The Meaning of the Grateful Dead’s “It Must Have Been the Roses”

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    The Meaning of the Grateful Dead’s “It Must Have Been the Roses”
    Published: May 4, 2024

    “It Must Have Been the Roses” is a standout ballad among the Garcia-Hunter songwriting duo. It appeared on Jerry Garcia’s 1976 solo album, Reflections, but made its live debut with the Grateful Dead in early 1974.

    First performed at Bill Graham’s Winterland Arena on February 22nd, 1974, it was played quite often through the 70s and then became less common, but was played at least once per year until 1995. “Ship of Fools” and “U.S. Blues” also made their live debuts on 2/22/74.

    According to the Grateful Dead Family Discography, they performed “It Must Have Been the Roses” over 150 times.

    “It Must Have Been the Roses” (Reflector, 1976)

    “It Must Have Been the Roses” Lyrics Meaning

    Lyrically, the song tells a cryptic love story about a woman named Annie, who appears to be Dead. It’s not clear whether the story is about a lover who died, or a dead body that the narrator comes across throughout his travels.

    It also makes use of a few very common Grateful Dead images, which is of roses, skeletons (death), and the sea or water. The lyrics vividly align and help illustrate with the world that Robert Hunter created with his songs, that contributes to the overall feeling of adventure that comes from listening to the Dead.

    Let’s see what’s going on here, with a few possible interpretations.

    First Verse

    Annie laid her head down in the roses
    She had ribbons, ribbons, ribbons
    In her long brown hair
    I don’t know, it must have been the roses
    All I know is I could not leave her there

    “It Must Have Been the Roses” verse one.

    Roses are commonly associated with love, death, and romanticism in general. When Garcia sings that opening line, it’s not directly stated that she is dead, but it can definitely be implied. Either way, the narrator finds the ribbons in her hair to be attractive or enchanting.

    Ribbons in the hair could signify any number of things, as they have long held cultural significance. It has been said that women wear them as a sign of faithfulness to a loved one, or to cling to their fading youth. Either interpretation would work in this context.

    Chorus

    I don’t know, it must have been the roses
    The roses or the ribbons in her long brown hair
    I don’t know, maybe it was the roses
    All I know was I could not leave her there

    “It Must Have Been the Roses” chorus.

    Again, Garcia repeats his attraction to the roses, or the ribbons in her hair. He could not just pass her by, perhaps because she was beautiful, perhaps because she was dead, or both.

    Second Verse

    Ten years the waves rolled the
    Ships home from the sea
    Thinking well how it may blow
    In all good company
    If I tell another what
    Your own lips told to me
    Let me lay neath the roses
    Let my eyes no longer see

    “It Must Have Been the Roses” verse two.

    Time has passed now, and the narrator sits alone in thought. Ships that went to sea have come and gone. He thinks about how strong the winds blew for those ships, and the good company that was shared on board.

    The narrator recalls some words that were spoken to him, likely by the departed Annie. He vows never to tell another person about it, for as long as he lives. To me, this seems like a declaration of eternal love, one that transcends life and death.

    Another chorus comes in here, and then Garcia sings the third verse.

    Third Verse

    One pane of glass in the window
    No one is complaining though
    Come in and shut the door
    Faded is the crimson from the
    Ribbons that she wore
    And it’s strange how no one
    Comes round anymore

    “It Must Have Been the Roses” verse three.

    Even more time has passed, now. The place is falling apart — there is only one pane of glass remaining in the window. This suggests that all the other panes have either broken or fallen out, but the narrator doesn’t hear any complaints.

    It’s possible that now the narrator is also dead, and we are hearing from his ghost in this part of the song. Annie’s ribbons are still around, although the crimson color has faded now.

    He closes by noticing that nobody comes around anymore… which again suggests that everybody is now dead. Then, another chorus, followed by a reflective guitar solo by Garcia (the moment we’ve all been waiting for).

    Closing Thoughts

    The song ends a repetition of the first verse and one final chorus, which brings to mind the cyclical nature of life and contributes to the feeling of nostalgia that permeates the song, both lyrically and with the gently-meandering musical arrangement.

    While not one of the most popular Grateful Dead songs by any means, “It Must Have Been the Roses” holds a special place in their repertoire for bringing out the feels when it was played.

    Live Versions

    Here are a few of my favorite live versions of “It Must Have Been the Roses,” plus some that I found via Headyversion.

    2/22/74

    The first one, a little sloppy. (18:47)

    10/16-10/20/74

    They played this song multiple times during their pre-hiatus run at Winterland and I couldn’t tell you which night this version comes from, but I like it.

    8/13/75

    One From the Vault version.

    7/8/78

    This is the most popular version of the song. It comes from Red Rocks 1978, a famous show that was given official release. Jerry’s vocals are really on during this whole show.

    10/26/80

    This one comes from the Reckoning CD. Acoustic rendition, truly excellent, maybe the best that I know about.

    10/31/80

    From that same Radio City run that produced the Reckoning version. This one isn’t on the album but does have video.

    10/12/84

    This is such a grimy, but excellent show (with an amazing “Morning Dew”).

    3/22/90

    Spring 1990 sweetness.

    6/22/95

    The last one ever played. Not two months before Garcia’s death.

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