The Use Of Nursery Rhymes In Grateful

Dead Song Lyrics Essay, Research Paper

Who can say where the prose comes from that flow from the pens of the author s of the Grateful Dead s lyrics? Careful listening reveals a strong tendency toward the ancient form of the nursery rhyme. From Robert Hunter s first lyric for the band Alligator (Hunter 6), in which he echoes Old King Cole (Gould 143), to John Perry Barlow s Throwing Stones ( Dodd ), nursery rhymes have provided both text and rhythm, and seem to fit well into the playful sound of the Dead.

The rhythm of nursery rhyme presents itself in many of today s popular songs. St. Stephen , Ramble on Rose , and Ripple are three Greatful Dead songs that are perfect examples. In Hunter s book, A Box of Rain, the original lyrics to “St. Stephen” are listed (195). Simply reading these lyrics puts one in the mind of a nursery rhyme. The are short and simple. The lyrics tell a short story, and they also rhyme.

“St. Stephen”

Saint Stephen with a rose/In and out of the garden he goes

Country garland in the wind and the rain/Wherever he goes

the people all complain

Stephen prosper in his time/Well he may and he may

Decline/Did it matter? Does it now?/ Stephen would answer

if he only knew how

Wishing well with a golden bell/Bucket hanging clear to

Hell/Hell halfway twixt now and then/Stephen fill it up and

lower down/And lower down again

Ladyfinger dipped in moonlight/Writing What for?

across the morning sky/Sunlight splatters dawn with

answers/Darkness shrugs and bids the day good-bye

Speeding arrow, sharp and narrow/What a lot of fleeting

matters you have spurned/Several seasons with their

treasons/Wrap the babe in scarlet covers, call it your own

Did he doubt or did he try?/Answers a plenty in the bye

and bye/Talk about your plenty, talk about your ills

One man gathers what another man spills

Saint Stephen will remain/All he s lost he shall regain

Seashore washed in the suds and the foam/Been here so

long he s got to calling it home

“Ramble on Rose” is another example of Hunter’s use of nursery rhyme rhythm.

Ramble on Rose

Just like Jack the Ripper/Just like Mojo Hand/Just like Billy

Sunday/In a shotgun ragtime band/Just like New York City

Just like Jericho/Pace the halls and climb the walls/Get out

when they say blow

Did you say your name was/Ramblin Rose?/Ramble on,

Baby/Settle down easy/Ramble on, Rose

Just like Jack and Jill/ Mama told the sailor/One hear up

and one cool down/Leave nothing for the tailor/Just like

Jack and Jill/My papa told the jailer/ One go up and one

come down/Do yourself a favor


I m gonna sing you a hundred verses in ragtime/I know this

song it ain t never gonna end/I m gonna march you up and

down the local county line/Take you to the leader of the


Just like Crazy Otto/Just like Wolfman Jack/ Sitting plush

with a royal flush/Aces back to back

Just like Mary Shelley/Just like Frankenstein /Clank your

chains and count your change/Try to walk the line


Good-bye, Mama and Papa/Good-bye, Jack and Jill/ The

grass ain t greener, the wine ain t sweeter/Either side of

the hill (Hunter 174-175)

Nursery rhymes have appeared in the lyrics of popular song long before the Grateful Dead. “Mairzy Doats” is an example from the 1930′; “Good Golly Miss Molly” is another example (Dodd). Doubtless there are tens, if not hundreds more such examples. And the trend continues to the present, having been used since by the Beatles quite often. Probably most noticeably in the “Abbey Road” chant “one two three four five six seven, all good children go to heaven” (Dodd).

Hunter’s first lyric ever written for the Grateful Dead, “Alligator”, has a distinct feel for the nursery rhyme ” Old King Cole”. The Grateful Dead’s 1968 album Anthem of the Sun includes the tract “Alligator”- Sleepy alligator in the noonday sun/Sleepin’ by the river just like he usually done/Call for his whiskey/He can call for his tea/Call all he wanta but he/Can’t call me (Hunter 6), which to compare, “Old King Cole”- Old King Cole/Was a merry old soul,/ And a merry old soul was he;/He called for his pipe,/And he called for his bowl,/And he called for fiddler’s three (Gould 143). Compare also the nursery rhyme “The Carrion Crow” to the lyrics in “Mountains of the Moon”. “The Carrion Crow”- With a heigh ho! The carrion crow!/Sing tol de rol, de riddle row! (Gould 127). From the 1969 album, Aoxomoxoa, “Mountains of the Moon”- Hi-ho the Carrion Crow/Folderolderiddle/Hi-ho the Carrion Crow/Bow and bend to me/Bend to me (Hunter 156).

