deadsongs.vue.174 : Saint Stephen
permalink #26 of 30: John P. McAlpin (john-p-mcalpin) Tue 20 Dec 05 17:00
The William Tell bridge has always confused me.

I long took it to be the intro to The Eleven. Why were these lyrics
dropped from later versions of St. Stephen? When were they cut out?
deadsongs.vue.174 : Saint Stephen
permalink #27 of 30: searchlight casting (jstrahl) Wed 28 Dec 05 13:04
I haven't heard them on any post '69 version that i have heard, about
the same time that The Eleven was dropped as well. Guess they just
didn't have the same effect/impact when going into Not Fade Away.
deadsongs.vue.174 : Saint Stephen
permalink #28 of 30: searchlight casting (jstrahl) Fri 6 Jan 06 11:42
And, that segment is in key of B,with A playing a key role, which then
led to a jam in that key containing a D chord, which could drop nicely
into The Eleven. Not as effective if going into NFA (which, like the
main part of St Stephen, is E,A and D).
deadsongs.vue.174 : Saint Stephen
permalink #29 of 30: John P. McAlpin (john-p-mcalpin) Mon 16 Jan 06 15:15
That makes much sense, thanks.
deadsongs.vue.174 : Saint Stephen
permalink #30 of 30: David Dodd (ddodd) Tue 26 May 20 13:08
Posting on behalf of Gary Kogan:

Hi David, 

Here's my view of the meaning of St. Stephen.

All my life I misheard the line from St Stephen, the Hunter Garcia
song, “Stephen prospered in his time…” as Stephen Foster in his
time. I assumed that the song was about Stephen Foster. When I read
about Foster’s last days on earth just before the end of the Civil
War, I became convinced that the song really is about the 19th
century songwriter Stephen Foster, not the Christian martyr. I will
follow the trail of clues, which is what we have to do to understand
many of Robert Hunter’s lyrics.

What would support the idea that the song is about St. Stephen,
aside from the title? Some say that the images of arrows represent
the idea of St. Stephen’s martyrdom; however, St. Stephen was stoned
to death, a form of execution typical for the Middle East at the
time. The one consistent theme in Hunter lyrics is historical
accuracy. Another arrow image is of William Tell, some 1400 years
after St. Stephen. There is nothing in the song about challenging
authority, which is the reason for St. Stephen’s execution; a theme
that you would expect if this was the story of the first Christian
martyr. No other Hunter/Garcia song in any direct or indirect way
speaks to religion of any kind (Samson and Delilah lyrics were not
written by Hunter.) Hunter sets almost all his songs firmly in the
19th century: as Jerry Garcia is quoted as saying, “You have to pick
a century.” Nineteenth was that century.

Foster died penniless, depressed and probably psychotic in New York
City just as the Confederate south was collapsing before the end of
the Civil War. Foster is known for songs that celebrated the south
and supported slavery, but he was a Yankee who visited the south
only once. So, Stephen who “prospered in his time…” stayed in a
hostile New York where “wherever he goes the people all complain.”
New York City was in some ways neutral until the last days of the
Civil War (“messy, confusing and contested” as one historian put it)
which was the time of his death and, I think, the period the song is
talking about: “…troops so hungry ‘neath the sky-ay.”

The streets of New York were not a comfortable place for a
recognizable cultural icon who was an apologist to southern slave
owners. Foster was a lifelong Democrat which at the time was the
party dedicated to appeasing slave owners and maintaining slavery.
Freeborn and recently freed blacks, who had endured recent race
riots would certainly have shown their displeasure as would Union
supporters who had been holding their tongues in an implicitly
neutral New York (the city had prospered by supplying both south and
north during the Civil War and many of its institutions had been
built, literally and figuratively, on the slave trade.)

But why would Robert Hunter choose to sanctify Stephen Foster? Today
we consider Fosters music as racist with its portrayals of formerly
enslaved people pining for plantation life, but in the sixties that
criticism was not common. People knew Foster from the benign Oh,
Suzanna and Beautiful Dreamer and the more subtly racist Camptown
Races (my son and I called it Camptown Racists when he learned it in
elementary school.) A folk group of the late 50s and still in
existence, the New Christy Minstrels, was named for the minstrel
show most often associated with Stephen Foster, with no apparent

Where we see no Christianity in Hunter lyrics Dodd points out two
instances of Stephen Foster’s influence on Hunter lyrics. In New
Speedway Boogie Dodd likens the line “in the heat of the sun a man
died of cold” to the Foster line “the sun so hot I froze to death,”
and from Truckin’ the reference to the Doo Dah man echoes the chorus
of Camptown Races.

Foster is considered to be the father and founder of the modern
system of royalties, compensation for musical rights. He himself did
not make money on any sale of sheet music after the original
publication fee, but we know he fought that injustice. The battle
was won only after his death. Hunter 

Foster lived in luxury while his star was high but died penniless
after the end of the Civil War. For all we know, he may have had
invested heavily in the Confederate economy whose currency became
worthless after the war. He may simply have bet on his continuing
popularity and lived large, like many artists and sports stars,
until the money literally ran out.

I think there was a lot of poetic license in depicting Foster’s
insanity. You’re right to think that the meaning of some of these
lyrics is pretty elusive, but it does sound a bit like the memories
and desires of someone whose star fell so far and fast. And what
better description of the descent into madness?

Wishing well with a golden bell
Bucket hangin' clear to Hell
Hell halfway twixt now and then
Stephen fill it up and lower down and lower down again

Hunter shows a deep respect for Stephen Foster who was another
prolific lyricist and a melody maker now reviled for participating
in minstrel shows which are seen today as blatantly racist. Hunter
was a superlative lyricist who paired with a superlative musician in
Jerry Garcia. It would not be surprising that Hunter saw himself as
something of a modern Foster, minus the racism. Beautiful Dreamer,
which has none of the inane minstrel show trappings, is certainly a
great song, like many Foster songs, infinitely more popular than any
Garcia Hunter song.

I think in this song we see Hunter pay his respects to Foster, but
where Foster is ham-fisted with his lyrics Hunter is exquisite:

High green chilly winds and windy
Vines and loops around the twining
Shafts of lavender, they're crawling to the sun
Wonder who will water all the children of the garden
When they sigh

Here’s an example of the infinitely lesser Foster lyric:

Living beams of love?
Soft rays of mellow light
From her eyes were thrown,
And her smiles were summer bright,
Where has Lula gone?

I haven’t found a biography of Robert Hunter. I would love to see
Hunter’s library and reading history. For some reason there seems to
be little scholarly attention to Robert Hunter who will be seen as a
great poet if not equal to his great-grandfather and original
namesake, the Scottish poet Robert Burns - Hunter was born Robert
Burns, but later took the name of his step-father. Judging from the
songs we know of it is clear that Hunter was an expert on the 19th
century: down to minute detail of juke joints, railway, mining…

Members: Enter the conference to participate. All posts made in this conference are world-readable.

Subscribe to an RSS 2.0 feed of new responses in this topic RSS feed of new responses

   Join Us
Home | Learn About | Conferences | Member Pages | Mail | Store | Services & Help | Password | Join Us

Twitter G+ Facebook