The History and Meaning of the Grateful Dead Terrapin Turtles

One of the lesser-known but still beloved Grateful Dead logos, is the terrapin turtles. First pictured in the cover art for the 1977 album Terrapin Station, the symbol is said to be inspired by the lyrics to the album’s title track, the classic live jam “Terrapin Station”. It was designed by the same Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley that brought us Bertha the Skeleton, the Europe ’72 ice cream kid, and more.

Like many Grateful Dead songs, “Terrapin Station” was written as a collaboration between Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia, with Hunter penning the lyrics and Garcia developing the music. The song explores an abstract vision of inner peace, with the words “Some rise / some fall / some climb /to get to Terrapin” suggesting that everybody has different challenges in life, but are all searching for their own version of this mystical Terrapin Station.

Take this with the actual animal, the terrapin turtle, unique because of its ability to survive equally as well both on land or in water. Perhaps Hunter imagined a place where one could handle anything that life may present to it with the ease and grace of the terrapin. And so, by extension, the logo of the Grateful Dead terrapin turtle represents this ease and grace, which the band embodies both in this song and across most of their existence.

The Dead first played “Terrapin Station” on February 26th, 1977 at Swing Auditorium in San Bernadino, CA. The album was not released until later that year, in July, but 2/26 was when it first entered the ethos. It wasn’t long before it joined the dancing bears and the stealie in the lineup of Grateful Dead merch, both officially and in the lot.

Listen to the “Terrapin Station” from 2/26/77 below, which Heady Version currently calls the best-ever version of the song.

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8 thoughts on “The History and Meaning of the Grateful Dead Terrapin Turtles

  • July 11, 2021 at 2:06 pm

    I just heard Bombay Bicycle Club do a 16 minute version of Terrapin Station- wow!! Check it out

    Reply
  • July 21, 2021 at 7:08 am

    Sadly, as greatas themusic was, thw idea of reaching our own enlightenmemt is a ” dead-head” from the start. Man cannot reach enlightenment his own way. Jesus said I AM the way truth and light. And he alsi said thT the way is narrow. One MUST be born again of the spirit by asking God to do this and forgive him of sin. Really. Thats why Jesus came, to be the sin bearer. I hope Jerry did this before hw passed on. God wants no one to be lost but all to be saved, so “He gave his only begotten Son.”

    Reply
    • December 11, 2021 at 9:38 am

      Jesus? Really? Jesus.

      Reply
    • December 13, 2021 at 1:12 pm

      Oh dear Kathy, you were destined to be a Wompster wasting time dreaming of the never never, trying to find meaning in your life by influencing others…

      Reply
    • December 15, 2021 at 8:21 am

      Why do you christians try to jam jesus down everyone’s throat? Just because YOU think he’s the shit, doesn’t mean the rest of us do. Don’t try to tell us what to think. I much prefer the wisdom in the song to the ridiculous doctrine espoused by the drivel in the bible.

      Reply
    • May 16, 2022 at 8:27 am

      Religion is the REAL way of Satan to get your soul.

      Reply
  • December 30, 2021 at 8:16 am

    The “Lady with a Fan” section mostly comes from a song called “Lady from Carlisle,” (although it went by many names), which is a song that possibly dates back as far as the year 1666. Probably British, possibly French. The first iterations of this that I heard were Pete Seeger’s “Carlisle” on his American Ballads album, and the Pentangle. I was really surprised that there was no acknowledgement of these origins in the book “The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics.” That was a pretty boat to miss. Robert Hunter was never shy about breathing new life into old folk songs.

    Here’s a great quality video from the 1960s of the Pentangle doing it. https://youtu.be/I6Ugs3wY8zU

    Reply

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