China Doll

Lyrics: Robert Hunter
Music: Jerry Garcia

A pistol shot at five o'clock
The bells of heaven ring
Tell me what you done it for (note a)
"No I won't tell you a thing

"Yesterday I begged you
Before I hit the ground --
All I leave behind me
Is only what I found

"If you can abide it
Let the hurdy gurdy play
Stranger ones have come by here
Before they flew away

"I will not condemn you
Nor yet would I deny ..."
I would ask the same of you
But failing, will not die ...

Take up your china doll
It's only fractured --
Just a little nervous from the fall

La la la la la la la

Notes
(a) in the version on Dick's Picks 29 (19 May 1977) Jerry skips straight from "... bells of heaven ring" to the ending of the next verse "All I leave behind me ..." (thanks to Ian Shure for pointing this out)

Background

In a 1988 Hunter interview with Blair Jackson, they discussed the song:
[Hunter] I could tell you what "China Doll' means but I really wouldn't want to get into it. "A pistol shot at five o'clock the bells of heaven ring." Do you understand what that song's about?

[Jackson] I've always assumed it was about a literal or metaphorical suicide

[Hunter] Good, 'cause one of my original titles for it was "The Suicide Song." It's almost like a ghost voice: Tell me what you done it for/No I won't tell you a thing." It's a little dialogue like that. I don't know about love being in there. I think it's a terrifying song. And then it's also got some affirmation of how it can be mended somehow. There's a bit of metaphysical content in there which I kind of leave open, not that I subscribe or don't subscribe to it. At the time it resonated right. That song is eerie and very, very beautiful the way Jerry handles it.

[Jackson] I guess I've always sensed that there's another character there, literally or figuratively, who is empathising with the main character and understanding why it's happening and saying, in effect, "It's all right."

[Hunter] Well, yeah, sort of like a guardian angel. Who knows who or what that is? This is a dangerous area for me to be talking about -- the metaphysics of my lyrics. You don't want me to start passing judgments on this.

[Jackson] I'm sorry if this makes you uncomfortable.

[Hunter] It's fine up to a point, but I'd just as soon move away from the subject of lyric interpretation. ... I know to some degree what I intended there [in "China Doll"], or I know what some of the resonances in there seem to be to me, even if I can't put too good a logical head on it. It seemed right. I trusted it. I had to.
Grateful Dead Recordings
     Date Album
      2 Apr 1973 Dave's Picks Volume 21
     13 May 1973 Here Comes Sunshine
     26 May 1973 Here Comes Sunshine
      9 Jun 1973 Here Comes Sunshine
     (studio) 8 Aug 1973 Wake Of The Flood   (note 1)
     (studio) Apr 1974 From The Mars Hotel
     24 Jun 1973 Pacific Northwest '73-'74
      8 Sep 1973 Dave's Picks Volume 38
     29 Oct 1973 Listen To The River: St Louis '71 '72 73
      9 Nov 1973 Winterland 1973 - The Complete Recordings
     11 Nov 1973 Winterland 1973 - The Complete Recordings
     14 May 1974 Dave's Picks Volume 9
     17 May 1974 Pacific Northwest '73-'74
     21 May 1974 Pacific Northwest '73-'74
     18 Jun 1974 Road Trips Number 2, Volume 3
     19 Jul 1974 Dave's Picks Volume 17 (note 3)
     23 Jun 1974 30 Days Of The Dead (2015)
     31 Jul 1974 Dave's Picks Volume 2
     18 Sep 1974 30 Trips Around The Sun
     19 Oct 1974 Grateful Dead Movie (companion CD only)
     19 May 1977 Dick's Picks Vol 29 (note a)
     29 Dec 1977 Dick's Picks Vol 10
      9 Oct 1980 The Warfield, San Francisco, CA 10/9/80 & 10/10/80
     14 Oct 1980 Reckoning
     23 Oct 1980 Reckoning (note 2)
     30 Nov 1980 Dave's Picks Volume 8
     10 Mar 1981 In And Out Of The Garden
     31 Aug 1983 30 Days Of The Dead (2021) (note 4)
     11 Oct 1983 In And Out Of The Garden
     28 Apr 1985 Dave's Picks Vol 49
     19 Mar 1990 Spring 1990
     30 Mar 1990 Spring 1990
     16 Jun 1990 View From The Vault III (video/DVD & CD soundtrack)
     19 Jul 1990 Dave's Picks Volume 40
     17 Jun 1991 Giants Stadium 1987, 1989, 1991 Boxed Set (CD and DVD)
     25 Sep 1991 Dick's Picks Vol 17
     26 May 1993 Road Trips Vol 2, No 4
 
(Plus live recordings by The Dead, Furthur, Dead & Company, Ratdog, Phil Lesh & Friends etc not listed here. See Grateful Dead Family Discography for a full list.)
 
Other Recordings
     Date Album Recorded By
     1991 Deadicated Suzanne Vega
     1995 Monday Prayer To Tunkashila Pat Mallinger
     1996 Music Of The Grateful Dead David Murray Octet
     1999 Terrapin Joe Gallant & Illuminati
     2000 Crazy Fingers The Grass Is Dead
     2001 Gratefully Yours Jim Hudak
     2001 Gifts From The Dead Gifts From The Dead
     2002 Electronic Tribute To The Grateful Dead Various (H-Hustler - remix)
     2003 11th Purdymouth
     2005 Fortune and Death Radio Free Earth
      2007 Dead Symphony Lee Johnson
     2008 The Woodhaven Digest Vol 2 For Jerz
      2010 Portal Atomic Skunk
      2010 Single Lore Constantine
     2012 Beyong Further Beyind Further
     2013 The Tri Sessions, Vol. 1 Fog
     2015 Songs Of Their Own Billy Iuso festuring Todd Stoops
     2015 Dennis' Picks Volume One Dump
     2016 Better Left Unsung Holly Bowling
     2018 Garcia Songbook Joe Craven & The Sometimers
     2018 Dennis' Picks Volume One Dump
     2019 Dead Air Early Museum Access Project

(1) issued as a bonus track on the version in the box set Beyond Description (1973-1990)
(2) additional version issued as a bonus track in the box set Beyond Description (1973-1990)
(3) also included on Best Of The Grateful Dead Hour Vol 2.
(4) also released on 30 Days Of The Dead (2023).


Further Information
For an online discussion of the lyrics to this song see the deadsongs.vue conference on The Well.
For more information on recordings see Matt Schofield's Grateful Dead Family Discography
For information on references in the lyrics see David Dodd's Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics
For David Dodd's discussion of this song on dead.net see Greatest Stories Ever Told
For online chords and TAB see www.rukind.com
For sheet music, see:
          Grateful Dead Anthology Volume 2 (piano arrangement)
          Grateful Dead Songbook Volume 2 (piano arrangement)
          Grateful Dead (Guitar Superstar Series) (simplified guitar TAB)
          Garcia/Hunter Songbook (vocal line and chords/TAB)

 


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