Dead Best: 7 Smoldering Versions of “Black Peter”

by Peter Wendel
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BlackPeterKrampusGD2Main

Black Peter?

Debut: December 4, 1969
Last Time Played: June 22, 1995
Total Times Played: 342
Songwriter(s): Garcia, Hunter

It doesn’t get any darker or deeper than “Black Peter,” neither musically nor lyrically. It’s a somber self-reflective Garcia-Hunter tale about death – a song that moves slowly and methodically, even hypnotically, into the darkness.

On many a night, Jerry would lead us deep into the “Black Peter” trance – his soulful strained vocals pulling us farther into ourselves.

All of my friends come to
See me last night
I was layin’ in my bed and dyin’

WorkingmansDeadCover SongMango.comThe raw beauty of “Black Peter” is how much ground it covers – the rocky distance it climbs from the deepest darkest valley of death to the highest cloud-covered peak.

For me (and my name happens to be Peter), it’s a song that never disappointed when I experienced it live, frequently melting me into a puddle of lysergic, self-reflective mush.

Released in 1970 on Workingman’s Dead, “Black Peter” hit the streets just as race relations and protests over the Vietnam War were tearing the United States limb from limb. “Black Peter” offers insight into one of the darkest and most desperate times in America’s history.

Here’s the studio version:

Garcia1981BlackPeter“Black Peter” is one of The Dead’s most inward-looking ballads, taking on deep philosophical thoughts that explore the personal human experience and what it all means. The song runs along the same lines – contemplative and soul-searching – as works like “Wharf Rat,” “Ripple,” “Comes A Time” and “Days Between.”

Many of us had acid-fueled epiphanies during those introspective songs. Oh boy, those were the days! I learned more about myself at those shows than I ever learned in school (then again, I never went to class).

THE MEANING

Like much of The Grateful Dead’s live catalog, the meaning of “Black Peter” is difficult to pin down, leaving the door open to myriad interpretations. Hunter and Garcia wanted it that way.

GrimReaperBlackPeter

The Reaper awaits Black Peter

On its face, “Black Peter” is about a terminally sick man on his deathbed – someone who seems ready to depart this world.

Just want to have
A little peace to die
And a friend or two
I love at hand

Although Peter is ready, he seems unable to die – lingering precariously between life and death in some dark diseased purgatory.

Fever roll up to
A hundred and five
Roll on up
Gonna roll back down

One more day
I find myself alive
Tomorrow, maybe go
Beneath the ground

Sisyphus2

Sisyphus: His work never ends

It appears that Peter is forever caught in a cyclical, Sisyphus-like existence. He gets sicker (Fever roll up) then he gets better again (Gonna roll back down), over and over. (Remember: Sisyphus, in Greek mythology, was punished for his sins by being forced to roll an enormous boulder up a hill – only to have it roll back down when he reaches the top. So he was consigned to repeat the process forevermore.)

It’s a monumental revelation that comes next. What is happening is epic on a human level, the culmination of everything that’s come before this moment, yet nothing seems to change in terms of the natural order of things. The sun still rises in the East and sets in the West – just like it always does.

See here how everything
Lead up to this day
And it’s just like any other day
That’s ever been

Sun goin up and then
The sun it goin down
Shine through my window and
My friends they come around

But who or what is “Black Peter”? What is the significance of the song’s title?

BlackPeterKrampusGDIf we trace the origin of Black Peter (or Zwarte Piet), we find that, in Dutch folklore, he accompanied Saint Nick, carrying a bundle of switches with which to beat naughty children. The nice children got presents from Santa while the naughty children got beaten by Black Peter. He wasn’t exactly a beloved character.

According to the Wikipedia entry on Zwarte Piet:

Traditionally Zwarte Piet is said to be black because he is a Moor from Spain. Those portraying Zwarte Piet typically put on blackface make-up and colourful Renaissance attire, in addition to curly wigs, red lipstick and earrings. In recent years, the character has become the subject of controversy, especially in the Netherlands.

In Austro-Bavarian Alpine folklore, Black Peter is known as Krampus – a horned, Satanic-looking figure described as “half-goat, half-demon.” The beast was black.

StNickBlackPeterSome have suggested that “Black Peter” isn’t about a dying man but rather about a dying concept or notion. Could “Black Peter” be the personification of racism?

It’s a theory that seems to make sense. Remember that The Dead debuted “Black Peter” on December 4, 1969, as the fight over civil rights in this country boiled over. MLK had been assassinated just months earlier – an act that sparked riots in more than 100 cities from sea to shining sea. The unrest in Chicago left 11 dead and scores injured. More than 2,000 people were arrested in 48 hours of rioting.

