely onboard trains; and “I drive a mailtrain, mama” in It Takes a Lot to Laugh. Other characters just wait for the trains, as in Bobby McGee – “waiting at the station” in Beat It On Down the Line, dreaming of “a freight train leaving town” in Mama Tried, hoping a train will “take me far on down the track” in Dark Hollow. “Stop your train, let a hobo ride,” Pigpen asks in Smokestack Lightning; and it’s unlikely the outlaws in Jack Straw are paying for the “first train we can ride.” Sometimes characters miss the train, as in Big Railroad Blues: “I went down to the depot, never got there on time.” Others like Tennessee Jed just “listen to the whistle of the evening train;” and train rides are taken as a matter of course in many other songs (like Promised Land), not to mention the rare songs like Mystery Train, KC Moan, and Two Trains Running that are entirely devoted to the trains “coming down the track.”


“If you fall in my direction”

Different directions are taken in Dead songs. The characters in the blues covers, naturally enough, tend to head north:
“I’m going up north, gonna see my girl” (Stealin’)
“I’m goin’ north to my same old used to be” (Beat It On Down the Line)
“I wish I was a headlight on a northbound train” (I Know You Rider)
Occasionally the names of the train lines (Great Northern, Great North Special) also evoke northern climes.

Other Dead characters head south - the rider in Operator may be “somewhere down south,” the narrator in Pride of Cucamonga is fleeing south (“the northern sky it stinks with greed…can’t hit that border too soon”), and characters also travel southwards in Big River, Me & My Uncle, and Mexicali Blues.

It’s also common for characters to head west, like the boy in Promised Land or the hitchhikers in Bobby McGee who cross the continent to California, or the character in Mississippi Half-Step who bolts out of his home state to the Rio Grande (“farewell to you old southern skies”). Other characters just roam around in the West like the various down-at-luck cowboys and drifters and California residents – the outlaws in Jack Straw are a good example, wandering randomly from state to state. The west is not only a destination drawing people like a magnet, but a metaphysical state of mind (as in “my mind was wandering like the wild geese in the west,” or the “western wind” of Unbroken Chain, or even the man standing on the moon wishing he was “somewhere in San Francisco”).
But there’s only so far west people can go. The Estimated Prophet hits the beach and hopes “the sea will part before me,” but hardly anyone in Dead songs ever boards a ship. In general this is not a seafaring bunch; perhaps understandable when the few songs set at sea include Lost Sailor and Ship of Fools.

No one in Dead songs ever heads east.


“There must be some way out of here”


Characters in Dead songs generally don’t cross the seas. It does happen sometimes – the soldier who “went way across the sea” in Overseas Stomp, and the girl in Jack-a-Roe who boards a ship and heads out to sea to find her sailor love, are quite unusual in the Dead repertoire. The sailor in Terrapin Station is nowhere near the water; and the sailor in Louie Louie (“me sail a ship across the sea…all alone I sailed the sea”) is as rare in Dead lyrics as he was in performance.

The Dead’s typical attitude towards oceanic travel is expressed early on in Down So Long – “In a rowboat on the ocean, swept offshore, I started to feel all at sea.” (It’s telling that from first to last, Garcia tends to sing of ships with mistrust, from the “sinking ships” of Can’t Come Down to the “phantom ships with phantom sails” of Days Between. Even in Row Jimmy, he shrugs, “gonna get there, I don’t know.”)

River travel is rare as well: rivers are hardly ever crossed, and only occasionally sailed on. When Pigpen’s “sailing down the river in an old canoe,” it’s only to find “a bunch of bugs and an old tennis shoe,” and an alligator. Nor does the character in Big River find happiness when he follows his love downstream on the Mississippi; only tears await him. And when the Dead invited you to “picture yourself in a boat on a river,” it was only as a surreal experience. Lazy River Road is something of an exception, insofar as it can be regarded as a river. (It’s telling that Keith & Donna had a whole song about a riverboat, Showboat, which the Dead dropped in rehearsals.)

When a Dead character comes to a river or sea, usually he’ll remain on the shore: St. Stephen remains on the seashore “so long he’s got to calling it home,” Uncle John plays “by the riverside,” and most of the other characters just “stray down to the water” instead of embarking.
“Wash your lonely feet in the river / Wade in the water” (Doin’ That Rag)
“Make myself a bed by the waterside” (Brokedown Palace)
“Rolling in the rushes down by the riverside” (Sugar Magnolia)
“I went down unto the sea” (Bertha)
“We’re standing on the beach” (Estimated Prophet)
“I will walk alone by the black muddy river” (Black Muddy River)
“I’ll just stand here waiting on the far side of the sea” (Corrina)
“There’s only you and me at the edge of an endless sea” (The Only Time Is Now)

Nor are the women in Dead songs anxious to set sail, but they’re frequently found on riversides - the “woodcutter’s daughter” in Let It Grow gathers water, “the jade merchant’s daughter” and “the marsh king’s daughter” can be found “down by the water” in Mountains of the Moon, and the girl in Sugar Magnolia is happily swimming in the river (while the singer stays “under the willow” asking her to come ashore). Romance, it seems, can often be found by the water.

