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Madwoman in the attic: Grateful Dead's "Bertha"

If music is the sound of emotions, then lyrics are its consciousness. I like my lyrics to be clever, catchy, and highly evocative. They don't have to make much sense as long as they capture a feeling or idea. When the lyrics are really good, it is poetry.

Robert Hunter's lyrics are clearly poetry. As the Grateful Dead's primary lyricist, he's responsible for many of their iconic lines, some of which have entered the public lexicon. "What a long strange trip" instantly comes to mind. Hunter's lyrics make allusions to a broad range of historical, literary, and folklorist topics. Meaning, in a Robert Hunter penned song, pretty much anything is possible. Discovering these literary allusions is one the many delights of Deadheadness.

illustration credit: Kate O'Keefe

With this in mind, I'd like to shine a light on the Hunter/Garcia tune, "Bertha." A popular set opener, especially in the early '70s, "Bertha" is a catchy song with a very sing-alongable chorus, "Bertha don't you come around here anymore!" True to Hunter's iconoclastic spirit, the song evades definitive interpretation, but many theories have arisen as to the song's inspiration. An oft-repeated tale tells of a large ventilator fan in the Grateful Dead offices that would shuffle across the room when turned on high. Although there indeed appears to have been a large screen-less fan named Bertha that would move and ominously chase people around the Dead's office, it was named after the song, not the other way around. I've also been recently made aware of a very credible reference to Lady Chatterley's Lover.

For me, this song has always conjured up one person: Bertha Mason, the insane, locked away wife of Edward Rochester from Charlotte Brontë's 1847 novel, Jane Eyre. In the novel, the eponymous Jane falls in love with Edward and they wish to marry. Only problem is that Edward is already married. Not only that, his wife whom he describes as a "hideous demon" is locked away in the third floor of his estate, Thornfield Hall, due to her violent outbursts. 

The song is essentially a singer's lament that he can't get away from someone named Bertha. "I had a hard run / Running from your window / I was all night running / I wonder if you care?" The window represents a symbolic albatross around Rochester, from which he can't escape. Because he by all appearances married Bertha in good faith and she has gone mad after the wedding, according to 19th century English jurisprudence this did not provide him legitimate grounds for divorce.

To escape his miserable predicament, Rochester travels often, "I had to move / Really had to move / That's why if you please / I am on my bended knees / Bertha don't you come around here anymore." Despite Rochester's best efforts, he can't escape his past. Sometimes, Bertha's caretaker, Grace Poole, gets drunk and Bertha is able to escape her confinement, once setting Rochester's bed on fire. "Turned around to see / Heard a voice calling / You was coming after me." In the end of the novel, you might remember, Bertha sets Thornfield Hall alight, herself dying the flames.

When Jane Eyre arrives to Thornfield as governess and soon falls in love with Rochester, she knows nothing about Bertha's existence or the fact that Rochester is married. When Richard Mason, Bertha's brother, arrives at their wedding and accuses Rochester of the crime of bigamy ("test me, test me / why don't you arrest me?"), the terrible secret is fully exposed, nullifying Jane's and Edward's wedding. 

For his part, Hunter has suggested the following, "Bertha, I think, is probably some vaguer connotation of birth, death and reincarnation. Cycle of existences, some kind of such nonsense like that. I wouldn't be surprised, but then again, it might not be. I don't remember." 

I fully realize my reading is a bit of a reach, and in all candor, the allusion to Bertha Coutts, Oliver Mellors' estranged wife from Lady Chatterley's Lover is also quite convincing. The numerous possible inspirations speak to the song's evocative power. Still, in my view the lamenting lyrics align closer with Brontë's psychological novel. The succession of images from running from a window, to being chased, to feeling there's no escape, and even arrest, displays striking parallels to the events in the novel when taken from Rochester's perspective.


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