“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 palaceFirst verse to “Brokedown Palace” by the Grateful Dead.
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
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 bedChorus to “Brokedown Palace” by the Grateful Dead.
By the waterside I will lay my head
Listen to the river sing sweet songs
To rock my soul
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 lullabySecond verse to “Brokedown Palace” by the Grateful Dead.
Sung many years ago
Mama, Mama many worlds I’ve come
Since I first left home
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 willowThird verse to “Brokedown Palace” by the Grateful Dead.
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
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 headFinal chorus to “Brokedown Palace” by the Grateful Dead.
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
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.