Not all Dead songwriters were bound to the shore. Phil’s songs are more adventurous – he’s “gonna wade across rivers” and go “sailing…over cloudy oceans” in Wave to the Wind, and “drift along that sky river bright” in Childhood’s End, where he feels “like sailing on the morning tide.” And Donna tells her love “I’d meet you…anywhere on the sea, all over the world” in From the Heart of Me.


The Dead traveler is often found on the road. Some of them drive their own cars – occasionally you can “lie back grooving in your car,” as in Hey Pocky Way. Sometimes it’s implied, as in Crazy Fingers when “we just ride.” Let Me Sing Your Blues Away is devoted to a car ride: “Hop in the hack, turn on the key, pop in the clutch, let the wheel roll free.” The girl in Sugar Magnolia “takes the wheel when I’m seeing double, pays my ticket when I speed.” The singer in Satisfaction goes “driving in my car” but, needless to say, it doesn’t satisfy him.

Cars most often turn up in blues songs as powerful properties – like Lovelight’s “stingray on a four day ride,” King Bee’s “pull your car in my driveway,” or the Schoolgirl’s exciting car (“I want to be your chauffeur, I want to ride your little machine”). In the rarely-played Gangster of Love, he goes “riding in my car” to the admiration of “girls from near and far.” And in other songs, cars are also desirable symbolic totems - “my love is bigger than a Cadillac” (Not Fade Away), “Daddy may drive a V8 Vette” (Day Job), “jump like a Willys in four-wheel drive” (Sugar Magnolia).
A Cadillac is the car of choice – it’s what Big Boy Pete drives, and it’s what the lady in Money Money wants. Cassidy of course goes driving, “lost now on the country miles in his Cadillac.” Katie Mae finds herself being compared to a Cadillac and a T-model Ford (Pigpen prefers the Ford).

Road fatalities are rare; in fact they only occur in one song, with a “fatal crash” in “the race out on the highway” in Long Black Limousine. Otherwise in Dead songs, cars are just seen driving by:
“Their fancy cars are such a sight to see” (Long Black Limousine)
“Blind in the light of the interstate cars passing me by” (Black-Throated Wind)
“Streets turned grey as I watched the cars below” (Estimated Prophet)
Motorcycles are absent, although a biker does turn up in Hell in a Bucket.

Hitch-hiking is common (as in Black-Throated Wind and Bobby McGee), preferably on a truck (the “big diesel Mack” in Pride of Cucamonga, and another in Bobby McGee). Buses also show up sometimes – there’s a “getaway bus” in Operator, “the buses and semis” in Black-Throated Wind, a Greyhound that breaks down in Promised Land, and of course Cowboy Neal’s “bus to never ever land” in the Other One. And you can also catch “a taxi ride” on Lazy River Road. In an older day, horses are found in the western songs (El Paso, Me & My Uncle, Mexicali Blues); and “Sherman Buck was driving his old mule into town” (California Earthquake).

Planes are taken as well – in Might As Well “I caught the plane,” and Promised Land lovingly describes a jet flight, in contrast to When I Paint My Masterpiece which has “a plane ride so bumpy that I almost cried.” Other characters are stuck on the ground – the singer in Good Morning Little Schoolgirl swears, “I’m gonna buy me an airplane,” but in Early Morning Rain, the singer just sadly watches his loved one fly away on a 707.

But the most common means of transportation by far is the train, which turns up in numerous Dead songs. When the characters are not driving trains, they’re riding them, waiting for them, watching them roll by, listening to the whistle blow, or at least thinking about hopping aboard – doesn’t matter where. Many a Dead song is spent on the railroad track, and much has already been written on this theme:

Some characters, though, have nowhere to go or nothing to ride, and they just walk. As in Eyes of the World, “sometimes we ride on your horses, sometimes we walk alone.” Many people go walking in Dead songs, often as a solitary activity without any destination. It’s often associated with sadness and isolation, as in the Walkin’ Blues, the singer distant from everything:
“I will walk alone by the black muddy river”
“Been walking all morning, went walking all night” (Comes a Time)
“I turn and walk away, then I come round again…ten years ago I walked this street” (Mission in the Rain)
“Walked halfway around the world…walked barefoot in the snow” (Days Between)
“Left him walking down the old valley road – walk on, walk on alone” (Valley Road)

Other times, characters are just “walking along,” “walking out,” “walking through the streets,” and so on, typically in an urban setting:
“Take a walk downtown” (New Minglewood Blues)
“I’m walking down the street with a dollar in my hand” (Don’t Ease Me In)
“Walking down the street today” (West L.A. Fadeaway)
“As I was walking round Grosvenor Square” (Scarlet Begonias)
“Delia went a-walking down on Singapore Street” (Stagger Lee)
“Reuben walked the streets of New Orleans till dawn” (Reuben and Cerise)