Many Americans (like MLK and Jerry Garcia) had been working for years to stamp out racism – to kill it once and for all. It was on the run for sure, but racism continued to live on despite the fact that the civil rights movement had weakened it significantly. One more day, I find myself alive…

When The Dead began performing “Black Peter,” it was a sad but hopefully triumphant song about the imminent death of racism. As the years wore on and racism lingered, the song became less hopeful and more of a mournful acceptance of reality.

LIVE PERFORMANCES

The Dead first performed “Black Peter” on December 4, 1969, at the Fillmore in San Francisco. It would become part of the band’s permanent rotation – played more than 340 times. The final performance was on June 22, 1995, at the Knickerbocker Arena in Albany.

Here are some of the finest renditions I could find from across the band’s illustrious run.

May 2, 1970
Harpur College, Binghamton, NY

A stunning early performance. Quite possibly the best acoustic rendition of all time. Crispy clean vocals from the 27-year-old Garcia and his guitar play is flawless. It’s an uptempo performance (relatively speaking) – a more-than-worthy alternative to the definitive version off Bear’s Choice.

May 24, 1972
Lyceum Theatre, London, England

This one inhabits space deep down in your soul. Magnificent through and through. Jerry’s vocal performance is second to none – clear, strong and brimming with emotion. The band played “Black Peter” only once during the sublime Europe ’72 tour – and, not surprisingly, they killed it.

October 29, 1977
Evans Field House, Dekalb, IL

Sickkkkkkkk! Could be the best of all time – wall to wall and tree-top tall. We all hear performances differently – and we all have our biases – but I can’t imagine how this version isn’t on everybody’s top-5 list. Some folks may prefer the faster-paced versions of the early-’70s, but this one has some serious gooey mojo workin’. Check out Garcia’s jaw-dropping vocals during the “run and see” segment (8:59). Then comes his guitar wizardry (9:22) – a lead that evolves into one the most powerful closing BP jams on record.

April 14, 1978
Cassell Coliseum, Blacksburg, VA

DO NOT MISS THIS! A monster performance if ever there was one – with deep somber valleys rising to a smoldering cloud-covered peak. If anybody can find a stronger all-around vocal performance, backup included, please let me know. Jerry leaves it all on the stage. Gives me chills every time. See here how everything, lead up to this day… Listen here (archived track 20).

April 6, 1984
Aladdin Theater, Las Vegas, NV

Industrial strength – Black Peter tease>Truckin’>Black Peter. A very special rendition played in honor of a much-loved Deadhead named Peter, who was killed by a drunk driver while hitchhiking to the Aladdin Theater for the show. As the legend goes, the band heard of the tragic death and played “Black Peter” in honor of the friend’s passing. The band digs deep on this one. In the same vein as “He’s Gone,” “Black Peter” became a farewell song – a tribute – to fallen friends.

March 25, 1990
Knickerbocker Arena, Albany, NY

POWERHOUSE! One of the few versions from the ’90s to break into the top-10. Garcia’s rough-and-weathered vocals are just exactly perfect – brimming with soulful emotion. This one smolders, crackles and then explodes, ultimately releasing us into the sun-splattered stratosphere.

March 9, 1993
Rosemont Horizon, Rosemont, IL

Stellar latter-day version. One of the last truly great “Peter” performances. Check out Jerry’s blazing bridge solo.

“Black Peter”

Music Jerry Garcia & Lyrics Robert Hunter

All of my friends come to
See me last night
I was layin’ in my bed and dyin’
Annie Beauneu from Saint Angel
Say “the weather down here so fine”

Just then the wind
Came squalling through the door
But who can the weather command?

Just want to have
A little peace to die
And a friend or two
I love at hand

Fever roll up to
A hundred and five
Roll on up
Gonna roll back down

One more day
I find myself alive
Tomorrow, maybe go
Beneath the ground

See here how everything
Lead up to this day
And it’s just like any other day
That’s ever been

Sun goin’ up and then
The sun it goin’ down
Shine through my window and
My friends they come around
Come around
Come around

People may know but
The people don’t care
That a man could be
As poor as me

“Take a look at poor Peter
He’s lyin’ in pain
Now let’s go run and see”
Run and see
Hey, hey, run and see

Peter Wendel is a journalist and PR consultant. He's attended hundreds of concerts and festivals, including the Peach, Mountain Jam, the All Good and Lockn'. He's ridden legendary Grateful Dead runs from Ventura County Fairgrounds to Irvine Meadows (CA) from the Nassau Coliseum (NY) to the Boston Garden (MA). Peter is a former U.S. Marine who – after running into trouble with every last one of his commanding officers – received an honorable discharge and a direct order never to return. Born in California and raised in New Jersey, Peter lived in Boston and Joshua Tree (CA) before settling in the nation's capital. Find him on tour at PWendel@SongMango.com.

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