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The Meaning of the Grateful Dead’s “Althea”

“Althea” by the Grateful Dead is a fan-favorite that has had deadheads picking apart its meaning for decades. The track saw official release in April 1980, on the Dead’s eleventh studio album, Go to Heaven, and it appeared in the live rotation in August 1979.

Today, “Althea” is one of the most well-known songs in the band’s catalogue, right up there with “Touch of Grey”, “Friend of the Devil“, “Casey Jones”, and of course, “Ripple” in terms of mainstream recognition.

With lyrics penned by Robert Hunter and musical arrangement by Jerry Garcia, “Althea” is one of several dozen examples of wonderful songwriting to come from the pair.

In addition to placing Garcia’s guitar playing at the forefront, the lyrics to “Althea” can be interpreted to be about him and the circumstances of his life at the time of its writing, and for his final 15 years that followed.

The Garcia interpretation is far from the only meaning of the song, though, and thus is the beauty of Robert Hunter’s songwriting. Many people draw inspiration from “Althea” and find ways that the lyrics apply to their own life, forever evolving as they grow older and experience more things.

Rather than going into a long diatribe about how much I love the Grateful Dead (you can find that here), we’re going to stick to the meaning of “Althea” today.

We’re going to look at the lyrics, the inspiration that Hunter drew from, and of course, how this song can be applied to the life of Jerry Garcia, whom was struggling (in all eyes but his own) with a nasty heroin habit beginning in the late 1970s all the way until his death in 1995.

First, a bit of background on the name Althea, and where Hunter may have gotten it.

Origins of the name “Althea”

The name Althea has roots in Greek mythology, and is derived from the ancient Greek name Althaea, which translates to “healer of wounds”.

In Greek mythology, Althaea is the mother of the hero Meleager.

When Meleager was a small child, Althea was visited by the Fates who told her that her son’s life depended on a specific log that was in her fire at the time. Upon hearing this, she removed the log from the fire and kept it in a safe place for many years.

When Meleager was an adult, he participated in a hunt for a boar that was terrorizing his village. His girlfriend Atalanta also participated, and since she was the first to strike the boar, Meleager awarded her the prize for being the most instrumental figure in the hunt.

Althaea’s two brothers, the uncles of Meleager, did not like that the prize had been awarded to a woman. They ended up in a fight with Meleager that resulted in their death.

When Althaea heard what her son had done, she took the log from its safe hiding place and quickly burned it in the fire. Meleager, who was in a nearby field, suddenly felt a pain in his chest and dropped dead.

The name Althea was also used by the poet Richard Lovelace, in his 1649 poem “To Althea From Prison”, which was written to address a real-life woman named Lucy Sacheverell.

Finally, an althea is a type of hibiscus flower such as the Marsh Mallow or Hollycock.

It is likely that Hunter was aware of all of these things when writing the song, and channeled energy from each of them while writing the lyrics.

“Althea” Lyrics Meaning

The song opens with a guitar solo that is bursting with soulful energy, and sets the melodic tone for the rest of the song.

Then, Garcia sings the first chorus:

I told Althea I was feeling lost
Lacking in some direction
Althea told me upon scrutiny
That my back might need protection
I told Althea that treachery
Was tearing me limb from limb
Althea told me: “Now cool down boy
Settle back, easy Jim”

First chorus to “Althea” by the Grateful Dead.

Our narrator, Jim, tells this woman named Althea that he’s lost and lacks direction in life. She replies that he might need somebody to watch his back. He continues to say that he’s being torn apart by treachery, and she tells him to just relax.

Many see this as an indirect letter from Hunter to Garcia, hoping to send him the message that he’s headed down a bad path in life, with his heroin habit and other addictions, and he needs to take a step back and see things for what they are.

This meaning can also be applied to lives other than Jerry’s, as the lyrics can be seen as a source of hope and some reassurance that you are not the only one who feels lost and dejected. If nothing else, we can cling to Garcia’s warm, tender voice and virtuosity on his instrument for comfort.

Next, we have the first verse, which is packed with references and abstractions:

You may be Saturday’s child all grown
Moving with a pinch of grace
You may be a clown in the burying ground
Or just another pretty face
You may be the fate of Ophelia
Sleeping and perchance to dream
Honest to the point of recklessness
Self centered to the extreme

First verse to “Althea” by the Grateful Dead.

The verse opens with a reference to the proverbial rhyme, “Monday’s Child”, by suggesting that our narrator may be “Saturday’s child”, all grown-up.

As the rhyme says, “Saturday’s child works hard for its living”:

Monday’s child is fair of face,
Tuesday’s child is full of grace,
Wednesday’s child is full of woe,
Thursday’s child has far to go,
Friday’s child is loving and giving,
Saturday’s child works hard for its living,
And a child that’s born on the Sabbath day
Is fair and wise and good and gay.

“Monday’s Child” nursery rhyme.

It’s worth noting that Jerry Garcia was born on a Saturday. Saturday, August 1st, 1942, to be exact.