Other times, they contemplate the outdoors:
“Willow sky, I walk and wonder why” (Unbroken Chain)
“Today I went out walking in the amber wind” (We Can Run)

Sometimes it’s an invitation to a loved one to “walk with me”:
“Come walking in the sun with me, my little one” (The Only Time Is Now)
“I’ll walk you in the sunshine” (Sugar Magnolia)
“Walk me out in the morning dew, my honey” (Morning Dew)


“I can’t work there no more”

Where do the Dead’s characters work? Few of them seem to be employed. Of course the main reason for this is that jobs and the workaday world usually aren’t important in songs (unless the song’s about oppressive work or being poor, which is often true in the blues and country genres). Nonetheless, a look at the work that does show up in Dead songs reveals some interesting patterns.

There’s a crowd of crooks, robbers, gamblers, and cowboys, but steady jobs are rarely mentioned, and incomes remain a mystery. Doctors, preachers, judges, sheriffs and policemen show up in several songs, sometimes with speaking parts. But they remain on the peripheries – the songs aren’t about them, they are secondary characters.
(Dead songs are never about figures of power and authority. The politicians, “commissars and pinstripe bosses” of Throwing Stones are a singular exception. Like the Big Boss Man or the ship’s captain in Ship of Fools, they are not objects of sympathy.)
A watchman shows up in Jack Straw, only to get jumped. Train workers (drivers, engineers, firemen) are of course featured in several songs like Monkey & the Engineer, Johnny B. Goode, and the two Casey Jones songs. Truck drivers and bus drivers are also implied in other songs; and a jet pilot appears in Promised Land.

These are a few other occupations:  
Let It Rock – railroad laborer (“working on the railroad with a steel driving hammer”), and also a foreman
Easy Wind – jackhammer-operator (“been chipping up rocks for the great highway”)
Cumberland Blues, Beat It On Down the Line – coal miners
Sawmill – sawmill worker
Operator – telephone operator
(A steel mill is also mentioned in Operator, with a nearby prostitute implied.)
Brown-Eyed Women – bootlegger (“he paid his way selling red-eyed gin”)
Dupree’s Diamond Blues – jewelry-store salesman
Frozen Logger – a logger and a waitress

Songs based on old folk traditions feature military professions – there’s an army captain in Peggy-O, a soldier and sailor in Terrapin Station, and a sailor going off to war in Jack-a-Roe (which also includes a “wealthy merchant,” a tailor, and a physician).
The agricultural side is covered only in Let It Grow, with a farmer plowing his fields and a woodcutter. There’s also Maggie’s Farm, an unpleasant place with servants and fines, where “they sing while you slave.”
Prison labor is also mentioned in Let Me In and I Fought The Law (“breakin’ rocks in the hot sun”).

Some other unspecified jobs are mentioned in the blues songs, a genre which often pays attention to people’s financial plight:
Sittin’ On Top of the World – “I worked all summer, spring, and fall”
Big Boss Man – “Workin’ round the clock…you sure don’t let me stop”
Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie – “I work all the week, honey, and I give it all to you”
Sick and Tired – “I go to work…I come back in the evening, you’re still in bed”
Never Trust a Woman – “Tomorrow I get my pay”

I’ve probably missed a few other examples. But it’s noticeable that there’s hardly an office worker or business owner in the bunch – for the most part, this is low-paid hard labor for poor workers who “can’t win for losing,” “chipping them rocks from dawn till doom.” These might be the workers hanging out under the smokestacks on the cover of Workingman's Dead. They complain about union dues, losing their women, needing extra shifts; “my work was so hard,” “I need more pay.” Pigpen predicts, “If I live five years I’m gonna bust my back.”
Job turnover seems to be high: “I can’t work no more at the sawmill,” one boy gripes; and another, “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more;” and another, “I’m gonna beat it on down the line.” 

Jobs disappear altogether in the later, more urban songs – hardly anyone works in the big city, apparently. A couple shady exceptions are mentioned with disdain:
West L.A. Fadeaway – “I had a steady job hauling items for the mob”
Picasso Moon – “I had a job trading bits for pieces”
Garcia does sing about a regular “nine to five” in Keep Your Day Job, but it almost sounds like he’s scoffing at the audience:
“Punch that time card, check that clock…
Got to work that eight-hour day
Whether you like that job or not.”

I think the only working woman in the repertoire is in Operator, who may be a prostitute, “working in a house of blue light.” (Girls “turning tricks” are also mentioned in Stagger Lee.) Women usually get money from their men – like Katie Mae who “never has to work too hard” – and the one man who asks for money from a woman is the Loser. It’s implied in many blues songs that women will go for a man “with a dollar in my hand,” like the Candyman. Carrying on from this tradition, one small subtheme in Dead songs is women chiseling their men for money and going to the highest spender – for instance:
Sawmill (“women like a dollar”)
Deep Elem Blues (“they don’t give a man a chance”)
It’s All Over Now (“spending all my money”)
Money Money (“she says, ‘money, honey’”)
Dupree’s Diamond Blues (“baby wants a gold diamond ring”)
Alabama Getaway (“the poor girls love him…he wears a big diamond ring”)
Peggy-O (“I would marry you, but your guineas are too few”)
So perhaps it’s a relief that most of the Dead’s romantic songs don’t mention finances at all.

