Poet and Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter penned some of the band’s best-known songs. Even if you’re only casually familiar with the Dead’s vast catalogue and even vaster labyrinth of live recordings, you can probably sing along to classics like “Casey Jones” or “Box of Rain.” Both came about during the most prolific phase of Hunter and Jerry Garcia’s collaboration on the country-folk masterpieces Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, released one after the other in 1970.
Among these collections of timeless tunes, one stands above the rest: “Ripple” is “perhaps the quintessence of both the band’s delicate studio magic and the Garcia/Hunter partnership,” writes Jim Beviglia at American Songwriter. Hunter himself, when asked about his favorite lyric, answered, “’Let it be known there is a fountain / That was not made by the hands of men.’ That’s pretty much my favorite line I ever wrote, that’s ever popped into my head. And I believe it, you know?”
The line popped into his head in London in 1970. Jerry Garcia’s melody arrived shortly thereafter. “We were in Canada,” says Hunter, “on that train trip [the Festival Express, 1970] and one morning the train stopped and Jerry was sitting out on the tracks not too far off, in the sunrise, setting ‘Ripple’ to music. That’s a good memory.” They debuted it right away, “in an acoustic set at the Fillmore West on August 19, 1970,” notes David Dodd at the official Dead site, “along with first performances of ‘Brokedown Palace,’ ‘Operator,’ and ‘Truckin’.’”
What’s so great about “Ripple”? Where to start. “The Dead had damn near perfected the harmonies they used heavily on Workingman’s Dead,” Beviglia writes. “The ensemble voices on ‘Ripple’ provide comfort when the words evoke hardship.” Such is the balance struck by the most beautifully bittersweet of American folk songs, from “You Are My Sunshine” to “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” The lyrics themselves “evoke cosmic wisdom and serenity without ignoring the darkness on the fringes of even the most blessed lives.”
C’mon, the chorus is a freakin’ haiku…
“Each of us has our own individual path, for our steps alone,” Dodd writes of the song. “That might seem like a frightening thought, but I find the universality of it a comfort: we’re all in the same boat.” This truth is inescapable, whether we approach it philosophically, contemplatively, or Biblically, as the song’s verses seem to do (with allusions to William Butler Yeats). What better illustration of this theme than a collection of musicians from around the world—some famous some obscure—playing the song alone together in Playing for Change’s excellent collaboration video above?
Among the famous names we have Jimmy Buffett, David Crosby, David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, and Bill Kreutzmann himself. The joy this song evokes is unmistakable on the faces of the musicians: no matter who sings it, “Ripple” is a song that brings people together by reminding us that existence is much vaster than our individual lives. Playing for Change has previously brought together international musicians for other classic sing-along songs from the American (and Jamaican and Canadian) popular songbook. See more in the links below.