The Meaning of the Grateful Dead’s “Ripple”

The Grateful Dead at Radio City Music Hall in October 1980. Photo by Steven Sachs.

Out of all the wonderful songs composed by the Grateful Dead, “Ripple” is one that seems to have a special magic. With it’s deep, pondering lyrics penned by Robert Hunter and the peaceful acoustic arrangement by Jerry Garcia, “Ripple” is a song that’s meaning boils down to the pure essence of the Grateful Dead. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a deadhead who wouldn’t place “Ripple” in the running for their favorite Dead songs.

The tune was released on the Grateful Dead’s 1970 album, American Beauty, which was the second of two noteworthy albums that they released that year, the first being Workingman’s Dead.

These albums marked a shift in their sound from the psychedelic madness they were exploring in the late 60s into a more roots-oriented rock sound that they stuck with for nearly a decade, and never truly strayed too far away from. They contain many of the Dead’s most memorable songs, including “Ripple”. The cream of the crop.

Jerry Garcia in 1971. Photo by Henry Diltz.

It’s one of only a handful of Dead songs that you could make a reasonable argument about the studio version being better than any of the live versions (“Touch of Grey” and “Box of Rain” also come to mind). The American Beauty version simply shines, with Jerry, Bob Weir, and Phil Lesh all nailing the harmonies, which is much key to this song and proved much more difficult for them to accomplish in the live setting.

The Dead only performed “Ripple” live 40 times, beginning in August 1970 and continuing during acoustic sets throughout that year and into some electric sets in ’71. Then it was dropped from the rotation for nearly a decade until it reappeared when the band brought back acoustic sets in 1980-81.

Check out a video of the Dead performing “Ripple” at Radio City Music Hall, Halloween 1980 below. From the film Dead Ahead (1980).

“Ripple” was shelved again in May of ’81 and did not return until 1988, making one final appearance as an electric encore that nobody could have expected. It is rumored that the reason the Dead played the song that night in ’88 was because the Make-A-Wish Foundation approached them with the wish of a deadhead who was dying of cancer, though this has never been confirmed.

The lyrics to “Ripple” were written by Robert Hunter, with music composed by Jerry Garcia. This was the songwriting duo that produced many of the Grateful Dead’s best songs, including most of the material on their two most beloved albums, American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead, and other favorites like “Sugaree”.

“Ripple” is about making peace with life, and finding a path that suits you by learning from the other lost people around you, and of course embracing the power of joy through music. It’s about remembering that we’re all in this together, but also that your life is your own to lead. The Dead embodied the spirit of this campfire anthem with the family that they created, based on a foundation of love and peace and respect.

Robert Hunter was known to purposely avoid too many religious or anything that could be interpreted as radical undertones with his songwriting. He noticed from early on that the fans were being influenced by the band and their music, and he didn’t want anybody to get the wrong idea.

Robert Hunter in 1977.

I’m sure he was also considering the copious amounts of LSD that both the band and its fans were taking around this time. This same line of thinking is why he shot down the idea of the band members holding guns on the back cover of Workingman’s Dead.

“Ripple”, however, certainly does dip its toes in the waters of religion, so to speak. Especially with the line, “Let it be known there is a fountain / That was not made by the hands of men,” which Hunter told Rolling Stone in 2015 was his favorite lyric that he had ever written. It suggests rather directly that there is some greater being out there that created a mystical fountain, which one might assume is the Fountain of Youth.

As noted in the old school annotated Grateful Dead lyrics site at the University of Santa Cruz, Hunter’s lyrics also contain what could be interpreted as references to several other works of mythology and literature. Noted references include the ancient Indian mystic Kabir, the Hebrew Psalm 23, Walt Whitman and Yeat’s poetry, and more.

The Grateful Dead playing acoustic in 1970.

In this way Hunter places “Ripple” in context with all of these things that weigh and interpret the meaning of life, and gives his own interpretation, but moreso invites listeners to ponder it for themselves:

There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go, no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone

Lyrics from “Ripple” by the Grateful Dead

With Jerry Garcia composing the thoughtful acoustic arrangement to accompany this, and of course providing his angelic voice on lead vocals, we are left with a masterpiece that invites one to ponder and reflect upon their own place in the universe.

In 2020, the Grateful Dead released an animated music video for “Ripple” in honor of American Beauty‘s 50th anniversary. The video offers a stunning visual accompaniment to many of the cosmic themes presented in the song. You can watch it below.

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4 thoughts on “The Meaning of the Grateful Dead’s “Ripple”

  • January 23, 2022 at 9:04 pm

    Every time I hear this song its like the very first time, every time. Flooded with emotions

    Reply
  • February 25, 2022 at 4:03 pm

    Appreciate learning that other Dead followers had the same kind of response I do to this iconic song.
    Not terribly surprising, but still good to know, given the variety of minds and tastes in such a large and diverse tribe.
    “Ripple” has always been my favorite hymn, and my favorite prayer; always makes me smile and choke up at the same time.

    Reply
  • March 3, 2022 at 11:06 am

    As I listen over and over to one of the most iconic riffs out there I learn something new every time. Being one of my favs, along with Sugaree, the goosebumps that appear as I sway back and forth to the rhythm, it’s no surprise to me that I feel an amazing, almost overwhelming connection to Ripple and of course the Dead. I am forever GRATEFUL to have been able to experience their sweet sounds in my lifetime!! ✌️✌️

    Reply
  • May 9, 2022 at 8:41 am

    One of the more beautiful and touching renditions of Ripple was done by Playing for Change (read their purpose in the first comment) https://youtu.be/MHo1fNnXFVU

    Reply

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