Not surprisingly, work is sometimes tied to drinking (as in Workin’ Man Blues, “I’ll drink my beer in a tavern”). Pigpen spends Easy Wind “balling that jack and drinking my wine;” and in Big Boss Man, “I work hard in the morning, sure get drunk at night.” While other Dead workers aren’t such heavy drinkers as Pigpen, Casey Jones does ride his train “high on cocaine.”

Drinking is a popular activity in Dead songs, with wine and whiskey the general favorites. So naturally, bars are frequently mentioned, from Me & My Uncle (“went to the bar-room, ordered drinks for all”) to Brown Eyed Women (the old man “stepped to the bar” and “drank to the dregs”). There’s a bar in Stagger Lee, a cantina in El Paso, “an old saloon” in Mexicali Blues, a club in France, even a “bar car” in Might As Well, as well as the “ten thousand cafes and bars” in Black-Throated Wind. More casual mentions are found in Bertha (“ducked into a bar door”) and Fire on the Mountain (“cold music on the bar-room floor”). And among the rarer songs, Gentlemen Start Your Engines and Drink Up & Go Home are entirely set in bars, and a fight breaks out in “the sand dune bar” in Revolutionary Hamstrung Blues.

Next to drinking, gambling might be the number one occupation of Dead characters, coming up in numerous songs. However, this is rarely precisely located – the cowboys in Me & My Uncle gamble in a bar, and Stagger Lee & Billy DeLyon gamble in a club (with fatal results in both cases). But in most cases it could be taking place anywhere; even in vaguely ‘western’ songs like Candyman, Deal, and Loser, no specific gambling establishment is mentioned, and the players might well be in casinos or hotels or out in the street – it’s usually never said.
In Throwing Stones, some lowlives “roll them bones” in “rat cat alley” (a dangerous place where the blade flashes – also in Loose Lucy, where “I got jumped…in the alley”). And in Let It Rock, a railroad worker is “rolling them bones…in a teepee built right on the track,” where the risk comes from an oncoming train. No matter where it happens, danger seems to lurk wherever people bring out the dice and cards.


“Right outside this lazy summer home”

Home is of central importance in the Dead world, which is full of characters lost and roaming away from home in an unfriendly world. Though there are few happy homes depicted in Dead song, it’s still idealized in song after song as a place the singers want to return to. Countless Dead characters are trying to “get back where we belong,” but it’s a mystical goal that’s hardly ever reached, as the road always beckons.

Few Dead characters can actually be found at home. In fact, the main thing they do at home is die! Prime examples are Black Peter (“I was laying in my bed and dying”) and Dire Wolf (“went to bed, that’s the last they saw of me”), but also He Was A Friend Of Mine (“my best friend was sleeping in his bed…and he was dead”) and Death Don’t Have No Mercy, where death “come to your house” and you “look in the bed” until “your whole family’s gone.”

Clearly lying in bed is not a safe activity – when you “lay down and take your rest,” you might get snatched up. Some of the Dead’s gospel covers such as Swing Low Sweet Chariot celebrate heaven as the true home (“coming for to carry me home”), and the singers can’t wait to be carried away. (Cold Jordan warns, “Without Him you never will make it home.”) Some of this gospel tone is taken up in Brokedown Palace, where the singer’s going to “rest my bones…in a bed by the waterside,” an ominous touch. Home is on his mind: “Mama, many worlds I’ve come since I first left home,” but he feels that now he’s “going home” again. (The mood is much the same as in Sing Me Back Home, with the river and the prison choir each singing “a far gone lullaby” to “sing me away.”)

There is a huge exception to all this, though – when Pigpen’s lying in bed, death is not on his mind. In blues songs, home is often the place for a sexual rendezvous, as in Good Morning Little Schoolgirl (“can I come home with you”), Hard to Handle (“you got to come home with me”), and Little Red Rooster (“please drive him home”). The Dead would also indulge themselves on a similar note with Gloria (“she come up to my house…she come into my room…”). Then again, you might find someone else having sex in your home, as in On the Road Again: “I went to my house” and found a “big old rounder in my folding bed.” (As for his “pretty mama…she’s on the road again.”)

Many of Pigpen’s blues songs are about relationships between lovers, sometimes set in the home they share (or used to share). For instance, in Sick & Tired he’s ready to kick his baby out of the house, but in Pain in My Heart “I wake up at night in misery” and begs his baby to come back, and in Empty Pages he wakes up in an “empty bedroom” and wonders “where you’ve gone.” (It’s All Over Now, sung by Weir, also depicts a happy home life that’s ended – “I used to wake in the morning, get my breakfast in bed,” but that’s all over.)