The lyrics move with grace into three back-to-back references to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, starting with the line about being a clown in the burying ground.

Shakespeare’s clowns provide comic relief during tragic times, and in the case of Hamlet, they appear in the graveyard during the famous Act 5, Scene 1.

In this scene, Hamlet discovers the skull of his old friend Yorick the court jester in an open grave, which happens to be the grave of Ophelia.

The two men who are digging the grave make light of the death of Ophelia, questioning why she was given a Christian burial when her death was likely to be suicide, and even joke about grave-robbing.

Speaking of Ophelia, another Shakespeare reference follows when the narrator suggests that Jim may share her fate. As we know, she died by suicide due to becoming emotionally overwhelmed. Death by “too much water,” as Laertes says.

Then, we have our third Hamlet reference with the line “Sleeping and perchance to dream,” borrowed from the “To Be Or Not To Be” soliloquy.

All of these Hamlet references serve to paint this Jim as a troubled figure, who might be on a one-way path to death by his own negligence, whether that be metaphorical or literal.

The verse closes with some direct descriptions of Jim as way too honest, to the point where it becomes reckless, and totally self-centered.

All of this together serves as a reminder to us listeners to look at things with a fresh perspective when we find ourselves in times of trouble, instead of getting wrapped up in a whirlwind of self-destructive behaviors and attitudes.

We have a break from these complex literary references in the form of another solo from Garcia before heading into the second verse:

Ain’t nobody messing with you but you
Your friends are getting most concerned
Loose with the truth
Maybe it’s your fire
But baby, don’t get burned
When the smoke has cleared, she said
That’s what she said to me
You’re going to want a bed to lay your head
And a little sympathy

Second verse to “Althea” by the Grateful Dead.

The frustration comes to a boil in the second verse, and the narrator directly tells Jim that he’s the cause of his own problems, and all of his friends are starting to worry about him.

“Loose with the truth” is just like the line from earlier, “Honest to the point of recklessness.” This person is just baring their soul in every which way.

Deadheads reading may be experiencing lightbulbs in their heads at this point, knowing that Garcia often spoke a truth with his music that is felt and understood, but difficult to describe. He was also pretty loose with it, allowing anyone and everyone to experience it if they wanted.

When Hunter references fire, he may be drawing upon the idiom “playing with fire,” which means to be involved in extremely risky behaviors, such as drug abuse. It may also be the fire of passion, such as giving so much of yourself to the music that you lose it.

Either fire has the potential to burn in different ways, but either way, Althea knows that Jim will want a warm place to lie down, and some sympathy for his situation.

This is written as a sort of wake-up call, as Althea currently has the patience to deal with Jim’s irresponsible behavior, but won’t be willing to provide that luxury forever.

Up next is another appearance of Garcia on guitar before we reach the bridge, where Hunter’s lyrics twist the knife even more:

There are things you can replace
And others you cannot
The time has come to weigh those things
This space is getting hot
You know this space is getting hot

Bridge to “Althea” by the Grateful Dead.

There is a definite rising tension in this section, as Althea calls upon Jim to take stock of his life and decide what is important to him. She says the space is hot, meaning that emotions are high in those close to him, and he knows it.

Another instrumental break follows, and then Garcia sings a response in the second chorus:

I told Althea
I’m a roving sign
That I was born to be a bachelor
Althea told me: “Okay, that’s fine”
So now I’m out trying to catch her

Second chorus to “Althea” by the Grateful Dead.

He calmly tells Althea that he’s a “roving sign,” meaning that he can’t be tied down to any expectations, and he’s meant to roam this world as a single man.

This brings to mind the Junior Walker song “(I’m A) Road Runner”, often covered by the Jerry Garcia Band, which is basically centered around the idea of being a “roving sign”.

Althea replies in the same calm demeanor, and simply leaves Jim by himself. And of course, Jim immediately regrets shrugging her off, and embarks on a quest to get her back.

There’s a message in here about how when a strong woman calls a man out on his bullsh*t, it’s in his best interests to take her seriously.

In the outro, Hunter takes things to a spiritual place, suggesting that Althea and her lover are connected on a deeper level:

Can’t talk to you without talking to me
We’re guilty of the same old thing
Talking a lot about less and less
And forgetting the love we bring

Outro to “Althea” by the Grateful Dead.

A conversation between the pair is like holding up an emotional mirror, and they find that they’re both guilty of the same offenses.

They talk more, but say less, which suggests that they spend too much time arguing and not enough time remembering that there is a strong, loving bond between them that is more important than anything else.

Then, when the song reaches its peak, Garcia is unleashed. He embarks on a lengthy solo that encapsulates all of the emotions of “Althea”, while also offering a sense of relief, ending the song on a soothing exhale.

Listen to the studio recording from Go to Heaven below, and enjoy some of my personal favorite live versions below that.

“Althea” (5/16/80)

“Althea” (3/14/81)

“Althea” (3/15/90)