“Ripple,” by the Grateful Dead, is my favorite song of all time. Listening to it brings me peace and bliss, as I’m lulled by the repeating melody, lush layers of instruments, and sweet, sweet voice of Jerry Garcia. However, it’s also my favorite song to analyze, and the song that I’ve taken the most meaning from. I think I take something new and different from the lyrics every time I hear them! I’m going to write some of my analyses here, but I encourage the reader to give the song a full listen-through or two and see what you can come up with for yourself (lyrics and some analysis here)!
Several Grateful Dead fans have noted in the past that the song presents and builds off of both Western (Judaic/Christian/Islamic) and Eastern (Daoist/Buddhist/Hindu) religion and modes of thought. A prime example is that of the chorus, which is a 6-7-4 haiku, an Eastern form of poetry, which Robert Hunter (the song’s author) uses to express the Eastern concept of phenomena existing without a direct cause (“when there is no pebble tossed”). Additionally, the Christian Psalm 23 is indirectly referenced several times, with “still water” in the chorus and a cup being filled in the third verse.
There are many more fascinating messages and references like these throughout “Ripple,” but I want to move on to my own original take on the song, which revolves around the different views of life taken by Western and Eastern thought. For the most part, the Western canon sees life as a line. We are first born, live out our lives, and then die, moving on to Heaven/Hell/Purgatory/nothing. Most Eastern traditions, however, tend to see life as a circle. Our souls are in a cycle of birth, growth, and death without a beginning or end, but that is possible to escape. One of most beautiful parts of “Ripple,” to me, is the artistic combination of the linear and circular lives in the structure of the song. On the one hand, “Ripple” is the story of a linear life, as someone is born (Jerry starts singing) in a context (the consistent instrumental backdrop) that remains largely the same. This voice meets and joins with others (harmony in the second, fourth, and fifth verses), before dying with the words “take you home” and joining a vast choir of voices in the afterlife. However, the life in “Ripple” is also distinctly circular. Aside from the brief choruses, the song repeats the same melody over and over again, and it feels like this tune could go on forever, looping back on itself as voices join and leave. In this song, life is both a circle and a line, and it is a poignant reminder that many worldviews have value and that life is stranger and more wondrous than we can imagine. That’s my interpretation, at least. Let me know what you come up with!