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Billy DeLyon

Black Muddy River

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Well as 'an over 40 victim of fate' today on my 40th b-day what better time to throw out a little perspective on age.  This in an excerpt from the book: The stories behind every Grateful Dead song 1965-1995 What a long strange trip - I suggest you pick up a copy if you ever come across one.  What does the song mean to you?


Black Muddy River


With a melodic melancholy of its chord progressions and Garcia’s trademark plaintive tone, ‘Black Muddy River’ quickly took its place among other Dead classic as one of the band’s best ballads.  Its live debut – during Garcia’s comeback show at Oakland’s Coliseum Arena on December 15, 1986 – also marked the first new offering from the guitarist since he had come out of a diabetic coma late in the previous summer.

            “‘Black Muddy River’ is about the perspective of age and making a decision about the necessity of living in spite of a rough time, and the ravages of anything else that’s going to come at you,” Hunter told Rolling Stone in 1987. “When I wrote it, I was writing about how I felt about being 45 years old and what I’ve been through.  And then when I was done with it, obviously it was for the Dead.”

            In an interview with David Gans the following year, the wordsmith elaborated on the song’s meaning.  “It’s just a good look into the deep, dark well, and the heart resonances in that area.  And a statement of individual freedom, that no matter what happens, I have this black muddy river to walk by. 

            “I hesitate to define for you – I could talk for hours about what I mean by ‘black muddy river’, and I don’t mean a literal river running around,” he continued.  “It’s a deeply meaningful symbol to me, and I think just a little thought into like the archetypal subconscious resonances gives you all the need to know about what we’re talking about here.   And past that you’re setting it in concrete, and just as soon as that’s done, that’s not what it meant at all.”

            The song became as much more meaningful symbol in the Dead pantheon after Garcia made it complete with the addition of music. 

            Hunter had given the words he’d written to Garcia one day during a recording session which took place soon after the guitarist had started to get his musical chops back in the fall of 1986.  The next day, Garcia had sat down at a piano to flesh out the song, and less than two hours later the composition was complete. 

            Though it’s likely that bits of the song’s lyrics were influenced by a variety of sources, the suggestion of a man laying himself to rest would eventually serve as the final precursor to Garcia’s death in 1995 after he had chosen to revive the song earlier that year following an almost four-year absence.

            “When the last rose of summer pricks my finger,” Jerry sang during a rare two-song encore that had also featured the Lesh/Hunter eulogy ‘Box of Rain’, “And the hot sun chills me to the bone/When I can’t hear the song for the singer/And I can’t tell my pillow from a stone.”

            The last words that Garcia would ever sing in public before his gracious musical gift was transformed into a harmony to envelop the cosmos seems to have been a logical choice with which to bid the world farewell.  “I will walk alone by the black muddy river/And listen to the ripples as they moan,” he informed the unsuspecting crowd at Chicago’s Soldier Field on July 9, 1995, evoking images from the past such as ‘Ripple’ and ‘Brokedown Palace’ as he delivered the final moments of the Dead’s swan song performance:  “I will walk alone by the black muddy river/And sing me a song of my own.”





Edited by Billy DeLyon

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Maybe it's because there wasn't much of an instrumental section, but both this and Push Comes To Shove were far from revered by my crew upon their introductions.  But boy has Black Muddy River stood the test of time.  And it's just one of those cosmic things that Jerry chose to revive it in what would prove to be his last tour.


A minor, technical correction to the piece above - Push was the first new song from Garcia after his coma, debuting one set prior to Muddy River.  Muddy River moved around the second set a bit, trying to find its position both pre-drums and in the ballad slot, before it settled perfectly as an encore.


Thanks for sharing that essay.

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So many thoughts. I love Black Muddy River just as much as the earlier classic Jerry Ballads. It resonates well with me, fits in with who I am. I chose 28 years ago to live and/or work along the black muddy rivers of the Chesapeake. Yea, I started less than a year after that song came out. I’m currently on my fourth black muddy river of the Chesapeake. Ironically, I think of the Mississippi when I hear that song. I attribute that to the Americana roots of the Grateful Dead. Also, the song is different for me because one of the lines I hear differently than the actual words. Even after reading the lyrics a couple of years ago, I still hear ‘ I don’t care how people whine, if you’ve got a love beside, roll muddy river, roll muddy river.’

 One of my favorite things to do is to walk along the river edge and look for arrowheads on the beaches. It’s what I do to meditate and decompress,  In silence. The black muddy river is as sure a thing as the sun in the sky. I live black muddy river but I don’t listen to it that often. I like to keep that one special and precious. That way, when Jeff breaks it out, like he did in Philly around New Years, tears fall from my eyes instead of stones. 

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