Ripple - The Grateful Dead
This past Monday, Robert Hunter, the profound lyricist for The Grateful Dead passed away at home, holding the hand of his wife, with loved ones all around. What a blessed way to leave this earth.
Hunter never appeared on stage with the band; his words were sung by others, but the great truths were his. He was not afraid to look at pain or ask hard questions. In the 1970’s song, Uncle John’s Band, Hunter, in the very first verse wrote, “What I want to know is, are you kind?”. I love the bold simplicity. It implies we can be a lot of things, successful, smart, wealthy; but what does it matter, if we are not kind. And isn’t this a message we still grapple with, can we create a kind and loving world, when it feels almost impossible? Can we make kindness our purpose; the reason for our journey?
The idea of life as a journey probably influenced Hunter’s most famous line, from Truckin', “What a long strange trip it’s been “, and it has always seemed to me that people latch into that line as some happy hippie trippy nonsense . However, that line is preceded by “Sometimes the light is shining on me, others times I can barely see...” . Honestly, is there anyone who can’t relate to this. Occasionally, life just sails along, all sunshiny goodness, and then seemingly out of nowhere, darkness eclipses the light. Yet what we do when darkness hits, is our life’s most profound work. How do we live fully and beautifully during these dark times? How do we get to a zen like acceptance of what a long strange trip life is? Well perhaps, the answer is in the quiet little gem called Ripple. Ripple, the B side, to Truckin’ single, is not only my favorite Dead song, but one of my favorite songs ever.
Hearing Ripple at a college party was my introduction to The Grateful Dead; the suburbs I grew up in were definitely not “hippie “ friendly, and no one was playing Dead records. My dad was an accountant for the IRS; we were not singing along with Jerry Garcia. Ripple spoke to me, and I believe it is Hunter’s best work. Listen to Ripple, and try to decide what it is; is it a psalm, a zen koan, a hymn, a blessing, a haiku, or perhaps a prayer. Ripple has comforted me and lifted me. Read the lyrics, and wonder, is a ripple inspiration or trouble; either can come without warning, a pleasant or horrible surprise. Hunter writes of “ a road no simple highway, between the dawn and the dark of night.” And I feel it; this is where I live so frequently, feeling small in bed, at attention, while others are sleeping peacefully. But who among us has not been on that highway in the middle of the night, worries and fears getting the best of us, awake in the dark, lonely and perhaps afraid. And yes, it is our path alone, often too alone. Yet the message is not hopeless. Hunter also tells us that when our thoughts are broken, to "let there be songs to fill the air”. And in these days that have been so divisive, and sad, could there be a more beautiful suggestion. Let there be songs, to soothe our hearts and inspire our bodies and souls to dance. Music, standing defiantly against all that wants to break us.
And then the last verse so puzzlingly simple:
You who choose to lead must follow But if you fall you fall alone If you should stand then who's to guide you? If I knew the way I would take you home
I think about this verse a lot. I feel it’s telling me to make my choices, to be brave, and know that I alone will have the reward or consequence of my actions. But to nevertheless take action. There is not always someone to guide us, but we have power within us. We have strength and grace, we have everything we need. And because we have all we need the song ends with no words. Everyone is just singing along with joyful la la las, and it feels perfect. Sweet song is filling the air, different voices joined together, so happy, so simple and yes, it feels like home.