Tastebud is a particularly interesting example since Pigpen kept changing the lyrics – at first, his baby leaves home:
“I found a space in my bed now
Where my sweet little baby used to lay…
I looked out my window and I saw my baby leaving”
So he asks, “come back baby, please don’t go,” pleading that he still loves her. (Weir later used the same situation in Looks Like Rain – “I woke today and felt your side of bed…you were gone.”)
But in the later version of Tastebud, Pigpen reverses roles – now he’s the one who’s left home:
“Turned on my pillow to where my baby lay
I remembered I was in a strange old town then
My sweet little angel she’s so far away
Now I ain’t got no friends here
Ain’t got no good place to go
All my friends are back home
And I can’t go back there no more.”
At the end he changes his mind and declares, “I’m coming back baby, I’m coming home.”
I’ve quoted the lyric at length here not to illustrate Pigpen’s songwriting, but because he was the first of the Dead songwriters to hit on a common theme in many of their future songs – the narrator far from home, lost and friendless and with nowhere to go, but wanting to come back home. He took the romantic angle as usual, but other Dead songs would use it as a universal plight.

Surprisingly few songs catch the characters in the act of leaving home, as in Promised Land (“I left my home…California on my mind”). Blues songs often include departures, as in Walkin’ Blues: “feel like goin’ out, leave my old lonesome home.” The fellow in Dark Hollow also doesn’t want to “be home alone…I’m going, but I ain’t coming back.” Cold Rain & Snow is an interesting case, where “I married me a wife” and the song is partly set in their home, but the singer is driven out, “going where those chilly winds don’t blow.” (Stable homes and happy marriages are rare in Dead songs.)

Usually the characters have already left home some time ago, and the song finds them in a state of abandonment:
“I’m a long way from home and I miss my loved one so” (Early Morning Rain)
“So far from home and so alone” (Hey Little One)
“You have caused me to leave my home” (In the Pines)
“Tell me why will you never come home” (Doin’ That Rag)

Returning home is a powerful theme repeated in many songs, from Wake Up Little Susie (“we gotta go home”) to Louie Louie (“never think I’ll make it home”). Some examples:
“I’m going back where I belong…that’s where I’m gonna make my happy home” (Beat It On Down the Line)
“I’ve been all night long coming home” (Don’t Ease Me In)
“If I get home before daylight, I just might get some sleep tonight” (Friend of the Devil)
“I’m going home…back where I belong” (Truckin’)
“Going back home, that’s what I’m gonna do” (Black-Throated Wind)
“All I want is one [road] to take me home” (So Many Roads)
“I’m gonna find my own way home” (Liberty)

But as the Dead sang, “Any which way you are tempted to roam, it’s a long way to go home.” Sometimes the journey can’t be made alone, or is associated with loss:
“Now they’ve finally brought you back home to me” (Long Black Limousine)
“[She left] looking for that home I hope she’d find” (Me & Bobby McGee)
“He’s come to take his children home” (Uncle John’s Band)
“If I knew the way, I would take you home” (Ripple)
“When you lose your way…may the four winds blow you home again” (Franklin’s Tower)
“Gonna carry you back home in my arms” (I Will Take You Home)

Other times, as in “Drink up and go home,” it’s more of a direct command:
“Go on home, your mama’s calling you” (Cosmic Charlie)
“Get back home where you belong” (Row Jimmy)
“Run along, take your ball and go home” (If the Shoe Fits)

And sometimes the homecoming is somebody else’s:
“All your seasick sailors, they are rowing home” (Baby Blue)
“The waves rolled the ships home from the sea” (It Must Have Been the Roses)

But the yearning to return home or someplace you can rest can be found all over – “gotta get back where you belong,” as The Wheel goes.
“Won’t you carry me back to Tennessee” (Tennessee Jed)
“You’re lost sailor, you been too long at sea…no place in this world you can be” (Lost Sailor)
“When you’re lost in the rain… I’m going back to New York City” (Tom Thumb’s Blues)
“I just need some place where I can lay my head” (The Weight)

The Dead even had a little subgenre of cover songs where characters wind up in prison and lament leaving their parents’ home, as in Big Railroad Blues (“wish I had listened to what mama said”), Mama Tried (“mama tried to raise me better”), Sing Me Back Home (“there’s a song my mama sang”), and Green Grass of Home (“the old hometown looks the same”). I Washed My Hands in Muddy Water was also originally a jail song – Garcia skips those verses, but does remember the usual Dead theme: “if I’d listened to what daddy told me, I would not be so all alone.” (More on the prison theme later.) 

The road from mama’s lap to a life of crime and a jail cell seems to be a short one in Dead songs. One father in Dupree’s Diamond Blues warns his son, “You’ll never get far…there isn’t really very far to go.” Pigpen also brings up this subject in Bring Me My Shotgun:
“You know my mama told me the day I left her door
Said, ‘You’re gonna have bad luck son, and I don’t care where you go.’”

