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The Meaning of the Grateful Dead’s “Bird Song”

Artwork created with Midjourney AI.

“Bird Song” is one of the Grateful Dead’s most enchanting compositions. It’s a song that often contains some of the most magical bits during any given show, at least for the first set.

Penned by Robert Hunter in collaboration with Jerry Garcia, “Bird Song” joined the Grateful Dead live repertoire on February 19th, 1971. This show also marked the first time they played “Deal”. ev

The song remained in rotation until September 1973, when it was dropped through the rest of the 70s only to reappear in September of 1980. How glad we are that it returned, too, because some of the greatest renditions of “Bird Song” came in that latter half of Grateful Dead history.

“Bird Song” was a song that could take a show to that special place, commonly known as “there”, even during Garcia’s darkest times. It is revered by many Deadheads as a favorite song, evolving with the band as it aged.

Today we’re going to dive into this verifiable “American psychedelic” classic and see what it’s all about. I’ll also share some of my favorite live versions of this song at the end. Enjoy!

“Bird Song” Origins

For many years, the meaning of “Bird Song” was not entirely clear, though many correctly assumed it to be a tribute to Janis Joplin. In 1990, when Robert Hunter released his songbook Box of Rain, he confirmed this directly with an attribution to the lyrics that simply reads, “…for Janis.

Janis Joplin & the Grateful Dead

During the late 1960s the Grateful Dead hung with a crew that included a ton of influential musicians in the psychedelic rock world, including none other than Janis Joplin. She was a crucial part of of the San Francisco music scene surrounding Haight-Ashbury, with her contributions keeping the scene vibrant and afloat.

Janis was especially close with the original Grateful Dead keyboardist, Pigpen. The two were hard-drinking peas in a pod, and they even had a romantic relationship.

On October 4, 1970, Janis Joplin died of an overdose in Los Angeles. That same night, the Grateful Dead played a show at Winterland with Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Hot Tuna — all of whom were also great friends with Janis.

The Grateful Dead on the Death of Janis Joplin

After the show, media flocked to artists and demanded interviews about Janis. Garcia, Bob Weir, and Pigpen all spoke with the media. Garcia’s words were later criticized as being insensitive, and as we know, “Bird Song” serves as a more heartfelt tribute to the late singer.

Jerry Garcia on Janis

As I just spent some time finding the full Garcia quote, and stumbled quotes from Bob Weir and Pigpen, I’ve decided to include all of them here. It’s quite long, but I wanted to see what they said, and I’m sure many readers would, too.

The crowd seemed a little crazier last night than tonight, I don’t know. You have to understand I have no memory, that’s the price I pay. The difference in vibes? It makes a big difference in vibes if you tell somebody, Janis died That’s like heavy news. But listen, man, these are all people who’ve been on lots of trips, and they’re sensitive, far-out, weird people, probably the weirdest people on earth in this place, and they’ve all looked at death a million times in lots of different ways. Nobody’s really uptight about death. Death is something that really happens.

Like everybody does it, the way they do it. Death only matters to the person who’s dying. The rest of us are going to live without that voice. For those of us for whom she was a person, we’ll have to do without the person.

Janis was like a real person, man. She went through all the changes we did. She went on all the same trips. She was just like the rest of us – fucked up, strung out, in weird places. Back in the old days, the pre-success days, she was using all kinds of things, just like anybody, man.

When she went out after something, she went out after it really hard, harder than most people ever think to do, ever conceive of doing.

She was on a real hard path. She picked it, she chose it, it’s OK. She was doing what she was doing as hard as she could, which is as much as any of us can do. She did what she had to do and closed her books. I don’t know whether it’s the thing to do, but it’s what she had to do.

It was the best possible time for her death. If you know any people who passed that point into decline, you know, really getting messed up, old, senile, done in. But going up, it’s like a skyrocket, and Janis was a skyrocket chick.

She had a sense of all that, including the sense that if somebody was making a movie of it, it’d make a great movie. If you had a chance to write your life…I would describe that as a good score in life writing, with an appropriate ending.

Jerry Garcia on the death of Janis Joplin, October 1970.

Garcia’s views on death offer intriguing hindsight, given the trajectory of his own life.

Bob Weir on Janis

And now, Bob Weir’s quote:

She went the way she wanted to, man, and I can’t bring myself to be in abject misery about it, because, like I say, she drank herself to death, she lived up to her image. If you knew Janis personally, you knew the direction she was going.

You know about the irony of her getting Bessie Smith a tombstone. I think we, the bands, should put together a collection and get her a tombstone, kind of a cheap, gaudy tombstone, the way she’d have wanted. I know she doesn’t like want her ashes scattered to the wind, man, she’ll want to go six feet under like all her songs.

Bob Weir on the death of Janis Joplin, October 1970.

Pigpen on Janis

And Pigpen, whom notably liked to drink Southern Comfort, had a very on-brand comment about it:

When I get a few days I’m gonna set back and get ripped on Southern Comfort. I turned her on to Southern Comfort, man. I knew her when she came up in ’63 and I was with the jugband. Then she came back to Texas, and when she came back up I told her one day, ‘Tex, try some of this.’ She said [rolling his eyes, reeling] ‘Oh man, that’s good!’ We used to get drunk and play pool together. She beat me 80 per cent of the time.

