Understanding and Misunderstanding Ripple by the Grateful Dead

The complete lyrics of this song are available at: AZ Lyrics.

Like many other people, this is my favorite song by Hunter and Garcia, which I have enjoyed since the 1970s. Some of the lyrics are mystical, with Taoism often quoted when interpreting You who choose to lead must follow.

In December 2020, the Grateful Dead (or what is left of them) uploaded a beautiful video of the song animated by T. Nakayama and produced by Robert Capria, both of Actuality Films. The imagery is derived primarily from the Rider-Waite deck of Tarot cards.

I will now presume to comment on some of the lyrics.

If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine

And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung

Many people mistakenly assume this is a reference to some ethereal harp that lacks strings. For example, Actuality Films portrays played on the harp as a man playing a lute while sitting ON a giant harp. Get it?

It's a good pun, but the animation studio was apparently oblivious to the fact that harp (or harpoon) refers to a harmonica, as explained here.

For example, the Kris Kristofferson song Me and Bobby McGee, contains this verse early in the ballad:

I took my harpoon out of my dirty red bandana

And was blowing sad while Bobby sang the blues

which refers to a harmonica, not a fishing weapon, as you can easily grasp from the context of his lyrics.

Now back to Ripple where the Actuality Films team presumptuously “solves” the koan of the refrain by imagining a spider settling on a pool of water:

Ripple in still water when there is no pebble tossed, nor wind to blow.

Sorry, that's not it. A better answer is found in the subsequent stanza, which they illustrate with the Tarot suit of Cups (representing the path of the heart), insightfully leading up to the fountain of the Ace of Cups:

Reach out your hand if your cup be empty,

If your cup is full may it be again,

Let it be known there is a fountain

That was not made by the hands of men.

If there is a fountain that was not made by humans, it could certainly create ripples in water, as the video portrays when transitioning to the Star card of the Major Arcana. No need for the clever solution of a spider dangling from a strand.

What would such a fountain be? I suggest it is a reference to the human heart, which creates ripples in the bloodstream by beating, even

when there is no pebble tossed nor wind to blow.

More generally, our heart motivates us to create ripples in our world by leading us to interact with other people. We do not always know the result:

the thoughts are broken, perhaps they are better left unsung

but the person utters the words anyway.

The last two stanzas refer to walking your own path between the known and the unknown:

between the dawn and the dark of night

The journey must be undertaken with self-responsibility, not blaming anyone else for your destiny:

if you fall, you fall alone.

This is as far as my comments go.

If I knew the way, I would take you home.

copyright 2021 Martin Schell

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