The Dead’s Best “Row Jimmy”

by Peter Wendel
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RowJimmyBestDeadMainImage SongMango.com_edited-1What the hell is “Row Jimmy” about? Help me if you would, because I seem to be at a bit of a loss.

The song is a Garcia-Hunter collaboration released on The Grateful Dead’s 1973 album Wake Of The Flood. And although it’s one of my favorite Jerry ballads (and I know I’m not alone), I’ve found the song’s meaning difficult to fully grasp – even with the added clarity and depth perception of high-quality psychedelics.

The pace of “Row Jimmy” is relaxed with a nice easy vibe to it, but lyrically, the song moves quickly, dropping us headlong into a story that is already very much in motion (see full lyrics at bottom).

Row Jimmy – Wake Of The Flood (1973)

Julie catch a rabbit by his hair
Come back steppin’ like to walk on air
Get back home where you belong
And don’t you run off no more

RabbitRunRowJimmy SongMango.comNot that I need to know exactly what every Grateful Dead song is about, but “Row Jimmy” is particularly mysterious and tempting with its wild, impossible imagery – like “catch a rabbit by his hair” and “walk on air.” These amazing feats Julie pulls off, which defy almost every law of physics, are met with resistance heard in lyrics like “get back home where you belong” and “don’t you run off no more.” (Reminds me of the almost taunting line “go on home your mama’s calling you” from another Garcia-Hunter collaboration, “Cosmic Charlie.”)

There’s definitely an element of breaking free that runs throughout “Row Jimmy” – living, celebrating and achieving miraculous things (“double twist when you hit the air” and “doin’ the do-pas-o” which is a dance step similar in structure to the more widely recognized “do-si-do”).

JerryRowJimmySusanaMillman SongMango.comSo is “Row Jimmy” about the tension between the older and younger generation or authority and rebellion (“get back home where you belong”)? The evolution and symbolic end of the counter-culture movement (“broken heart don’t feel so bad” and “ever since they tore the jukebox down”)? Is it about conformity versus non-comformity (“seems a common way to go”)? A celebration of human potential (“double twist when you hit the air”) and all the incredible tricks we can do?

Or is “Row Jimmy” more about life’s journey toward spiritual salvation (“gonna get there/I don’t know”)? Or is it a ferry boat ride to another plane of perception (“come back steppin’ like to walk on air”)? Or does it center on navigating a relationship or marriage (“broken heart don’t feel so bad”)?

Clearly there are many possible interpretations, and all of them seem to have merit. (Please be sure to post your take on “Row Jimmy” in our Comment section at the bottom.)

MaplesPavilionDeadShow1973 SongMango.comWhatever the true meaning of “Row Jimmy” it remains one of The Dead’s most treasured ballads.

The band debuted “Row Jimmy” on February 9, 1973, at the Roscoe Maples Pavilion in Palo Alto, CA. It was a big night of maiden voyages with The Dead playing (in addition to “Row Jimmy”) the very first “Eyes Of The World,” “China Doll,” “They Love Each Other,” “Wave That Flag,” “Loose Lucy” and “Here Comes Sunshine.” Damn, that’s one helluva breakout.

Here’s a list of the finest versions of “Row Jimmy” I could find. Enjoy!

November 17, 1973 – Pauley Pavilion, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA 
Stellar group effort! This is one of the very top versions from 1973 – by far the biggest year for “Row Jimmy” with the band performing it nearly 60 times. This heavenly performance opened the 2nd set, a rare placement for the song. Jerry’s vocals are as clear, bright and soulful as you’ll ever hear.

March 20, 1977 – Winterland, San Francisco, CA
The best version of all time? You be the judge. Jerry’s bridge solo (4:05) gets my vote for the most beautiful and moving he ever laid down for “Row Jimmy.” If it doesn’t make your spine tingle, you may be dead.

May 19, 1977 – Fox Theatre, Atlanta, GA
Don’t miss this seriously underrated version. It’s a worthy but often overlooked alternative to the great one from Barton Hall recorded less than two weeks earlier. The band is impeccably clean at a venue known for high-quality shows. Jerry sings with simmering power, and his guitar play is buttery smooth. The first solo takes you right down to the island tropics; the second is so sweet and tender it could bring a tear to your eye. Donna nails the backing vocals, which as you know, wasn’t always the case. Released commercially on Dick’s Picks Vol. 29.

April 12, 1978 – Cameroon Indoor Stadium, Duke University, Durham, NC
A spectacular version from a legendary show! Pretty much flawless. One of the very best from the golden years of ’77-’78 – a window of time when the band was as close to technical perfection as they would ever get. Jerry pulls his slide out of his back pocket (42:07), and goes to work. Just beautiful stuff!

September 16, 1978 – Sphinx Theatre Giza, Cairo, Egypt
Love this version with the sweet syrupy Egypt vibe – an easy feel that works perfectly for “Row Jimmy.” Except for a slight vocal stumble from Jer during the second verse, this is a smooth, stellar performance for the pharaohs. Bobby’s slide solo is absolutely magnificent.

July 4, 1989 – Rich Stadium, Orchard Park, NY
The magical interaction between Jerry and Brent makes this one priceless. Higher and higher they go.

March 26, 1990 – Knickerbocker Arena, Albany, NY
In my opinion, this is the best of the ’90s. Brent shines and sizzles like a shooting star. Released commercially on Dozin’ At The Knick.

June 14, 1991 – RFK Stadium, Washington, DC
Don’t miss this crispy, high-definition footage (with Vince Welnick and Bruce Hornsby). Although I wouldn’t put this version in the top-10, it’s still worth watching. Jerry’s got the “hair wings” going. Classic.

“Row Jimmy”
Music by Jerry Garcia/Lyrics by Robert Hunter

Julie catch a rabbit by his hair
Come back steppin’ like to walk on air
Get back home where you belong
And don’t you run off no more

Don’t hang your head, let the two time roll
Grass shack nailed to a pine wood floor
Ask the time baby I don’t know
Come back later, gonna let it show

I say row Jimmy row
Gonna get there
I don’t know
Seems a common way to go
Get out and row, row, row, row, row

Here’s a half dollar if you dare
Double twist when you hit the air
Look at Julie down below
The levee doin’ the do-pas-o

I say row Jimmy row
Gonna get there
I don’t know
Seems a common way to go
Get out and row, row, row, row, row

Broken heart don’t feel so bad
You ain’t got half of what you thought you had
Rock you baby to and fro
Not too fast and not too slow

I say row Jimmy row
Gonna get there
I don’t know
Seems a common way to go
Get out and row, row, row, row, row

That’s the way it’s been in town
Ever since they tore the jukebox down
Two bit piece don’t buy no more
Not so much as it done before

I say row Jimmy row
Gonna get there
I don’t know
Seems a common way to go
Get out and row, row, row, row, row

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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