My Brother Esau

Lyrics: John Barlow
Music: Bob Weir

My brother Esau killed a hunter
Back in nineteen sixty nine (note 10)
And before the killing was done
His inheritance was mine
But his birthright was a wand to wave (note 1)
Before a weary band
Esau gave me sleeplessness
And a piece of moral land

My father favoured Esau (note 2) (note 3)
Who was eager to obey
All the bloody wild commandments (note 11)
The old man shot his way
But all this favour ended when
My brother failed at war
He staggered home
And found me in the door (note 4)

Esau skates on mirrors any more (note 5)
Meets his pale reflection at the door
Yet sometimes at night I dream (note 6)
He's still that hairy man
Shadow boxing the apocalypse
And wandering the land
Shadow boxing the apocalypse
And wandering the land

Esau holds a blessing
Brother Esau holds a curse (note 7)
I would say that the blame is mine
But I suspect it's something worse (note 8)
The more my brother looks like me
The less I understand (note 9)
The silent war
That blooded both our hands

Sometimes at night (note 12)
I think I understand
Way late at night
Oh, I feel I understand
It's brother to brother
And it's man to man
And it's face to face
And it's hand to hand
The shadow dance
The silent war within
The shadow dance
Never ends, never ends, never ends
Shadow boxing the apocalypse
Yet again, yet again
Shadow boxing the apocalypse
And wandering the land
(1) I believe Weir once sang "When at first my brother walked away" here
(2) the sheet music has "Our father ..." but Barlow's lyrics have it as "My father ..." and that's what Weir sang
(3) the first version, on 25 March 1983, had a different second verse (thanks to Todd Prusin for pointing this out)
Esau tried to build a world
A marvelous disguise
Where every street is easy
And there's nothing to deny
And although he gave me all his cards
I could not play his hand
I made a choice
That soon became a stand
(4) the sheet music has "... at the door" but Barlow's lyrics have " the door." Weir sang both versions
(5) in place of these two lines, Weir sometimes sang
Esau, he's on rollerskates today
Selling real estate to someone in LA

or (from 14 July 1985: thanks to Todd Prusin)

Esau he's on rollerskates today
He gets around the darkside of town, way down around LA

or (from 10 Apr 1984):
Esau he's in real estate today
And he gets around, nightime down, down around L.A.

Weir revived the song playing with members of The National in the Bridge Sessions at TRI Studios in March 2012. Thanks to David Gans for the info. Weir commented:

"It was the National's idea. I had to finally address the [lyrics of] the bridge, which was why I stopped doing it back when."

The new bridge is:

Esau won't miss his birthright anyway
Ain't like it's worth all that much today
(6) the sheet music wrongly has "But sometimes at night ..."
(7) this is what Weir sings, and the sheet music has, but Barlow's lyric site has "Brother Esau bears a curse"
(8) the sheet music has "I suspected something worse". I think that's probably another mistake, though it's very hard to distinguish the two in Weir's singing.
(9) Weir sometimes sang "the more I understand," eg on 30 December 1986 (thanks to Brian Schnapp for this)
(10) When revived in 2012, Weir sang "back in 1959" in the version with members of The National, and "in the year 20009" in the version with Furthur
(11) on at least one occasion (1984-04-10) Weir sang "All the weird commandments."
(12) The version here is as on "In The Dark." Live versions differed in this last semi-ad-lib section.

Here's the version from 28 October 1985:
Sometimes at night
I think I understand
[Well late] at night
Oh feel that I understand
It's never ending, never yet began
Never begin
Fighting a war neither one could ever win
Never win
Brother to brother
And the man is
Hand to hand
Never win, never win
Shadow boxing the apocalypse
Shadow boxing the apocalypse
Shadow boxing the apocalypse
And wandering the land
Shadow boxing the apocalypse
And wandering the land
Shadow boxing the apocalypse
And wandering the land
Another variant for the start of this ad lib (thanks to Ben Anderson):
The older I get, the closer I get
The more I think I understand
Grateful Dead Recordings
     Date Album
     10 Apr 1983 30 Days Of The Dead (2017)
     26 Apr 1983 Dave's Picks Volume 39
     4 Sep 1983 30 Days Of The Dead (2022)
     12 Oct 1983 In And Out Of The Garden
     21 Oct 1983 30 Trips Around The Sun (note b)
     14 Apr 1984 30 Days Of The Dead (2010) (note c)
     20 Apr 1984 Dave's Picks Volume 35
     23 Jun 1984 30 Days Of The Dead (2023)
     27 Apr 1985 Dave's Picks Vol 49
     24 Jun 1985 30 Trips Around The Sun (note e)
     31 Mar 1986 30 Days Of The Dead (2014)
     studio 1987 In The Dark (note a)
     26 Mar 1987 Dave's Picks Volume 36
     24 Jul 1987 View From The Vault IV (DVD & CD soundtrack)
     16 Sep 1987 30 Days Of The Dead (2021) (note d)
      3 Oct 1987 View From The Vault III (DVD & CD soundtrack)
Bob Weir Recordings
     Date Album Recorded By
     Jun 2021 Live In Colorado Bob Weir & Wolf Bros
Covers By Other Artists
     Date Album Recorded By
     Jun 2021 Everywhere: The Dead Sessions Lureto

(a) released as the B-side of the "Touch Of Grey" single, and on the cassette version of "In The Dark", but not on LP nor on the US-released CD.
(b) also on the compilation 30 Trips Around The Sun: The Definitive Live Story 1965-1995
(c) also on 30 Days Of The Dead (2015)
(d) also on 30 Days Of The Dead (2023)
(e) also on 30 Days Of The Dead (2013)

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 see Greatest Stories Ever Told
For online chords and TAB see
For sheet music, see:
          In The Dark Songbook (piano arrangement)


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