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The Meaning of Jerry Garcia’s “Run for the Roses”

Jerry Garcia’s “Run for the Roses” is one of only a handful of his songwriting collaborations with Robert Hunter that never made it into the Grateful Dead repertoire. This one, appearing on Garcia’s 1982 solo album of the same name, his fourth and final solo album, became a staple in Jerry Garcia Band live performances starting in the 80s.

Whatever the reason for the song never appearing in the Dead’s repertoire, it remains a beloved song among fans of Garcia’s solo work. Not exactly known for extended jams, “Run for the Roses” showcases Garcia’s talent at melody-making while Hunter’s lyrics speak to the power of perseverance and the danger of easy victories.

Jerry Garcia – “Run for the Roses” (1982)

“Run for the Roses” Lyrics Meaning

The concept and title of “Run for the Roses” is inspired by the Kentucky Derby horse race, nicknamed The Run For The Roses because the winner is awarded a blanket of 554 red roses, a tradition since 1883.

Interestingly, another song named “Run for the Roses” by Dan Fogelburg was released around the same time (his came in 1981), which has since become an unofficial theme song for the race itself.

However, we’re bigger fans of Jerry’s version around here, and I’m assuming everybody reading is in agreement with that sentiment. So, without further trepidation, let’s dive into the lyrics to Garcia’s “Run for the Roses” and see what this song is all about.

Chorus

Run, run, run for the roses
Quicker it opens, the sooner it closes
Man, oh, man, oh, friend of mine
All good things in all good time

Chorus to “Run for the Roses” by Jerry Garcia.

The opening chorus invokes the spirit of the Kentucky Derby, with imagery of the gates opening and the horses taking off. However, there is a deeper layer of meaning present, with the lyrics addressing a friend who seems to be on the hunt for instant gratification.

At its core, the message of “Run for the Roses” is one of trusting in the journey over time to bring us the things we need, and perhaps the things we desire.

Verse One

Reach for the sun, catch hold of the moon
They’re both too heavy but what can you do?
Reach for the stars, smack into the sky
You don’t want to live but you’re chicken to die
Oh, you’re chicken to die

First verse to “Run for the Roses” by Jerry Garcia.

Reaching for the sun, you get the moon by mistake. Still a stellar achievement, but not quite what you hoped for. Regardless, both of these achievements hold significant weight, bringing to mind the expectations and reliance from others that often comes with fame and success.

Then, reaching for the stars, you smash into the sky. This means that you failed upon reaching for your goals, but the overtones are of acceptance.

Closing out the verse, Hunter makes use of repetition to illuminate the irony between someone who is too afraid to live their life, and simultaneously too afraid to die. They coast along, never really reaching for their goals due to fear of failure.

Another chorus comes in here, and then Garcia sings the second verse.

Verse Two

Run for the money, caught short on the rent
Big ideas but the cash’s all spent
The trouble with love is its other face
You just want the cup but you don’t want the race
No, you don’t want the race

Second verse to “Run for the Roses” by Jerry Garcia.

Hustling as much as you can, or perhaps gambling on the horse races, you find yourself short on your rent. You’ve got ideas, but none of the money required for execution. You could find love, but you’re afraid of the pain of heartbreak, or “its other face.”

Again, Hunter’s lyrics use repetition to emphasize a similar metaphor as he did to close out the first verse. This person wants the victory trophy, but they don’t want to compete in the race to win that trophy. They might be unwilling to put in the effort required for success, or even the effort of competition.

The chorus comes in again, and then Garcia sings the third and final verse.

Verse Three

Run for the rose, get caught on the briar
You’re warming to love, next thing, there’s a fire
You got the do re, I got the mi
And I got the notion, we’re all at sea
Yes, we’re all at sea

Third verse to “Run for the Roses” by Jerry Garcia.

This final verse again highlights the challenges of life, and also shows some growth in our narrator. He decides to go ahead and run the race, and gets caught in a briar patch. Then, he finally allows love into his life, and soon he’s consumed by the fire of passion.

The reference to “do re mi” is a nod to the spirit of musical collaboration, or any kind of collaboration. It’s a sign of the power of teamwork when facing life’s challenges.

To end the verse, Hunter applies a universal message. Rather than calling out our narrator on hears fears again, the lyrics suggest that everybody is lost in a similar way, and nobody has the answers. We’re all just drifting along in the cosmic ocean, on our own lonely trips.

The chorus repeats a couple more times to close out the song, and Garcia lets it rip on guitar.

While not one of his most popular songs, “Run for the Roses” remains a cherished number in Garcia’s catalogue for many of the same reasons that people live Grateful Dead classics — both his guitar work and Robert Hunter’s uncanny ability to distill the truths of life down into digestible, groovy tidbits.

Live Performances

Considering live is the way that most people like their Jerry, it’s only right that I list out a few helpings “Run for the Roses” live for you to enjoy. Let me know in the comments if there are any more that I need to check out or add!

6/18/82

From GarciaLive Volume 20, released in 2023. I love this one and the whole rest of this live album. Such a good vibe.

6/27/82

Acoustic duo with John Kahn.

11/9/91

With Bruce Hornsby on keys.