Now and then you do find a Dead character actually living at home, but it’s usually not a happy environment. For instance, the singer in Loose Lucy seems to live in a rough neighborhood (“I got jumped coming home…went back home with two black eyes”), although he doesn’t seem to mind. The killer in Little Sadie also “went right home, went to bed” after his cold-blooded deed, but has to flee the very next morning (only to be caught). Pigpen stays at home in Easy Wind, working and drinking himself to death – “I’ll live five years if I take my time,” he says, meanwhile “my rider hides my bottle in the other room.” Brown-Eyed Women is the rare song that actually depicts a family home, but since it’s a “tumble-down shack” with “the roof caved in,” a bootleg still, and eight boys getting “lickings” from a tired mother who soon dies off, it does not sound like a cheerful upbringing.

The singer in Truckin’ is permanently on the road – he has a home, but only uses it to rest between his perpetual travels. Even though home is “where I belong,” he gets “sick of hanging around,” and can’t settle down for long: “back home, sit down and patch my bones, and get back truckin’ on.” Nor does he see home as a romantic haven for those around him:
“Most of the time they’re sitting and crying at home
One of these days they know they gotta get going
Out of the door and into the street all alone.”

Sometimes characters stay in hotels, like “my hotel room” in When I Paint My Masterpiece, or “the Greystone Hotel” in Pride of Cucamonga. (Then there’s the mysterious Mars Hotel album title.) It can even be a way of life – the Truckin’ singer is always travelling, “sitting and staring out of the hotel window,” and the Stella Blue singer has “stayed in every blue light cheap hotel.” (Meanwhile the lady in Operator, farther down the economic scale, may be “working in a house of blue light,” where visitors don’t stay long.)


“Lay down last night, Lord I could not take my rest”

Most Dead characters have no home. Many, of course, are just the fleeting shadows of song with no physical habitation, and there’s no need to mention where they might live; but quite a few are vagabonds and drifters, forever heading down the road, wandering through the world with no place to stay. Though it was rarely played, Road Runner could serve as a Dead anthem:
“Let me be a travelling man…
I’m a road runner baby
Look for me and I’ll be gone…
Gotta be free baby to roam around”
More philosophically, the Dead sang about the Wheel: “you can’t slow down…you can’t go back and you can’t stand still.”

Numerous songs have characters with “nothing left to lose” like Bobby McGee. Their existence is restless, peripatetic –under “a roving sign,” through many a song they ramble and roam. “I was all night running,” cries the singer in Bertha, “I had to move.” “My mind was wandering,” sighs the troubled singer in I Know You Rider, who’d rather go off to the wilderness and “sleep in a hollow log” than endure a downtrodden life. “I ain’t gonna be treated this way,” Garcia sings in several songs as he escapes down the road. “Gonna jumpstart my life or go down trying,” Phil sings in Wave to the Wind. Baby Blue’s commandment, “You must leave now…go start anew,” echoes throughout the Dead’s repertoire; settling down is rarely an option. “Long-distance runner…get up, get off, get out of the door,” the Dead exhort; the Lost Sailor goes “drifting and dreaming;” and even Rosemary in her colorful garden “at last went one may stay.”
(St. Stephen is an odd man out in this crowd – at first he seems to wander “wherever he goes,” but later in the song he “will remain,” and he’s “been here so long he’s got to calling it home.”)

A lot of this comes from the blues songs the Dead were grounded in, which are filled with shiftless or heartbroken men perennially leaving their homes and partners for greener pastures:
“I’m gonna leave you baby about the break of day” (Good Morning Little Schoolgirl)
“I’m goin’ away baby, and I won’t be back till fall” (CC Rider)
“Leaving in the morning if I have to ride the blinds” (Walkin’ Blues)
“I’m gonna wake up in the morning, I’m gonna pack up my bags” (BIODTL)
“I’m going away, I’m leaving today” (Dark Hollow)
“Leaving town, not knowing where I’m bound” (Mama Tried)
“I can’t stay…I’ll be gone a long long time” (Last Time)

Not to mention the painful separations that fill traditional songs, especially when lovers can hop on a train and leave:
“Fare you well, I never see you no more” (Smokestack Lightning)
“Long black train took my baby and gone” (Mystery Train)
“[The] train that carried my baby away left me standing” (How Long Blues)
“There she goes…she’s rolling down the line…so I’d best be on my way” (Early Morning Rain)

The Dead continued this tradition in their own songs:
“My rider left upon the midnight flyer” (Operator)
“I can’t sleep here no more” (Cumberland Blues)
“Gonna get up in the morning and go” (Loser)
“I hate to leave you sitting there” (Deal)
“Hello baby, I’m gone, goodbye…I’m on my way” (Mississippi Half-Step)
“Going where the wind don’t blow so strange” (He’s Gone)
“I’m gonna leave this town” (Never Trust A Woman)
And no line was sung more than:
“Gonna miss me when I’m gone” (I Know You Rider)

The western songs exemplify this, with characters on the run to no particular destination. The outlaws of Jack Straw “keep on rolling” – they “don’t go home,” there “ain’t a bed can give us rest.” “Thinking and drinking are all I have today,” laments the killer holed up in Mexicali Blues, “just riding and running across those desert sands.” The Friend of the Devil must run and hide “each lonely night,” while the gunman of I’ve Been All Around This World takes his isolated stand up in the mountains. Garcia was forever “goin’ down the road feeling bad,” hoping for better treatment somewhere up ahead. Some of Phil’s songs like Unbroken Chain and Pride of Cucamonga are striking in their solitude as the narrator seems to flee all humanity: “winter morning breaks, you’re all alone.”

