Boots were made of leather, a breath of cologne;
Her mirror was a window she sat by alone.
All around her the garden grew
Scarlet and purple and crimson and blue.
She came dead, she went and at last went away.
The garden was sealed when the flowers decayed.
On the wall of the garden a legend did say
No one may come here, since no one may stay.
The Grateful Dead are known for drawing on folk Americana for many of their songs. But the psychedelic period was open to old English folk forms, and Aoxomoxoa, uncharacteristically for the group, sometimes draws from Elizabethan sounding melodies. Rosemary is a case in point, where the same melody, played simply on acoustic guitar, wraps around couplets until released as delicate guitar picking. Unfortunately, the vocal track is muddy (even after the 1971 remix) because Garcia’s voice is run through a Leslie organ cabinet which causes him to sound (as many online have pointed out) like a bleating sheep. (John Lennon had first run his voice through a Leslie speaker on the Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows. Afterward Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream and Pink Floyd had run their electric guitars though a Leslie speaker rather than voices.) The inattention to the vocal track is made evident by the fact that Garcia mumbles the first line of the song, so that the first word the listener can make out is “leather”. Still, the words and music go together wonderfully to create a mood of “bittersweet security” (as Matthew Greenwald called it in his allmusic review). Garcia enhances the loneliness of the tale by pausing gracefully between each verse.
Robert Hunter, by his own admission, at this time was more a poet than a songwriter. By the time of Workingman’s Dead (1970) he had been studying American folk song writing, but most of the inspiration for Rosemary seems to have come from literature. The initial lyric is said to have been much longer, but Garcia cut it back in order to make it mysterious and evocative. Therefore, as reported by the Grateful Dead Guide online, listeners have filled in the story line with precedents such as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Rappaccini’s Daughter, about an alluring but toxic young lady in a garden of poisonous plants; Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott, in which a lady pines alone in her walled isle while gazing at a mirror; and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Sensitive Plant, of a lady who tends a garden that dies when she dies. Others have suggested that the lyric picks up on the psychedelic fascination with childhood and innocence, and expresses melancholy that the sense of community that had made the Summer of Love so special was being sapped by corruption of the spirit. The sort of trusting camaraderie felt among hippies in the early days of the Haight-Ashbury scene had become inaccessible by 1969. The Summer of 1969 is remembered for Woodstock, and Joni Mitchells’ plea that “We’ve got to get back to the garden!” Already there was a feeling that the Summer of Love had been Eden from which a generation had been cast out.