"Ripple," out of all the amazing songs written by the Grateful Dead, appears to have a special magic. "Ripple" is a song whose meaning boils down to the essential essence of the Grateful Dead, thanks to Robert Hunter's deep, contemplative lyrics and Jerry Garcia's serene acoustic arrangement. And it'd be difficult to find a Deadhead who doesn't consider "Ripple" to be one of their favorite tunes.
The song was included on the Grateful Dead's American Beauty album, published in 1970. It was the second of two notable albums produced that year, the first being Workingman's Dead.
These albums signaled a transition in their sound from the psychedelic chaos they were experimenting with in the late 1960s to a more roots-oriented rock style that they remained with for nearly a decade and never completely departed from. Many of the Dead's most iconic songs are included, including "Ripple." The cream of the crop.
It's one of just a few Dead songs where the studio version might be argued to be superior to any of the live versions ("Touch of Grey" and "Box of Rain" spring to mind as well). Jerry, Bob Weir, and Phil Lesh all nail the harmonies in the American Beauty version, which is crucial to this song and proven far more difficult for them to achieve in a live situation.
The Dead only performed "Ripple" live 40 times, starting in August 1970 and continuing through the year with acoustic concerts and into 1971 with some electric sets. The song was then taken from the rotation for nearly a decade, until it reappeared in 1980-81 when the band reintroduced acoustic sets.
"Ripple" is about finding peace with life and choosing a route that suits you through learning from other lost people and, of course, embracing the power of joy via music. It's about recognizing that we're all in this together, but that you have control over your own life. With the family they established, based on a foundation of love, peace, and respect, the Dead personified the spirit of this campfire chant.
With his lyrics, Robert Hunter was recognized for avoiding too many religious or anything that could be regarded as radical connotations. He had recognized early on that the band and their music were influencing the audience, and he didn't want anyone to get the wrong idea.
"Ripple," on the other hand, isn't afraid to dangle its toes in religious waters. Hunter told Rolling Stone in 2015 that the line "Let it be known there is a fountain / That was not constructed by the hands of men" was his favorite lyric he had ever written. It implies that there is a higher power out there who built a mystical fountain, which one would suppose is the Fountain of Youth.
Hunter's lyrics also contain what could be regarded as references to various other works of mythology and literature, as mentioned in the old school annotated Grateful Dead lyrics site at the University of Santa Cruz. The ancient Indian mystic Kabir, the Hebrew Psalm 23, Walt Whitman and Yeat's poetry, and others are also mentioned.
Hunter puts "Ripple" in perspective with all of these elements that weigh and interpret life's meaning, and offers his personal interpretation while also encouraging listeners to think about it for themselves.
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