Friends are few in Dead songs, and usually not good news when they appear. (You might say the only good friend is a dead friend, in He Was a Friend of Mine.) There’s the friend of the Devil (another one turns up in The Weight); the friends of Black Peter who “come around;” the friends of Alice D. Millionaire who “put you in exile;” the “concerned” friends in Althea who’re accused of “treachery;” the Alligator who claims “we was mutual friends;” and sweet Jane’s friends who just say “ain’t it a shame;” not to mention the “friends” in blues songs who slip in your back door. “My old buddy,” grins the killer in Jack Straw. The Candyman’s a friend to the “pretty ladies;” and the Uncle “starts a friendly game.” “Shun a friend,” Foolish Heart advises; “friends in need are never really true,” according to If the Shoe Fits. “He’s no friend of mine,” the Wharf Rat says of his maker, and presumably of everyone who said “I’d come to no good.” The lifetime prisoner in Viola Lee Blues says unconvincingly, “I’ve got a friend somewhere.”  

Many a character has been left alone – in just a small sampling, “I will walk alone” in Black Muddy River, “I’m here by the road…alone” in Black-Throated Wind, “standing in the road alone” in Pride of Cucamonga, “riding alone in the dark” in El Paso and Mexicali Blues, “feeling so alone and blue” in Standing on the Moon, “lonely and I call your name” in So Many Roads. “You’re here alone” in Fire on the Mountain, and “she sat quite alone” in Rosemary; “ain’t no one around” in Empty Pages, and “no one comes round any more” in It Must Have Been the Roses.
There’s many a “lonely night,” often romantic in nature (“I’m lonely for you,” “I get a little lonely in the middle of the night”), and the Dead have plenty of “come back baby”-type songs. “Won’t you stay with me?” Pigpen asks in Empty Pages. But sometimes it’s a more existential dilemma, as when Garcia wanders down “every lonely street” in Stella Blue and other songs without any hope of connection. As he sums up early on in Hey Little One, “The road we ride is a long, long road when you are all alone.”

Garcia’s songs revel in bleakness: “no place left to go,” “nothing left to do,” “nothing left to see,” and “nothing you can hold” (So Many Roads, Black Muddy River, Standing on the Moon, Stella Blue, among others). Garcia drifts aimlessly back and forth in Mission in the Rain (“the bells were not for me”); in Stella Blue “there’s just the pavement left;” and there’s even more endless walking in Comes a Time (“I can’t see much difference,” he sighs). Wharf Rat is particularly desolate, with its homeless man “stumbling around” the docks and the narrator in not much better shape: “I got up and wandered…nowhere to go but just to hang around.”

Some Dead characters admit they’re in bad shape:
“I’m lost from the light” (Black-Throated Wind)
“I was feeling lost, lacking in some direction” (Althea)
“I’ll get back on my feet someday” (Wharf Rat)
Pigpen put it bluntly in The Stranger:
“Did I take a wrong turning on life’s winding road?
Won’t somebody help me find the right way to go?
My life needs some correction…
Yes, I’m lost.”

A few songs like Box of Rain offer advice and guidance to a lost soul: “maybe you’ll find direction around some corner.” Franklin’s Tower holds a bell that can ring “when you lose your way.” “Won’t you come with me?” asks Uncle John’s Band; “come with me or go alone.” Many songs, even when not overtly romantic or sermonizing, address a “you” so there is at least some companionship implied, even if it’s been severed. “Say you’ll come back when you can,” the singer asks Cosmic Charlie; “maybe I’ll be back here too.” Other songs sound more like final farewells: “you told me goodbye;” “I guess it’s time you go;” “I guess we could be through.”   

