The Meaning of the Grateful Dead’s “Brokedown Palace”

Dead Set (1981), containing recordings from October 1980, including one of the best all-time versions of “Brokedown Palace”.
Also see our guide to Grateful Dead album covers.

“Brokedown Palace” by the Grateful Dead is a beautiful song about about the end of a difficult journey, and passing through to a comfortable resting place. It’s sung slow, with emotion and deliberation, contributing to the feeling of coming home that the song centers itself around.

With lyrics by Robert Hunter and musical arrangement by Jerry Garcia, “Brokedown Palace” first appeared in the Dead’s live rotation in August of 1970, and saw official release on American Beauty later that year.

As appropriate for the song’s subject matter, “Brokedown Palace” was often played as the final song, closing out the encore before the band leaves the stage for the evening.

It did appear at other points in their sets through the early 70s, but after their hiatus in 1974-5, it was almost exclusively played as the closer through its final performance in 1994.

“Brokedown Palace” was not the most common song, appearing about a dozen times per year on average, and very sparsely in the late 70s. Still, it was a staple closer and it has been known for its tear-jerking ability, especially after the band takes us on a wild ride through the second set.

Origins of “Brokedown Palace”

According to a 1997 documentary Anthem to Beauty that aired on VH-1, Hunter wrote “Brokedown Palace” in London in 1970, hopped up on half a bottle of Greek white wine, or restina, in the same writing session that produced “Ripple” and “To Lay Me Down”.

“I realized, here I was in London, the city I’d always dreamed of going to, and I was very very happy. I felt like I’d come home to some psychic place, maybe the home of Robin Hood and Peter Pan. I’d only drank half a bottle of this Retsina but it was having the whole case there that was important. I sat down and wrote “Ripple,” “To Lay Me Down” and “Brokedown Palace” that afternoon. It was a magic day. I knew I was writing stuff that would live forever.”

Robert Hunter on the origins of “Brokedown Palace”.

Check out a clip from that documentary below. The section featuring Hunter starts around 5 minutes.

Hunter’s original title for the song was “Broke-down Palace”, though the dash was later removed. This is important because it keys us in on where Hunter likely got the title from.

In John Steinbeck’s 1945 novella Cannery Row, the shack where the local bums hang out and live is nicknamed the Palace Flophouse, and at one point one of the characters expresses that it’s time to “leave this Broke-down palace.”

“Brokedown Palace” Lyrics Meaning

Like many of Robert Hunter’s best songs, his lyrics merely provide the framework, a map for interpreting the song. The rest is up to the listener, through the medium of both the studio recording and the collective live recordings left behind by the Grateful Dead, and of course, the lens of their own lives.

For some, “Brokedown Palace” is a song about death or the end of a relationship, and the memories that come to mind when that special person leaves their lives.

To others, it’s a song about a new beginning, and finally taking the steps needed to bring about positive change.

It starts with a gentle guitar intro, before Jerry sings the first verse:

Fare you well, my honey
Fare you well, my only true one
All the birds that were singing
Have flown except you alone

Goin’ to leave this brokedown palace
On my hands and my knees, I will roll, roll, roll
Make myself a bed by the waterside
In my time – in my time – I will roll, roll roll

First verse to “Brokedown Palace” by the Grateful Dead.

The song begins with sincere good-bye addressed to somebody the singer holds very dear. He says that there were once many birds around him singing, but they’ve all flown away except the one.

It could be that this person pushes away all those close to him, and the one that remains is the only one left who could tolerate his behaviors. Now, it’s time for him to leave that person, who might actually be himself.

It could also be in reference to somebody who is very old, and whom has outlived most others in their generation. They are experiencing a peaceful death, after a long life lived.

The lyric “Fare you well” was borrowed from an old sailor song called “Fare Thee Well”, of which versions were recorded by both Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. It contains the lyric, “Fare thee well, my honey, fare thee well,” only slightly modified by Hunter in this song.

Note that the Grateful Dead song “Cassidy” also has the lyric “Fare thee well”, except that song was written by John Barlow.

Fare Thee Well was also used as the title for the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary concert in July of 2015. This was the last time that the band name Grateful Dead was officially used on a bill, and featured the surviving members of the band plus special guests Trey Anastasio, Bruce Hornsby, and Jeff Chimenti.

Jerry continues to sing about leaving this “Brokedown Palace”, meaning that he’s getting out of this place that is falling apart around him. Calling it a palace implies that at one time is was pristine and majestic, but has fallen into disrepair to the point that the only thing left to do is abandon ship.

This could be the “Brokedown Palace” of the self, the world, a body battered by illness and disease, or just any place or mental state where a person might spend their time.

With what little strength remains, the singer is determined to make it out. Even if he has to crawl, or roll, he plans to make himself a cozy little place to rest by the water.

The chorus offers a vision of this peaceful place:

In a bed, in a bed
By the waterside I will lay my head
Listen to the river sing sweet songs
To rock my soul

Chorus to “Brokedown Palace” by the Grateful Dead.

We picture lying down comfortably beside a river, and as the water flows past it creates sweet music that soothes you to the core. You drift gently off to sleep, and all the troubles of the day disappear.