The tract “Scarlet Begonias”, from the 1974 album “From the Mars Hotel”, has two references to separate nursery rhymes. “As I was walking ’round Grosvenor Square ” (Hunter 197) which to compare to “As I was a-walking on Westminster Bridge, ” (Gould 276) from Mother Goose’s Riddle’s and Tongue Twisters. The second reference in “Scarlet Begonias”, ” She had rings on her finger’s and bells on her shoes/I knew without asking she was into the blues ” ( Hunter 197), can be compared to one of Mother Goose’s Lullabies, “Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross,/To see a fine lady upon a white horse;/Rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,/And she shall have music wherever she goes” (Gould 247). “Throwing Stones”, a song written by yet another author of Grateful Dead songs, John Perry Barlow, also has two references to separate nursery rhymes. ” Heartless powers try to tell us/What to think/If the spirit’s sleeping./Then the flesh is ink ” (Dodd), which can be compared to “If all the world were paper,/And all the sea were ink,/If all the trees were bread and cheese,/What should we have to drink? (Opie, 436). Perhaps one of the best known nursery rhymes, “Ring-a-ring-a-roses”, makes an appearance in Barlow’s “Throwing Stones”. ” There’s a fear down here we can’t forget./Hasn’t got a name just yet./Always awake, always around,/Singing ashes, ashes, all fall down./Ashes, ashes, all fall down “(Dodd).

Another popular nursery rhyme “Jack and Jill”, is referred to in “Ramble on Rose”.

The tract from the Europe ‘72 album goes like this; ” Just like Jack and Jill/mama told the sailor/One heat up and one cool down/Leave nothin’ for the tailor/Just like Jack and Jill/My papa told the jailer/One go up and one come down/Do yourself a favor ” (Hunter 174-175).

Hunter’s “Althea” makes a obscure reference to that familiar rhyme for the days of the week. From “Althea”; ” You may be Saturday’s child all grown/moving with a pinch of grace “(Hunter 8). From Mother Goose’s Charms, ” Saturday’s child works hard for his living ” (Gould 218). A rhyme from The Pretty Songs of Tommy Thumb;

“When I was a little boy/My mammy kept me in,/Now I am a great boy/I’m fit to serve the king; “, can be compared to, “When I was a young man,/I needed good luck./But I’m a little bit older now/And I know my stuff ” (Dodd) from “Sing My Blues Away”.\

“The Eleven” is perhaps the most obvious effort of Hunter’s that can be directly linked to a nursery rhyme.

“The Eleven”

” 8-sided whispering hallelujah hatrack/7 faced marble

eye transitory dream doll/6 proud walkers on jingle-bell

rainbow/5 men writing in fingers of gold/4 men tracking the

great white sperm whale/3 girls wait in a foreign dominion/

Ride in the whale belly/Fade away in moonlight/Sink

Beneath the waters/to the coral sand below/Now is the

Time of returning” (Hunter 70).

From The Annotated Mother Goose, “A Gaping Wide-Mouthed Waddling Frog”;

” 8 joiners in joiner’s hall,/working with their tools and

all;/7 lobsters in a dish,/as fresh as any heart could wish;/

6 beetles against a wall,/Close by an old woman’s apple-

stall;/5 puppies by our dog Ball,/Who daily for their

breakfast call;/4 horses stuck in a bog,/3 monkeys tied to

a clog,/2 pudding ends would choke a dog/with a gaping

wide-mouthed waddling frog ” (Gould 262).

For those of us who listen to these song lyrics we have to wonder, Do the writer’s do this intentionally? Or, perhaps is in the subconscious, from years of hearing these rhymes. Do our minds, maybe, just think this way? It’s doubtful, but one thing is certain, it makes for interesting listening.


Dodd, David. The Annotate Grateful Dead Lyrics. Santa Cruz: Music Dept.,

University of California at Santa Cruz, 1997-98

Gould, William S. Baring and Ceil Baring. The Annotated Mother Goose New York:

Potter, 1962.

Hunter, Robert. A Box of Rain New York: Penguin Books, 1990.

Opie, Iona and Peter. The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes


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