But not all Dead songs are full of flown birds, rainy streets, and empty hearts; romantic connections are made as well. Naturally, being in the arena of popular music, the Dead had their share of love songs in which isolation plays no part, except in the sense of being “alone with you.” Garcia even has some happy relationships in his songs, which as we’ve seen are not that typical in the Dead repertoire. The early rarity Betty & Dupree has a relatively shocking outcome: “we will be married, be happy all of our life.” (Usually a marriage proposal in a Dead folk song, such as Peggy-O, Cold Rain & Snow, or Rosa Lee McFall, ends in “fatal doom” and early death.)
Jack-a-Roe also ends with a happy marriage (“so well they did agree”) – what’s more unusual is that it starts out with the standard Dead leaving-home separation, “he’s left his native country and his darling girl behind,” but the girl decides to follow her true love to sea anyway, rescuing him from an inevitable demise. Indeed, the romantic Garcia has a few songs where he stays faithful to his love and offers “a lifetime of devotion” instead of skipping town:
“Don’t go away, tell me you’ll stay” (Hey Little One)
“Don’t fly away…I will stay one more day” (Help on the Way)
“I know that I should leave but I just can’t go” (You Win Again)
“I could not leave her there” (It Must Have Been the Roses)


“I’m a wanted man in Texas”

While the Dead’s “outlaw” persona is often overlooked today, it’s a crucial element in their song choices. Dead songs feature a number of people running from their crimes – usually murder (lesser misdeeds are rarely mentioned). Garcia’s songs include killings in Dupree’s Diamond Blues, Little Sadie, and Stagger Lee (and implied in I’ve Been All Around This World). Weir’s western songs all have killings: Me & My Uncle, El Paso, Mexicali Blues, and Jack Straw (as well as the once-played Tom Dooley). Even Pigpen, who usually deals with romance rather than murder, manages a double killing in Something On Your Mind.

Robbery and revenge are the most frequent motives. Some Dead songs, while not blood-stained, at least threaten it – such as Candyman (“if I had me a shotgun I’d blow you straight to hell”), Mr. Charlie (“I put it in my shotgun and I go walking out…gonna scare you up and shoot you”), and Money Money (“I just load my gun and mosey down to the bank”). Indeed, Pigpen repeatedly requests shotguns in Chinatown Shuffle and, of course, Bring Me My Shotgun (“there’s got to be trouble here”).

As a result, a surprising number of Dead songs (mostly covers) are either set in prison or feature characters who are out of prison or at least familiar with it. In many songs, if the characters aren’t already incarcerated, they’re either on the run from the law or at least dodging the sheriff, and trials never have a happy outcome.

Some characters are left eternally fleeing the law, looking over their shoulders – the Friend of the Devil “sets out running” and never stops, and he has plenty of company:
“Maybe I’ll meet you on the run” (Sugaree)
“You keep us on the run” (Jack Straw)
“Now I spend my lifetime running” (Mexicali Blues)
“Running hard out of Muskrat Flats” (Pride of Cucamonga)
Others flee in vain:
“I had but one chance, and that was to run” (El Paso)
“Grabbed my hat and away I run [but] they overtook me” (Little Sadie)

In prison:
Viola Lee Blues (“the judge decreed it…we got lifetime here”)
I Fought the Law (“breakin’ rocks in the hot sun”)
Big Railroad Blues (“I wouldn’t be here trying to sleep in this cold iron bed”)
Green Grass of Home (“the four gray walls that surround me”)
Let Me In (“now I’m here in Sing Sing”)
Little Sadie (“41 years to wear the ball and stripes”)
Mama Tried (“I turned 21 in prison doing life without parole”)
I’ve Been All Around This World (“hang me…you wait in jail so long”)
Sing Me Back Home (“the warden led the prisoner down the hallway to his doom”)

Arrested/Out of prison:
Alligator (“just out of prison on a six-dollar bail”)
Wharf Rat (“half of my life spent doing time”)
Truckin’ (“busted down on Bourbon Street”)
The Other One (“the heat came round and busted me”)
(This song originally had a whole verse set in jail; the singer broke out.)
Revolutionary Hamstrung Blues (“read the charges…thirty days”)
Believe It Or Not (“done time in the lockup”)

On the run:
New Minglewood Blues (“busted jail and I’m gone for good, the sheriff couldn’t catch me”)
Friend of the Devil (“sheriff’s on my trail…I’ll spend my life in jail”)
Pride of Cucamonga (“it was sixty days or double life…I done some time”)

Jails are also mentioned more or less casually in Don’t Ease Me In (“the jailhouse key”), Ain’t Superstitious (“just might land in jail”), Tennessee Jed (“cold iron shackles, ball and chain”), and Bertha (“why don’t you arrest me, throw me in the jailhouse”). Sugaree also seems to be fearing arrest (“when they bring that wagon round”). Whiskey in the Jar has a verse set in prison (“they put me in jail without a judge or jury”), but the singer escapes.
Dupree’s Diamond Blues skips over jail time, but does have a trial and death sentence (“judge said in fact it’s gonna cost you your life”). Stagger Lee implies that the same justice is coming (“had him dragged to City Hall…see you hang him high…now he’s got to die”). Cryptical Envelopment also features a death sentence (“solemnly they stated he has to die”), for no apparent crime. Weir’s western songs buck the trend in that his killers don’t face jail or trial – they either flee to Mexico, or are shot by vigilantes or their own partners.
Pigpen’s characters, surprisingly, never encounter the law. It’s notable that (with some exceptions) Weir’s characters usually either escape or get killed, while Garcia dwells much more on prison sentences and executions:  
“They’re coming in the morning, that’s the last you’ll see of me…”