Pigpen on the death of Janis Joplin, October 1970.

Knowing that Pigpen would drink himself to death less than three years later adds a harrowing element to his quote, as well.

And finally, before we get to the lyrical analysis, enjoy this short clip from the documentary Festival Express that features Janis hanging with Garcia, Weir, and more on a train ride through Canada:

“Bird Song” Lyrics Meaning

Artwork created with Midjourney AI.

With all of this context in mind about “Bird Song” being a tribute to Janis Joplin, we look at the lyrics as a tale of mourning the loss of a beautiful, musical soul.

As time passes, “Bird Song” takes on a more universal nature. We can consider the song as a tribute to any artist who touched the world with their music, said their piece, and flew on. This brings to mind Garcia and the Grateful Dead themselves, as well as countless artists who have left their mark on the world.

Like many Grateful Dead songs, “Bird Song” offers a unique, calming perspective on death. Let’s dive in and see how Robert Hunter accomplished this, in a small amount of words. Starting with the first verse:

All I know is something like a bird
Within her sang
All I know she sang a little while
And then flew on

First verse to “Bird Song” by the Grateful Dead.

Hunter depicts this musician, or Janis Joplin, as having a bird within her that sings. This brings to mind a peaceful song that we hear and enjoy every morning, announcing the start of a fresh day.

Like a bird, she sang her tune and then flew away. There for a moment, and then she’s gone.

The next verse seems to address the bird directly:

Tell me all that you know
I’ll show you
Snow and rain

Second verse to “Bird Song” by the Grateful Dead.

He wants the bird to sing every one of its songs, let out the entire creative spirit that exists within her.

As for “snow and rain” — these are two things that cause a lot of problems for birds. It makes it hard for them to fly, and presents some challenges in life.

In essence, Hunter is offering to teach this bird how to handle life’s challenges, so perhaps it won’t have to fly away.

It could also be a reference to the Grateful Dead song, “Cold Rain & Snow”, which already in their repertoire during the late 60s era, when they were hanging with Janis Joplin.

The third verse diverts the focus back to the listener:

If you hear that same sweet song again
Will you know why?
Anyone who sings a tune so sweet
Is passing by

Third verse to “Bird Song” by the Grateful Dead.

If another spirit comes by with a songbird in their soul, will we recognize them? Will we understand their troubles, and appreciate their artistry?

Hunter draws upon one of his favorite tropes here — the impermanence of life. The lyrics say that every artist with wonderful contributions to share, is only here for a blip in the grand scheme of things. The essence, then, is to cherish these things while we have them before us.

The fourth verse encapsulates many of life’s emotions, simply and eloquently:

Laugh in the sunshine
Cry in the dark
Through the night

Fourth verse to “Bird Song” by the Grateful Dead.

We spend time laughing in the sun with our friends, we sing. We get lonely, and we cry. We run away under the cover of night, and we fly like free spirits when we’re able.

Hunter offers more comfort in the fifth verse:

Don’t cry now
Don’t you cry
Don’t you cry

Fifth verse to “Bird Song” by the Grateful Dead.

The lyrics here encourage acceptance and letting things happen as they will.

As we reach the final segment of lyrics, the “Bird Song” begins to drift away, as quickly as it arrived:

In the stars
Don’t you cry
Dry your eyes on the wind

Outro to “Bird Song” by the Grateful Dead.

Of course, this drifting away often happens after fifteen-plus minutes of exploratory jamming, creating a musical representation of the imagery depicted in the lyrics.

And that, my friends, is yet another reason why Robert Hunter was a genius.

Listen to the studio recording of “Bird Song” from Jerry Garcia’s 1972 solo album, Garcia, below. Keep going to hear some live versions (you know that’s where the good stuff is)!

Jerry Garcia – “Bird Song” (Studio, 1972)

“Bird Song” Live Versions

Now, for the live versions. There are countless excellent performances of “Bird Song” from throughout the Grateful Dead’s illustrious career. I’ve included some notable ones, and my favorites here. There are a lot included, but let me know any more that I need to check out in the comments!

For even more about “Bird Song” and its live performance, check out this epic fan essay from 1999 posted over at DeadEssays.

“Bird Song” (2/19/71)

The very first time they ever performed “Bird Song” live.

“Bird Song” (8/27/72)

The famous Veneta “Bird Song” from the Sunshine Daydream concert film. Featuring Naked Pole Guy dancing behind the band.

“Bird Song” (6/22/73)

Included on the 2018 release Pacific Northwest ’73’-’74. Chilled-out version from a show that also has one of my favorite versions of “Sugaree”.

“Bird Song” (10/30/80)

Acoustic version from not long after they re-introduced “Bird Song” to their setlists.

“Bird Song” (3/26/87)

Well-known late-80s version. This is an audience recording.

“Bird Song” (12/9/89)

From the 1990 live album Without a Net. Just a nice rendition from late ’89.

“Bird Song” (3/29/90)

From one of the best shows of the later days, 3/29/90 at Nassau Coliseum. Featuring Branford Marsalis on saxophone for the end of the 1st set and whole second set. This show also has a killer “Jack Straw” and possibly the best “Eyes of the World” of all time, plus a “Dark Star”.

“Bird Song” (6/30/95)

The last one. Another audience recording.