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My Top 5 Grateful Dead Lyrics

My Top 5 Grateful Dead Lyrics

Their poetry can touch the deepest realms of the Jewish soul.


While The Rolling Stones may be the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band, The Grateful Dead are the world’s greatest touring band. Playing nearly 3000 shows to over 25 million fans over five decades certainly gives them legitimate “street cred” as the most prolific live act of all time.

Their music changed the face of a generation and they inspired an entire genre of psychedelic musicians to follow. One might wonder how the former house band for Ken Kesey’s Electric Kool Aid Acid Tests generated such a dedicated following, but the answer is quite simple: their music was inspirational and it spoke to the soul. The Grateful Dead weren’t just a bunch of long-haired vegans with a fix for psychedelic fungi, they had some real wisdom to share. But it was only after the former jug band and their bluegrass and rockabilly sound became transformed by the profound lyrics of songwriter Robert Hunter that The Grateful Dead achieved true greatness.

As a clinical psychiatrist and an academic writer who’s explored The Grateful Dead on multiple levels, I can tell you from the things that folks have shared with me that I’m not the only one who finds their songs to be tremendously insightful. But as a second-generation Grateful Yid with scores of concerts under my belt, I can also say that The Grateful Dead’s music reached me on a spiritual level.

In honor of The Grateful Dead’s 50th Anniversary “Fare Thee Well” Goodbye Tour featuring the surviving band members and a few guest stars, it is fitting to explore how their songs carry a wisdom that penetrates the Jewish soul. (Let’s not forget that their drummer, Mickey Hart, and promoter, Bill Graham, were both unabashedly proud Jews, which can’t hurt.)

I realize that this might seem like kind of a stretch, but this is a band who routinely played a song called Samson and Delilah and whose tune Fire on The Mountain is clearly referring to Mount Sinai. The poetry of The Grateful Dead lends itself to explication and with this caveat, here is my list of the Top Five Dead lyrics carrying a message that touches the deepest realms of the Jewish soul…

  1. Deal—“If I told you all that went down it would burn off both your ears. To me, these words capture the essence of the Jewish story. Could anyone really imagine that that Jews would still be standing thousands of years after the world’s greatest empires remain only in history classes? As Mark Twain once wrote, “The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed; and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was.” History was stacked against us but we’re still alive and kicking…put that in your pipe and smoke it Hamas!

  2. New Speedway Boogie—“One way or another this darkness got to give.As experts in the waiting game, we Jews are always preparing for the beautiful moment of redemption when our hardships will become only a memory. This is a profound reminder of what King David wrote in Psalm 126, “Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy.”

  3. Help on the Way—“Without love in the dream it will never come true.” Maimonides wrote that fear of Heaven is a lower level of divine service and that loving God is the loftier spiritual quest. As Rabbi Noah Weinberg of blessed memory taught us, God created us because he loves us and wants us to get to the ultimate pleasures attained through the path of the Torah. With love, His vision of the universe is coming true.

  4. Broke-Down Palace—“Fare you well, fare you well, I love you more than words can tell.” Anyone who has ever had the experience of praying at the Western Wall also knows the indescribable feeling of heart-breaking loss that must be endured when leaving our nation’s holiest place. In truth there are no words to express how powerful it is to be there and how crushing it is to go. This line certainly captures the essence of spiritual yearning as described by King David in Psalm 137, “If I forget you O’ Jerusalem.”

  5. Tennessee Jed—“Tennessee, Tennessee, there ain't no place I’d rather be.” As soon as we leave Jerusalem we yearn to go back. Much like the forsaken character from this song, no matter how good things might be, every Jew knows how badly they wish to return to our national homeland’s capital city. As Rabbi Judah Halevi wrote over a thousand years ago, “Though I am in the West, my heart is in the East.”

If there was room for a sixth we could find Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s famous quote “It’s a tremendous mitzvah to always be happy” alluded to in the song He’s Gone which contains the lyrics, “Nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile.”

“Keep on truckin’!”

July 8, 2015

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The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 40

(25) Yehuda Honickman, July 14, 2015 7:07 AM

Once in a while...

"Once in a while you can get shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look at it right" - That line has saved my life many times!

(24) Elisheva, July 10, 2015 11:12 PM

More favorite lines:

"May the four winds blow you safely home" (to yerushalyim- to your roots-to who you truly are) "Wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the world" (the whole world is full of chaos, people killing each other, raping women, enslaving and exploiting children- yet the whole world has their eyes on Israel!)

(23) ruth housman, July 10, 2015 9:51 PM

Ripple… there is a fountain… The Grateful Dead

I taught these songs, as in the lyrics, and had adults who listened with me and we talked in depth about the beauty within the songs, a universal poetry, that applied to us all, Jew, non Jew, Buddhists, whatever… I floated in the Dead Sea in Israel, and I believe there is a deeper truth in the name, and in the lyrics, about us all. As in The Dead See. And maybe it's time for this story to Hit big, because my life is the Hit Parade of Synchronous, and I have been writing about the alchemy of language for years, and experience something daily that is totally off the charts, about WONDER. One Driver. One Story. We're all in this together. In exist is, exit. I have been crossing Babel for a long time. Writing endlessly down the lines, about how we actualize the words, the letters, the sacred aleph bets around the world. And I believe this Story has already come, Full Circle. It's a LOVE STORY. The frequency for everyone of coincidence is on the rise, and that vibrational frequency, the ultra violet, is going to take us all home. As Ram Dass wrote, We're here to walk each other Home.

(22) Anonymous, July 10, 2015 9:31 PM

Lovin' Rock and Roll

This is becoming a popular article. We can learn things from our culture. One of the Rabbis at my shul did a class about Rock N Roll and how to learn from the lyrics. He likes Bon Jovi, I did too in the 80s. I just question the picture because I think it is not nice or pleasant or positive. I also feel bad reading about those who were "tripping." Adults can make adult choices but "tripping" can sometimes ruin people badly.
My husband & I decided never to use drugs. There are many like us. There are so many things to do with time and money besides use drugs. If I had $100-$200 to waste every so often I'd give it to charity. Better Chesed than drug use anytime.

Anonymous, July 15, 2015 4:24 AM

Please don't dominate the rap Jack

It's a cartoon skeleton with roses and a top hat. Lighten up. I don't think it's meant to have deep meaning. That's great you and your husband decided not to use drugs. Adults should be able to make their own choices. Legal pharmaceutical drugs appear to "ruin people badly" far greater than LSD ever has. The rash of mass shooters all had one thing in common, legal psychiatric drugs.

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