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Saint Stephen, written by Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia, is a song by the Grateful Dead which first appeared on record on 1968's Aoxomoxoa, and has remained a major part of The Dead's live repertoire ever since. Saint Stephen is partly about the St. Stephen, and partly about (pardon the pun) "soul-searching" in general. According to the Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics site, Robert Hunter confirmed that the song is about St. Stephen, but some of the lyrics are clearly symbolic of him if you know a little about his life and works.

St. Stephen was an early martyr of Christianity, as outlined in the New Testament Book of Acts, specifically Chapters 6 and 7. He was a deacon in the early church in Israel, one of seven ordained by the twelve apostles to serve the needy and preach to the masses. He was an inspiring preacher, and worked many miracles and converted many to Christianity. As a consequence, he had many enemies among the Jews who did not believe that Christ was the messiah. Eventually, he was falsely accused of blasphemy, but during his trial he gave a stirring defense of the idea of Jesus as Lord and Savior, and at the end Stephen had a vision of Heaven with Jesus Christ standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7:55). His enemies closed their ears, removed him from the court and had him stoned to death. Upon his death, he prayed that God would not punish those who had murdered him.


Saint Stephen, with a rose
In and out of the garden he goes
Country garden in the wind and the rain
Wherever he goes, the people all complain

Stephen prosper in his time
Well he may and he may decline
Did it matter? Does it now?
Stephen would answer if he only knew how

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

Bridge:
Lady finger dipped in moonlight
Writing "what for?" across the morning sky
Sunlight splatters dawn with answers
Darkness shrugs and bids the day good-bye
Speeding arrow, sharp and narrow
What a lot of fleeting matters you have spurned
Several seasons, with their treasons
Wrap the babe in scarlet covers, call it your own

Did he doubt or did he try?
Answers aplenty in the bye and bye
Talk about your plenty, talk about your ills
One man gathers what another man spills

Saint Stephen will remain
All he lost he shall regain
Seashore washed in the suds and the foam
Been there so long he's got to calling it home

Fortune comes a crawlin', Calliope woman
Spinning that curious sense of your own
Can you answer? Yes I can,
but what would be the answer to the answer man?


The song starts off with "Saint Stephen with a rose," and red roses are symbolic of martyrdom. One could perhaps take the line "In and out of the garden he goes" as suggestive of his work with the needy, and the world being a garden where the converted might grow. But the last line of the first verse is also indicative of Stephen, specifically the complaints about him by his enemies. The third ("Wishing well...") verse could be a metaphor for rescuing souls from damnation. The sixth ("Did he doubt...") is suggestive of Stephen's ascension to heaven, but ambiguous about whether it could be achieved through faith or through good works. The last line "One man gathers what another man spills" is possibly a reference to Stephen's successful proselytizing among the poor and disenfranchised.

Hunter usually weaves multiple meanings into his songs (e.g. references to the American Revolution in Franklin's Tower) and the relation of some of the lyrics to the life of St. Stephen is unclear, if there is any. It is probably as much about finding one's own right path in life as it is about St. Stephen himself.


Beyond the lyrics given above, there is an additional verse which includes another garden reference, perhaps indicative of Stephen's role as cultivator of souls (particularly the second couplet):

High green chilly winds and windy vines in 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 about the barren lack of rain and droop so hungry 'neath the sky?
Underfoot the ground is patched with climbing arms of ivy
Wrapped around the Manzanita -- stark and shiny in the breeze...

However, the verse above ends with a line about William Tell, the meaning of which seems related more to the theme of social change, and has no bearing (I assume?) on the life of St. Stephen:

William Tell has stretched his bow till it won't stretch no further
And when he will release it, will it pare the apple core?

or in later versions

William Tell has stretched his bow till it won't stretch no further
And it will require a change that hasn't come before.

This verse was not recorded on Aoxomoxoa, and is structured very differently from the rest of the song. It was played live prior to 1969, as part of the St. Stephen>The Eleven suite. An excellent version appears on Two From The Vault, recorded on August 23-24, 1968. Although it does not appear on any studio recording, it is definitely a part of Saint Stephen as originally written by Robert Hunter. The Dead resurrected (oh, bad pun) the Saint Stephen>The Eleven suite (including the "High Green" section) during their summer tour in 2003.

Going back to St. Stephen himself, his feast day is December 26, and he is the patron saint of Stonemasons.

Sources: AGDL, saints.catholic.org, and my copy of Two From the Vault.

Lyrics by Robert Hunter, music by Jerry Garcia, copyright Ice Nine Publishing Company, Inc. (Complete lyrics added at the request of fuzzy and blue, who originally noded them separately.)

CST Approved

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