This could be representative of death, or any number of sentimental endings. One finds themselves removed from the flow of the river, but that does not stop the river from flowing.

Our gentle drift continues in the second verse:

River gonna take me
Sing me sweet and sleepy
Sing me sweet and sleepy
All the way back home

It’s a far-gone lullaby
Sung many years ago
Mama, Mama many worlds I’ve come
Since I first left home

Second verse to “Brokedown Palace” by the Grateful Dead.

Now, rather than sleeping beside the river, we’re floating along in its soft and sleepy currents that will take us all the way home.

This can be seen as a metaphor for death, and transitioning out of the earthly plane into the afterlife.

Calling it a “far-gone lullaby” implies that this floating off to sleep is something that was set in motion long ago, and is not unique to the singer’s experience, but rather a more universal experience.

He’s gone through many phases in life, and changed a lot along the way, but now it’s time to return home one last time.

Up next is another chorus, with harmonies that draw out the emotional depth of this journey, before we reach the third verse:

Going to plant a weeping willow
On the banks green edge it will grow, grow, grow
Sing a lullaby beside the water
Lovers come and go – the river roll, roll, roll

Third verse to “Brokedown Palace” by the Grateful Dead.

The symbol of the weeping willow is one of key moments in the song, as it offers several interpretations wrapped up into one lively image.

Planting a weeping willow, a water-loving tree, on the banks of the river means that it will thrive and grow long after the person who planted it has left. This could represent the legacy that one leaves behind, and the hope that it will grow and sustain itself in your abscense.

Additionally, the weeping willow commonly represents mourning, and can be seen as a solemn, yet healthy and green reminder of those that have left us.

This tree sustains itself off the waters from this river, which in the case of “Brokedown Palace” is representative of life itself.

In life, lovers come and go, but that river will roll, roll, roll…

Finally, Hunter bids us farewell with one more chorus:

In a bed, in a bed, by the waterside I will lay my head
Fare you well, fare you well, I love you more than words can tell
Listen to the river sing sweet songs, to rock my soul

Final chorus to “Brokedown Palace” by the Grateful Dead.

This final chorus brings warmth, as the lyrics express a depth of love that words can not describe. If you listen closely, you can hear this love described in the sweet songs of life’s river.

You can also hear it in the music of the Grateful Dead, thanks to songs like this one and many more Robert Hunter masterpieces.

Listen to the American Beauty version of “Brokedown Palace” below, and enjoy a few of my favorite live versions below that.

“Brokedown Palace” (10/3/80)

“Brokedown Palace” (9/27/72)

“Brokedown Palace” (3/26/90)

Instagram: @extrachill

10 comments on The Meaning of the Grateful Dead’s “Brokedown Palace”

  • December 21, 2022 at 3:54 pm

    Pure music; pure haunting emotion! This song exists in some ethereal place, like the storied ethos of The Dead, themselves! How Hunter and Garcia manage to reach some magical place, and produce this and so many other gems, is nearly beyond comprehension! This song feels like it just hits you on so many levels!

  • December 20, 2022 at 12:47 am

    Water is a symbol of purety, truth, cleansing and so forth. The river is a metaphor for life itself-an unstoppable continuum that propels us forward, regardless of how we might feel about it. This propulsion creates many hellos and goodbyes for each individual. We have to let old ideas, relationships and endeavors die in order to make room for new ones. This process of birth, death and renewal is central to our existence. The act of grieving, letting go and ultimately lying down next to the river is basically a peaceful surrender to the universe’s plan for each of us, and an acceptance of a higher power that transcends the needs and wants of any one person.

  • December 19, 2022 at 12:36 am

    This is total bullshit hunter was notorious about not speaking of meanings of songs this is 100% options of writer which is true head would not of written. The best most amazing thing about hunter was that everyone could relate and make their own some way but writing this and acting like it’s real is bs

  • December 18, 2022 at 9:06 am

    Jerry had always seemed somewhat death obsessed to me. He certainly sang many songs referring to that subject.

    • December 18, 2022 at 11:31 pm

      Of course, he had a lot of trauma in his life & music heals. This article is cool but redundant

  • December 17, 2022 at 8:01 pm

    No offense, but your song interpretations are mostly just repeating the literal meaning of the words. Like going from one language to another, but staying in the original language.

    • December 17, 2022 at 8:58 pm

      More like analyzing the literal meaning of the words and the intent behind them. Thank you for reading multiple articles kind sir!

  • December 17, 2022 at 9:52 am

    My favorite Dead song. Listing to them for over 50 years. They hold a very special place in my heart.

  • December 15, 2022 at 7:36 pm

    Originally, they were the Warlocks- until they found out there was already a Band by that name. The story goes that at a house , they open a Funk & Wagnalls Dictionary to a page where “Grateful Dead” appeared – as defined as an English Folk Tale- that was it.

  • December 15, 2022 at 3:13 am

    Why did the band change the name of the band to the Grateful Dead? Did the band feel like life ended for them somehow in their music? Yet they came back from the grave and realized they were Greatful Dead musicians and it made them somehow bigger than life?


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