Lyrics: Donna Godchaux
Music: Donna Godchaux

There are two accounts of the origins of this song, both of which may be true.

One account is that it is about Rolling Thunder, the Cherokee Shaman, conducting a ceremony (which certainly fits with many of the lyrics). Jerilyn Lee Brandis noted that "he was a regular visitor at Mickey's ranch ... and while he was in residence, we got up for a sunrise ceremony every morning". (thanks to Tom Iaconetti for pointing me to that quote).

The other account is that it was written by Donna in memory of Rex Jackson, one of the Grateful Dead's crew (after whom the Rex Foundation is named).

Update: It seems both accounts are true. In an answer on Reddit in 2018, Donna Jean said:

"Sunrise is about my whole friendship with Rolling Thunder. And any Native American will know that when they hear it. If they don't, I wonder what planet they're on. The lyrics are very literal. They communicate a traditional sunrise service. The main sunrise service that is alluded or communicated to in the song Sunrise is Rex Jackson's memorial by Rolling Thunder in mine and Keith's backyard.
It was played regularly by the Grateful Dead in 1977 and 1978 (Donna left the band in early 1979).
Gazing at the fire
Burning by the water
Before he speaks, the world around us quiets
With eyes as sharp as arrows
And turning to the fire
He clears the air and cuts it with a feather

Many in a circle
Slowly round the fire
When he is gone, I want to know him better
No one is forsaken
No one is a liar
He plants the tree of life on our foreheads with water

He hums
There are drums
Four winds
Rising suns
We are singing and playing
I hear what he's saying
I remember breezes
From winds inside your body
Keep me high
Like I told you
I'll sing to them this story
And know why
Grateful Dead Recordings
     Date Album
     studio 1977 Terrapin Station
      9 May 1977 May 1977: Get Shown The Light Box
     12 May 1977 May 1977 Box Set
     17 May 1977 May 1977 Box Set
     22 May 1977 Dick's Picks Vol 3
     26 May 1977 Dave's Picks Volume 41
      8 Jun 1977 Winterland June 1977 - The Complete Recordings
      9 Jun 1977 Winterland June 1977 - The Complete Recordings
     2 Oct 1977 Dave's Picks Volume 45
     11 Oct 1977 Road Trips Volume 1, Number 2
      2 Nov 1977 30 Days Of The Dead (2015)
      4 Nov 1977 Dave's Picks Volume 12
      6 Nov 1977 Dave's Picks Volume 25
     15 Apr 1978 Dave's Picks Volume 37
Other Recordings
     Date Album Recorded By
     1999 Terrapin Joe Gallant and Illuminati
     2005 The 1000th Show Dark Star Orchestra

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 sheet music, see:
          Grateful Dead Anthology Volume 1 (piano arrangement)


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