The Meaning of the Grateful Dead’s “Stella Blue”

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    The Meaning of the Grateful Dead’s “Stella Blue”
    Published: September 12, 2023

    When it was done just right, “Stella Blue” had the potential to bring some of the most beautiful moments during any given Grateful Dead concert. Often performed in a position of soothing relief from the show’s biggest jam late in the second set, the peak, this haunting song holds a special place in the hearts of many Deadheads.

    Not only is “Stella Blue” a favorite among fans, it is also one of the most abstract songs born of the collaborative efforts between Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia. Hence why it has taken me so long to cover it, as this song is difficult to interpret, and I wanted to make sure I get everything just exactly perfect (we all know how that goes).

    First performed live by the Grateful Dead on June 17th, 1972, during what was also Pigpen’s final performance with the band, “Stella Blue” maintained a steady presence in the live rotation right up until the end.

    “Stella Blue” Origins

    The story goes that Robert Hunter first wrote the lyrics to “Stella Blue” in 1970 at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. However, it didn’t find its way onto a studio album until 1973’s Wake of the Flood. By that time, it had already become a fan-favorite.

    The Chelsea Hotel is famous for being a site where many iconic works of music and literature were written. This includes “Stella Blue” alongside Bob Dylan’s “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel No. 2”, Arthur C. Clarke’s screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey, and many more.

    Who is Stella Blue?

    Anybody who has done some research into Robert Hunter’s songwriting knows that he didn’t just pick the name “Stella Blue” out of thin air.

    The topic of where exactly he got it from is largely up for debate, but there is a whole slew of information listed in the old school Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics, and we’re going to make sense of it here.

    A Star with the Blues

    First, “Stella” is Latin for “star”. This combined with the word “Blue”, which commonly means sad and dreary, in terms of music, one can imply that the meaning of “Stella Blue” is something close to “sad star”.

    This would check out with the lyrics, which present a guitarist who is nearing the end of his rope. It is only natural that one would attribute this to a Garcia figure. Especially in his later years, you get the sense that he is singing about himself (or the universal archetype of the troubled artist).

    The same can be said about a number of Grateful Dead songs, such as “Althea”, as one of Garcia’s biggest talents was his ability to portray a persona through his music.

    Stella Guitars – A Blues Favorite

    Close up of Stella Guitar. Photo: Roadside Guitars on Flickr.

    While the name “Stella” meaning “Star” is a plausible explanation, there are several more layers to Robert Hunter’s choosing of the title that are worth exploring.

    It has been suggested that Hunter could have also been referencing the Stella brand of guitar, which was notably popular among players of the blues in the 20s and 30s.

    Blues players who used Stellas:

    • Leadbelly
    • Blind Blake
    • Blind Willie McTell
    • Son House
    • Mississippi John Hurt
    • Reverend Gary Davis
    • Elizabeth Cotten (see “Sugaree”)

    This interpretation would also check out with the lyrics, which mention guitars and “rusty strings”, bringing to mind something that is old and weathered, such as an old Stella guitar that a blues musician owned way back then.

    The Literary Connection

    The possibilities go even deeper here, with the Annotated Grateful Dead lyrics even citing Stella from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), an actual character named Stella Blue in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire (1962), and more.

    Since we want to get into the lyrical analysis, we’re going to stop digging on the name “Stella Blue” right here, but if you want to know more I suggest taking a look at the resource itself. Not to mention, I think the ambiguity is part of the charm.

    “Stella Blue” Lyrics Meaning

    With the backstory covered, it’s time to dig into Robert Hunter’s lyrics and see what really makes “Stella Blue” tick. It begins with some gentle strumming, with Garcia striking the iconic chord that signals the start of the song’s musical and emotional journey.

    Then, he sings the first verse:

    All the years combine
    They melt into a dream
    A broken angel sings
    From a guitar
    In the end there’s just a song
    Comes crying like the wind
    Through all the broken dreams
    And vanished years

    First verse to “Stella Blue” by the Grateful Dead.

    With a lifetime melting together into what feels like a dream, we get a sense of nostalgia, longing, and perhaps even regret. Then, we see a broken angel, making his guitar sing. This could be seen as an image of death, or of being close to death.

