return to essays

Evolution of Morning Dew as a Grateful Dead Song and Sunday afternoon

musings on the song:

Submitted without approval of anyone except Stev Lenon

Morning Dew was penned by Bonnie Dobson in 1961 and recorded by her in 1962

on the album Bonnie Dobson At Folk City. It began life as a rather

plaintive, strongly emotional plea for peace in an age when nuclear

annihilation was all too likely. The softness of the folk music styling and

structure of the song underplayed the impact of the lyrics; capable of

cutting to the bone with the brutality of the Committee for State Security

(KGB) or the House Committee On Un-American Activities (HUAC.)

The song was restyled to a more rock-like format by Fred Neil. Neil also

re-wrote the line, "Take me for a walk in the morning dew," to read "Walk me

out in the morning dew." These two changes take the song from conception to

the instruments and voices of the metamorphosing Grateful Dead.

Morning Dew's first recorded performance by The Grateful Dead was 01-14-67

at the Polo Field, Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, CA. The band performed

Morning Dew at random with the last performance 6-21-95, Knickerbocker

Arena, Albany, NY. The song appeared 241 times in the band's setlists.

Those of us not fortunate enough to have direct access to the band's early

venues, were usually first exposed to the song on the original Grateful Dead

album issued in 1967. The impact of the song was instant. Like everything

else on the first album it suffered from chemical engineering during

recording. The tempo is several shades too fast to have the greatest

musical impact possible. By late 68 the song began to approach it's own

tempo in the show with the music demanding to be slowed down and stretched

out. The early 70's gave us a more stately and powerful Morning Dew which

the band could open out more than any other ballad played in this period.

During the first half of the band's existence the song could and did appear

anywhere in any set. It was unlikely to appear as a show opener but when

the first recognizable notes appeared in Set 1 Song 1 it gave instant notice

that the show would be above average. This pattern held through to the

departure from touring at the end of '74. When the band returned to the

road, a more formalized structure in set configuration relegated Morning Dew

to the "Garcia Ballad Slot" after Drumz. It shared this spot with other

songs of great power, Stella Blue (probably Garcia's favorite and certainly

one of mine), Wharf Rat, Black Peter, and in the later years Standing On The

Moon and Days Between. Garcia tended to view the ballads as songs designed

to wind the show down and reach that perfect place where the only acceptable

next note is silence. This is a difficult concept for some to accept and an

even more difficult one to achieve from the stage. More than with any other

ballad, Garcia took us there with this song.

By 73, the song had matured, and save for random tempo changes really

experienced no evolution in the band's ability to produce the powerful

effect the song deserves. Changes in keyboard players provided much of the

day-to-day changes in the song. In the earliest readings, the song is a

masterful interplay between Garcia and Lesh. Pigpenís organ is there but

other than provide fill; does little to change the song. Thatís OK. Pigpen

ís most important contributions were not keyboards. There was a noticeable

change when the Godchaux family came aboard. Keithís bass chords dancing

with Phil's profundo counterpoint while his right hand feeds riffs to Garcia

as Jerry plays into the stratosphere and back down to earth much like the

bombs he is singing about are pathognomic for the song during Keith's

tenure. Brent's arrival shifted the balance a bit too with his Hammond

calling the dance to one more often between he and Jerry while Phil powered

the whole from beneath. Note that Phil was not left out of the mix; he was

rather more submerged in the construction and was generally more subdued

after the late í79 period. Then in the 90's the duet is once more as it

began, Jerry and Phil, point and counterpoint, orchestration as grand as

Bach or Beethoven, a symbiosis of two musiciansí hearts and hands into one

musical thought. Each keyboardist changed the outer structure of the song.

And in truth, each keyboardist had less impact upon the performance than is

commonly accepted. The song, the lyric, the chord structure and the musical

vision of Lesh and Garcia define the performance. The rest of the band

fills and supports. Even the jazz-born stylings of Keith Godchaux or Brentí

s inspired Hammond B-3 had little effect on the overall song.

The song is, when successfully performed by the Grateful Dead, entirely

driven by Phil. The 5th and 6th strings as added gave immense power and

presence to Phil's notes and chords. During the shows when Phil had his

volume levels down, the song fails to crystallize quite correctly, needing a

touch of something to make it taste just right. This is a song that should

never be performed by a band with a 4 string or even a 5 string bass player.

It should never be attempted by a band with a bass player who is merely an

additional rhythm player. Garcia excels playing Morning Dew. Lesh powers

and animates Morning Dew. Together, they generate and unleash the power and

beauty resident in the song.

Which Morning Dew is best of all 241 readings? John Dwork in Dupree's

Diamond News lists 13 versions in a best of article. Many Deadheads

including Mr. Dwork and Dick Latvala, keeper of the vaults, feel 5-8-77 to

be the pinnacle reading. This is a very impressive show with a quite good

Morning Dew (prepare to witness published heresy) but, falls far short of at

least six other readings. 5-8-77 lacks something significant in sound. It

is tightly performed, beautifully played and comes after a truly wonderful

performance. But for me, the fire is lacking; the image never quite

appears. 9-18-87 is far superior for it's sheer power and energy.

