The History and Meaning of the Grateful Dead Terrapin Turtles

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    The History and Meaning of the Grateful Dead Terrapin Turtles
    Published: March 3, 2021

    One of the lesser-known but still beloved Grateful Dead logos are the terrapin turtles. First pictured in the cover art for the 1977 album Terrapin Station, which was designed by Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley. It was this same artist duo that brought us Bertha the Skeleton, the Europe ’72 ice cream kid, and many of the band’s other posters and album cover artwork.

    Many assume that the turtles on this album cover were inspired by the lyrics to “Terrapin Station,” the classic Garcia-Hunter collaboration at the root of this album. However, time and archival work has made it quite clear that the turtles were actually borrowed from an artist named Heinrich Kley.

    Borrowed from The Turtles

    The turtles depicted on the Terrapin Station album cover were first seen on a poster for a San Francisco band called The Turtles, a contemporary of the Grateful Dead, back in 1966. See a print of that poster below, courtesy of the Bahr Gallery.

    Heinrich Kley’s poster for The Turtles at the Fillmore Auditorium, 1966.

    However, even if the symbol was not inspired by the lyrics to the song itself, there had to have been a reason why it was chosen for the cover of such an album, which leads to an analysis of the imagery of a turtle and how it relates to “Terrapin Station.”

    The “Terrapin Station” Connection

    Like many Grateful Dead songs, “Terrapin Station” was written as a collaboration between Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia, with Hunter penning the lyrics and Garcia developing the music. The song explores an abstract vision of inner peace, with the words “Some rise / some fall / some climb /to get to Terrapin” suggesting that everybody has different challenges in life, but are all searching for their own version of this mystical Terrapin Station.

    Take this with the actual animal, the terrapin turtle, unique because of its ability to survive equally as well both on land or in water. Perhaps Hunter imagined a place where one could handle anything that life may present to it with the ease and grace of the terrapin.

    And so, by extension, the logo of the Grateful Dead terrapin turtle represents this ease and grace, which the band embodies both in this song and across much of their existence.

    The Dead first played “Terrapin Station” on February 26th, 1977 at Swing Auditorium in San Bernadino, CA. The album was not released until later that year, in July, but 2/26 was when it first entered the ethos. It wasn’t long before it joined the dancing bears and the stealie in the lineup of Grateful Dead merch, both officially and in the lot.

    Listen to the debut “Terrapin Station” from 2/26/77 below, which Heady Version currently calls the best-ever version of the song.

    Grateful Dead – “Terrapin Station” (2/26/77)

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