    The song of life pierces out like a strong wind, and it’s all he has left in the end. He looks back over his wasted years, his unfulfilled dreams, and is filled with sorrow.

    Garcia really makes us feel it, as he draws out the moment with some gentle strumming before quietly singing the first chorus:

    Stella blue, Stella blue

    Chorus to “Stella Blue” by the Grateful Dead.

    When taken in context with the lyrics, “Stella Blue” seems more like a feeling than a concrete thing, or person. Perhaps it’s a feeling of existential dread.

    Keeping this in mind, we enter the second verse:

    When all the cards are down
    There’s nothing left to see
    There’s just the pavement left
    And broken dreams
    In the end there’s still that song
    Comes crying like the wind
    Down every lonely street
    That’s ever been

    Second verse to “Stella Blue” by the Grateful Dead.

    Here, our narrator again points out the lasting power of music, and how it remains even in the darkest of days. Hunter leads into this with observations about laying down the cards, suggesting you have “played your last hand”. One might say that “Stella Blue” is what happens when you “let that deal go down.”

    It is also implied that this man is homeless, wandering around with his busted guitar and playing music wherever somebody will let him.

    Garcia sings the chorus again, the drums pick up, and the intensity reaches its peak in the third verse:

    I’ve stayed in every blue-light cheap hotel
    Can’t win for trying
    Dust off those rusty strings just
    One more time
    Going to make ’em shine (shine)

    Third verse to “Stella Blue” by the Grateful Dead.

    Our narrator has likely been feeling lost and low for quite some time. He can’t catch a break, no matter how hard he tries, and he’s just stuck in these cheap hotels, with their blue lights blaring out onto the street before them.

    This is the life of a broke musician who is getting older, and hasn’t quite made it big time. His guitar has taken a beating, with strings rusted, but he picks up that beat-up old guitar one more time and heads out for yet another gig, or busking session. With his strings shined, nobody will ever notice how lost and depressed he’s been.

    As Garcia sings the “Dust off those rusty strings just one more time” lyric, he gives it all he’s got, and the tension breaks into the song’s first of two big guitar solos.

    Unwinding from the solo, we reach a quiet place for the fourth and final verse:

    It all rolls into one
    And nothing comes for free
    There’s nothing you can hold
    For very long
    And when you hear that song
    Come crying like the wind
    It seems like all this life
    Was just a dream

    Fourth verse to “Stella Blue” by the Grateful Dead.

    The lyrics here touch upon the impermanence of life, and how no matter how hard you try, everything will fade away eventually. It sounds almost cautionary, warning listeners about becoming too attached to things. This theme is a common thread running through many Grateful Dead songs (“Brokedown Palace”, for one), though it’s not often presented as hopelessly as it is in “Stella Blue”.

    Even as everything drifts away from you, and your life melts into a dream, the music remains. Thus, the song is not entirely without hope, as music is a beautiful thing to still have by your side in the final moments, even if it seems to be tormenting the narrator in “Stella Blue”.

    The song ends with one final chorus, wailed by Garcia, and the second big guitar solo to cap things off — played with varying levels of intensity over the years.

    Listen to the Wake of the Flood version of “Stella Blue” below, and check out some of my favorite (and other notable) live versions below that.

    “Stella Blue” (Wake of the Flood, 1973)

    “Stella Blue” Live Versions

    As one of the Grateful Dead’s most powerful live songs, it’s only natural that I would have a large number of versions to share here. This song is one that kept its luster even into the 90s, when Garcia’s health began to deteriorate rapidly, so we have countless excellent renditions to choose from, spanning over thirty years.

    Let me know in the comments if there are any versions I need to check out!

    “Stella Blue” (6/17/72)

    First time played, only time with Pigpen.

    “Stella Blue” (10/20/74)

    From the Grateful Dead Movie.

    “Stella Blue” (4/30/77)

    1977… enough said.

    “Stella Blue” (3/9/81)

    Really good version from Madison Square Garden in the early 80s. Included on the official release Madison Square Garden in 2022.

    “Stella Blue” (10/3/87)

    Nice late 80s rendition with video.

    “Stella Blue” (1/26/93)

    Featuring Carlos Santana.

    “Stella Blue” (7/6/95)

    The last one.

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