9-18-87 is probably the best performance with Brent on keyboards. 5-2-70

has more energy. 5-26-72 has more intense jams. 11-8-79 has tremendous

Phil presence, always a marker for a great reading. Newly surfaced

soundboards of 10-19-73 offer a superb early reading, probably my favorite

of this 73-74 period. Which is my overall favorite?

Of all Morning Dew's I have encountered my favorites arise from the high

plateau of Lady With A Fan/Terrapin Station. 5-22-77 provides one moment of

supreme delight springing from Terrapin Station (without Lady With A Fan)

following an elegant Estimated>Eyes> Wharf Rat. This is an absolute feeding

frenzy for Lesh and Garcia with the second of perfection occurring as a

grace note on an ascending riff by Garcia as Lesh feeds chords of incredible

power to the band. Listen to the song. You will know the single note I

write about if this is the best reading for you. If not, keep listening.

Even more impressive and my favorite reading is 6-7-77. A full Lady With A

Fan>Terrapin Station follows Drumz and Lesh realizes Morning Dew needs to be

next. Garcia agrees and the result is Morning Dew as performed by a rock

and roll orchestra tuned to the tonality of Bach organ. This is the Morning

Dew to record for musical posterity. This is at 15 minutes, 23 seconds by

my watch, one of the longer readings around. Garcia soars on the first jam

and reads the vocals well. The second jam is a high-octane sequence of

crescendos and ascending riffs with long examples of "fanning". Lesh

refuses to end the song and keeps pushing Garcia to new explorations of the

musical space while thundering counterpoint and harmony with the impact of a

bomb exploding underground and shaking the world around you. That night in

Winterland, it must have felt like an Arclight going in on the Ho Chi Minh

Trail; a sensation with which I am all too familiar. When the song finally

ends, Jerry's voice, stretched, thin and so poignantly real, cracks on the

final word. ìGuess it doesnít matter anywaaaaaaay!î It should crack. This

is perfection achieved partly by accident, partly by exhaustion, partly by

emotion. The show should end right then. But here comes Weir with an

instantaneous Around And Around. Ah, well! Jerry tried, Phil tried, I

agreed, Bob disagreed. Bob started another song. That's what made them who

they were. This is, for me, the penultimate performance of Morning Dew.

This is the perfection of Kiplingís Barrack Room Ballads, Bachís Tocatta and

Fugue, the majesty of a thunderstorm at 14,000 feet, the mind numbing power

of a perfectly placed tactical air strike. And that is the necessary

reminder of what we have been fortunate enough to avoid.

You have my opinion of the best occurrence. You are free to agree,

partially agree, or disagree with me. If you know of a better Morning Dew

please let me know. I promise to listen to and enjoy the song. I hope they

send cold chills of flashback down my spine! That's how a great Dew affects

me, visions of mushroom clouds, ìDuck and Cover Drillsî, overwhelming sense

of pathos and impending loss. Then the music sweeps over me and itís today


Will I change my mind? Maybe. I have yet to hear all 241 readings. So if

there is a better version out there, I want to listen to it.

One thing is for certain however; the meaning of this song is not

debatable. I have read threads on various usegroups debating the meaning of

the song. Is it about a dying lover/friend? Is it about ecological

disaster? What does this song mean?

This was the end of the age of above ground nuclear testing. Strontium,

cobalt and other radioactive isotopes sprayed into the stratosphere from

national displays of bigger and bigger bomb detonations. They fell to earth

in rain and dew, clung to the grass and were ingested by cattle. Strontium

90 fell from the skies daily and there were warnings not to let children and

pregnant females drink milk. Strontium can replace calcium in physiologic

uptake. We were all at danger of having a skeleton that would serve as

nightlamp long after we were otherwise dust. The very morning dew was

becoming deadly. ìCanít walk you out in the morning dew, my honey!î

I am 52 years old as I write this. It is impossible for me to hear the song

performed by anyone in any fashion without flashbacks to The Cuban Missile

Crisis, as a 14 year old helping to dig a fallout shelter into the hillside

through a hole knocked in a neighbor's basement wall. We were all glued to

TV sets and radio played continually on either 640 or 1240 kHz stations,

waiting for the high pitched scream of the ìEmergency Broadcast Systemî to

announce that only ConelRad would now be trying to send us any thing over

the electromagnetic spectrum. The world was within 11 seconds of nuclear

war. Overlay this image with scenes from the movie "On The Beach. " You

didnít hear no baby cry today;î isnít it a shame you never will again.

ìThought I heard a young man moan this morning!î ìYou didnít hear no young

man moan!î ìDonít you worry ëbout all those people.î ìGuess it doesnít

matter anyway!î And it wouldnít have. That's what Morning Dew means.

Total ecological nightmare, social destruction and a dead world caused not

by means beyond our control but within our control.

Dark Star became The Grateful Deadís signature platform for a jam.

Throwing Stones was perhaps the most politically active song they performed.

Morning Dew was the most powerful plea penned by our generation for nuclear

disarmament. Nobody performed it better than The Grateful Dead. IMNSHO, no

one ever will.

Stev Lenon

return to essays