"Black Peter" is a poignant and introspective song written by Jerry Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter, and was first released on the Grateful Dead's 1970 album "Workingman's Dead". The song's lyrics are reflective and somber, telling the story of an old man facing his own mortality and contemplating his life's accomplishments and regrets.
Lyrically, the song draws inspiration from various sources. Hunter has said that the song was partially inspired by a character from Herman Melville's novel "Moby-Dick" named Elijah, who is described as a "crazy old man" and a "prophet". The song's opening line, "All of my friends come to see me last night," was inspired by a dream Hunter had in which he was visited by friends who had died.
The song referred to in the original text is believed to have been inspired by various cultural references, which include a Czech film, a British novel, a Dutch folk story, a Sherlock Holmes story, and an old German children's card game. The song appeared on the Workingman's Dead album in 1970, and its lyrics suggest a sense of sorrow and self-pity in the perspective of a dying man visited by friends.
The first possible inspiration for the song is a Czech film called Black Peter, directed by Milos Forman and awarded at the 1964 Locarno International Film Festival. The film depicts a young man's strained relationship with his father and his efforts to find his place as an adult.
The second possibility is a novel called The Once and Future King, written by T.H. White and published in 1958. The book retells the legend of King Arthur and features a character named Black Peter, a sickly fish who espouses a nihilistic philosophy of power to the young Arthur, under the guidance of the wizard Merlyn.
The third source of inspiration comes from a Dutch folk story associated with the Feast of St. Nicholas, in which a character called Zwarte Piet or Black Peter gives sweets to children
and appears in parades. The story dates back to 1850 and was created by a schoolteacher and writer named Jan Schenkman.
The fourth possibility is a short story by Arthur Conan Doyle called The Adventure of Black Peter, published in 1904 as part of the Sherlock Holmes canon. The story revolves around the murder of a whaling captain with a harpoon and Holmes' investigation of the crime.
Lastly, the Black Peter card game, whose origins can be traced back to at least the early 19th century in Germany, is considered another possible source of inspiration for the song's title and themes.
While the song's author, Robert Hunter, was known for drawing on historical, mythological, and literary sources in his songwriting, the lyrics of Black Peter do not make it clear which of these possibilities, if any, provided the main inspiration for the song. Nonetheless, the song's poignant portrayal of a dying man's regrets and loneliness has resonated with many listeners over the years.
In my personal interpretation of the song "Black Peter," I have always envisioned the titular character as a man who has spent a significant portion of his life incarcerated and is now reflecting on his isolated and unfulfilled existence. However, upon further examination of the song's lyrics and related research, there is no explicit reference to Peter being in prison. Instead, I believe the image of a prisoner playing a melancholy harmonica solo after the chorus may have influenced my initial interpretation.
Additionally, my mishearing of certain lyrics also contributed to my belief that the song had a prison theme.
"All of my friends come to see me last night
I was laying in my bed and dying
Anyone knows from sitting in jail
They say the weather down here aint so fine"
*read these lyrics and listen to the song and tell me that's not what he's singing"
But indeed, its not what Jerry is singing..
Despite the absence of any overt references to imprisonment in the song, the idea of Peter as a prisoner has added a poignant layer to my understanding of the song. In particular, the chorus, with its beautiful and mournful melody, suggests that Peter's entire life has led to this day of his passing, which is momentous for him, but ordinary for everyone else. As Peter comes to terms with his impending death, the sun shines through the window onto his death bed, and his remaining friends bid him farewell.
"Black Peter" epitomizes the concept of the "grateful dead," as Peter looks back on his life and expresses gratitude for his friendships. Death is a recurrent theme in the Grateful Dead's music, artwork, and concepts, and this song is a prime example. The lyrics may initially appear depressing, but upon closer examination, they are ultimately inspiring and uplifting. Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter explore death from various perspectives in many of their Grateful Dead compositions, inviting listeners to contemplate life's meaning and appreciate the value of human connections.
Musically, "Black Peter" is a slow, bluesy ballad with a simple chord progression and minimal instrumentation. The song's melody is haunting and melancholic, with Garcia's emotive vocals adding to the sense of introspection and reflection.
"Black Peter" was played frequently by the Grateful Dead during the early 1970s, and was a staple of the band's live shows for several years. However, as the band's sound evolved and their repertoire expanded, "Black Peter" gradually became less common in their live sets. The song was last played by the Grateful Dead on June 21, 1995, at the Knickerbocker Arena in Albany, New York.
Despite its relative obscurity in the Grateful Dead's later years, "Black Peter" remains a beloved and powerful song among Deadheads. The song's poignant lyrics and haunting melody continue to resonate with fans and inspire cover versions by other artists.
In conclusion, "Black Peter" is a beautiful and introspective song that showcases the Grateful Dead's talents as both musicians and lyricists. Despite its relative obscurity in the band's later years, the song remains a beloved classic among Deadheads, and continues to inspire listeners with its poignant lyrics and haunting melody.
Black Peter Lyrics
All of my friends come to see me last night I was laying in my bed and dying Annie Bonneau from St. Angel Say the weather down here so fine
Just then the wind came squalling through the dark But who can the weather command? Just wanna 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 going up and then the sun going down Shine through my window and my friends they come around Come around, come around
The people might know but the people don't care That a man could be as poor as me Take a look at poor Peter, he's lying in pain Now let's go run and see, run and see Run and see, run, run and see and see