Concert of the week in Grateful Dead history: May 11, 1977 (Listen Now)

If ever I return, all your cities I will burn.

Destroy all the people in the area-o.


By The Deadhead Cyclist

For Week


With all of the attention given to the Boston/Ithaca/Buffalo trilogy of shows, it’s easy to overlook some of the other gems of the Spring ’77 tour. During the week of May 14th, Deadheads were treated to five wonderful shows by “Uncle John’s Band,” playing by the riverside (or lake, as the case may be) in the Midwest cities of St. Paul, Chicago and St. Louis, before heading south to Tuscaloosa, Alabama. While every show this week was first-rate, the May 11th show in St. Paul shines above the rest for T.W.I.G.D.H. (This Week In Grateful Dead History).

A typical first set takes a magical turn with the eighth tune, Peggy-O. I’ve heard some exquisite renditions of this song, starting with the you-could-hear-a-pin-drop version I witnessed at Winterland on June 17, 1975, but this one may be the most heart-melting of all. Based on a traditional Scottish folk tune, The Bonnie Lass o’Fyvie, this is perhaps the best example in the Grateful Dead canon of truly making a cover tune their own. 

As I rode out to “Fennario” (the foothills adjacent to my home in Boulder, Colorado) on my mountain bike recently while listening to the St. Paul show, I was struck by the sudden changes in direction this story takes. William-O, the protagonist captain of a troop of soldiers, is about to march off to war when he falls in love with the beautiful, young Peggy-O. To win her over, he promises her the Earth, the Moon and the Stars, if she will marry him. Rejected for his lack of positive cash flow, our emotionally wounded soldier does an about face and vows to return one day, exact revenge and “destroy all the people in the area-O.” In the end, however, William-O demonstrates his true heroic nature by giving his life to save “a maid,” as the story tragically ends.

Earlier, I referred to a wonderful book by Miguel Ruiz, called The Four Agreements. Its principles serve as a guidebook for dealing with life’s deepest challenges. Unquestionably, the loss of a love has us diving into the deep end of the pool of life’s greatest tests, and how we respond surely serves to define us. Reviewing the Four Agreements suggests that William-O may not have aced the test he faced when spurned by the object of his affection.

Although I recommend all four of these agreements (and the entire book) as a de facto instruction manual for life, only the first two come into play in the story of The Bonnie Lass o’ Fyvie. Clearly, William-O took the rejection personally. He was deeply hurt by the suggestion that his monetary value, or lack thereof, made him unsuitable in the eyes of his beloved. But if he had followed Agreement #2 – Don’t Take Anything Personally – he would have realized that Peggy-O’s assessment was not about him at all, revealing her values, not his worthiness. I have also seen this principle conveyed as: “What other people think of you is none of your business”

But where the psychological evaluation of our unwitting client truly takes form is with respect to Agreement #1: Be Impeccable With Your Word. Out of a place of hurt, we have a very human tendency to say things we don’t mean. In this case, being the soldier that he was, William-O threatened to return from war and engage in a revengeful campaign of destruction. Nevertheless, the tragic conclusion to the story, in which he gave his life to protect another, proves, of course, that he spoke out of anger and said something decidedly out of character.

William-O represented himself as a violent, vindictive soldier, when in fact he was a self-sacrificing, loving man.

The reason the first agreement is so important is twofold. First, words are a powerful expression of our intentions. It’s critical to understand the way in which we become defined – within ourselves and in the eyes of others – by the words we speak. Saying something we don’t really mean is a misrepresentation of ourselves, which leads to the creation of a false persona. William-O represented himself as a violent, vindictive soldier, when in fact he was a self-sacrificing, loving man.

The second thing about words is that once spoken they can never be erased. Apologies, explanations, even subsequent deeds aside, all who heard his threats of destruction will be more likely to breathe a sigh of relief at his death than to praise him as a hero once he was “buried in the Louisiana country-O.”

Regardless of the time or circumstances, we all meet the same fate as the star of our personal story. And even if what others think of us is, indeed, none of our business, what we think of ourselves will be paramount at the end of the day. More importantly, as we travel through the final chapters of our life it becomes increasingly important that we live in a way that is authentic. Being impeccable in what we say is one of the most fundamental components of authenticity.

Plus, practicing this principle leads to a happier, more fulfilling life. Instead of angry, insincere threats of retaliation, what if William-O had said something like this?

If ever I return, pretty Peggy-O

If ever I return, pretty Peggy-O

If ever I return, your loving I will earn

Become the best husband in the area-O

 My guess is that Peggy-O’s heart would have melted at hearing those words. And she would most likely have gone home to her mama and convinced her that the love of her soulmate meant more to her than all the guineas in the world. Of course, it’s unlikely to have changed the ending of the story, but it’s the journey in life that really matters, given that the end is already known.


Concert of the week in Grateful Dead history: May 11, 1977 (Listen Now)

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