Top 10 Grateful Dead Songs
The Grateful Dead were certainly one of the most unusual rock groups of all time. Born in the counter-cultural upheaval of the ’60s, the Dead became inextricably linked with Flower Power, peace and love — despite the fact that some of their songs contain some very cynical lyrical elements. The group’s music was an amalgam of rock, folk, blues, country and jazz elements that lent itself perfectly to long improvisational passages in their live shows, yet many of their best songs are short and to the point, displaying a sense of song craftsmanship one might not expect from the world’s greatest jam band — as evidenced by our list of the Top 10 Grateful Dead songs.
Following a virtual paradigm for many of the Dead’s best songs, ‘Scarlet Begonias’ is a vibe-y mid-tempo tune with a loose feel. That laid-back groove would later lend itself to longer live jams that often morphed into ‘Fire on the Mountain,’ but the studio track is actually a concise pop tune with a somewhat psychedelic lyrical turn: “She had rings on her fingers and bells on her shoes / And I knew without asking she was into the blues / She wore scarlet begonias tucked into her curls / I knew right away she was not like other girls.”
One of three new studio tracks on the double live album ‘Grateful Dead,’ ‘Bertha’ was a somewhat sardonic lover’s lament from a man who has run from a relationship. “I had to move / Really had to move / That’s why if you please / I am on my bended knees / Bertha don’t you come around here anymore.” Musically the song is notable for employing Jerry Garcia associate Merl Saunders for a prominent organ part. Its long guitar solo passage hints at the group’s less restricted live approach.
‘Sugar Magnolia’ stands as one of the Grateful Dead’s best-known songs, and one of the key tracks from perhaps their best-known album, ‘American Beauty.’ Written by Robert Hunter and Bob Weir, the song may be responsible in no small part for the group’s hippie appeal, with its sunny good-time feel and lyrics like, “Sweet blossom come on, under the willow / We can have high times if you’ll abide/ We can discover the wonders of nature / Rolling in the rushes down by the riverside.”
‘Fire on the Mountain’
‘Fire on the Mountain’ was a staple of the Dead’s live sets for years, often paired with ‘Scarlet Begonias’ in a long jam that came to be called ‘Scarlet Fire.’ The studio track is once again essentially a three-minute pop song, and while it’s certainly not disco, its shimmering guitar effects are very much rooted in that era. Lyrically the song is darker than the group’s hippie image: “Almost ablaze still you don’t feel the heat / It takes all you got just to stay on the beat / You say it’s a livin, we all gotta eat / But you’re here alone, there’s no one to compete.”
One of the penultimate peace-and-love hippie anthems, ‘Ripple’ was reportedly conceived during a drinking binge that saw Robert Hunter write it, ‘Brokedown Palace’ and ‘To Lay Me Down’ in the same day. Musically the song is a straight-up country tune, while lyrically it draws part of its inspiration from the 23rd Psalm. The lyric features trippy wordplay and hippie imagery: “Reach out your hand if your cup be empty / If your cup is full may it be again / Let it be known there is a fountain / That was not made by the hands of men.”
‘Uncle John’s Band’
‘Uncle John’s Band’ is the Grateful Dead at the height of their song craft, featuring a strong melody over sparse acoustic backing. Its harmony singing owes an obvious debt to Crosby, Stills and Nash, with a lyric that is drawn from the tumultuous social changes of that time, but still hints at ’60s optimism. Its unique blend of song structure and lyrical perspective earn it a spot in the Top 10 Grateful Dead Songs.
‘Friend of the Devil’
Another classic from ‘American Beauty,’ ‘Friend of the Devil’ is a relatively simple acoustic story song. The lyric is far from the Dead’s peace-and-love image, telling the story of a man on the run from the law who makes a deal with the Devil — who predictably screws him in the end. “Ran into the devil, babe, he loaned me twenty bills / I spent the night in Utah in a cave up in the hills,” the desperate protagonist proclaims, but adds, “I ran down to the levee but the Devil caught me there / He took my twenty dollar bill and vanished in the air.”
‘Touch of Grey’
After a career of decades spent as perpetual music business outsiders (albeit with a huge following), the Grateful Dead surprised everyone, including themselves, by placing a hit single in the mainstream charts. Propelled by a pop song structure and the Dead’s first-ever video, ‘Touch of Grey’ became an unexpected Top 10 hit. The song married sardonic verses with a now-classic chorus of “I will get by / I will survive,” but still somehow retained the classic Grateful Dead feel.
‘Truckin” was the Grateful Dead’s highest-charting single prior to the surprise performance of ‘Touch of Grey.’ Somewhat of an anomaly in that it was written by all four of the group’s main writers, the song drew its lyric from their life on the road, using it as a metaphor for negotiating life’s changes. Musically the song was a loose shuffle and featured the trebly guitars that are a Dead trademark. In 1997 the Library of Congress recognized the song as a national treasure.
The opening line of ‘Casey Jones’ is iconic to even non-Dead fans. Ostensibly inspired by the actual train engineer Casey Jones, though there is no historical evidence to suggest that Jones was actually “Driving that train, high on cocaine.” Its unique lyric and cultural significance make it one of the most universally recognized Dead tracks, earning it the top spot in our Top 10 Grateful Dead songs.