Scarlet Begonias

Album: From The Mars Hotel (1974)
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Songfacts®:

  • The song was written by Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter and guitarist/vocalist Jerry Garcia. It's a fan favorite that the band performed 316 times in concert, first on March 23, 1974 at the Cow Palace in Daly City, California, and last on July 2, 1995 at Deer Creek Music Center in Noblesville, Indiana.

    The song is about a chance encounter with a woman. A game of cards is used as a metaphor for their flirtations. By the end, we're left with meditations of the cosmic and existential.
  • The opening line ("As I was walking round Grosvenor Square") places the song in Britain in two different ways: Grosvenor Square is a park in London's Mayfair district, and the traditional start for British ballads and nursery rhymes is "as I was walking."
  • In 1978, Robert Hunter said that the song was originally many pages long and was titled "Bristol Girls."

    According to White Gum, Hunter expanded on this idea in 2004 when talking to Blair Jackson, explaining that "Scarlet Begonias" was about his girlfriend Maureen, who later became his wife. She was in England, and Hunter would often make the journey from America to see her. Originally, the song went:

    Look all around this whole wide world
    You'll find nothing stranger than a Bristol girl


    The character in the song makes a run for it ("I was closing the door"), but Hunter didn't: He and Maureen were married in 1992.
  • She was too pat to open and too cool to bluff

    In poker, you get a "pat hand" when you draw cards so good that you don't need to draw anymore. So, the implication in the song seems to be that Hunter and the woman have reached a standstill in their game.

    At this point, Hunter decides to take his stake ("as I picked up my matches") and leave. This is when he is struck with déjà vu and, in the next verse, transitions into some cosmic meditations about life, chance, and the way "you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right." The easy come, easy go nature of the encounter seems to flash some kind of deeper understanding of the ways of the universe.
  • The wind in the willows played Tea for Two

    The most likely association of "wind in the willows" is with the Kenneth Grahame book from 1908. It would be fitting. In the preface for a 1959 edition of the book, Frances Clarke Sayers wrote, "On the surface, it is an animal story concerned with the small creatures of field and wood and river bank. Aside from their ability to talk, and a brief interlude of mysticism in which the great god of nature makes his presence known, it is a world of reality like that of the fable... It is a prose poem spoken in praise of the commonplace; a pastoral set in an English landscape which sings the grace of English life and custom. But it is something more. The tragedy inherent in all life is here, the threat of evil' and the great mysteries are touched upon."

    It could also be a reference to "Blueberry Hill" by Al Lewis, Larry Stock, and Vincent Rose. That song has the lyrics "the wind in the willow played Love's sweet melody."

    "Tea for Two" is a song written in 1924 by Vincent Youmans and Irving Caeasar. It was first played in the Broadway musical No, No, Nanette.
  • The Dead would often play the song as a medley with "Fire On The Mountain."
  • When Keith and Donna Jean Godchaux left the Dead in 1980, they took their name Heart of Gold Band from this song's closing line: "Everybody's playing in the Heart of Gold Band."
  • In 2004, Jimmy Buffet recorded a version for his album License to Chill.

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