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The Saga of Pepote Rouge

[Peter Viney]  Notes by Peter Viney

Thanks to Little John Tyler, Ragtime Willie, Greg Duns & Donald Joseph for comments on the song. Copyright © Peter Viney 1998

"The Saga of Pepote Rouge"
Written by Robbie Robertson
From "Islands (1977)

The Lyrics

I set out to write notes on The Saga of Pepote Rouge as a 'request' after Little John Tyler posted an enquiry on the Guestbook. It's not one I'd have chosen, but as I intend to do them all eventually, it might as well come next. It's a song I had never given a great deal of thought to. I noticed it quoted as a favourite on the Guestbook. It was also noted as a favourite by someone on the CrippleCreek mail-list.

First of, we have a problem with lyrics. There is no Songbook this time, so the words on the site are transcribed. They're a way better job than the Toshiba-EMI remaster lyric sheet, but I still don't think they're entirely accurate.

Rob Bowman
The album does have its moments. Rick sings one more cryptic tale of mythology.

And Barney Hoskyns reviews it with the same single word, cryptic. After a thorough listen to the lyrics I began to wish I’d never started it. Someone asked if there was a historical or mythological figure called Pepote Rouge. A netsearch and Encylopaedia search indicates that the name was invented for the song. Robbie seems to have visited every area of mythology in a kind of Jupiter Hollow Part Two mix ‘n’ match style.

Greg Duns
I have always been somewhat perplexed by what appears to be the use of mixed images/symbolisms, i.e. what I perceive as some tribe of North American Indians (what tribe I have no idea, but they appear to be oppressed, or in need of leadership, as supplied by the great sage & survivor Pepote Rouge) meets Eastern Mystiscism (avatars) with a dose of Hirth Martinez (i.e. references to spaceships) thrown in for good measure. A real mixed up confusion!

The World tour goes like this:

Viking: it’s the saga of Pepote Rouge. A saga can be based on legend or myth, but more often adds mythological elements to a story based on around a historical figure.

Western European: It’s a legend of a lady on a mountain, as well as a saga.

Middle-Eastern / Arabian Nights: the lady lives alone beyond the Mecca plain. 3 Now beyond Mecca (looking from a Western perspective) is desert. But then again, Iraq, Iran and India also lie further in this direction. I suspect 'Mecca plain' was just a quick, and probably thoughtless, reference to place the story in the Middle East. Most of the Arabian Nights stories take place in the vicinity of Baghdad, or the Arabian / Persian Gulf. Mecca is in the Sirat mountains, reached by a pass. There is a plain between the mountains and the Red Sea, but it isn't referred to as the 'Mecca Plain'. But Richmond didn't fall on May 10th either 4 , and this isn't a travel guide. But if she lives beyond the plain that lies between Mecca and the sea, she lives in the mountains, and she's a lady on a mountain.

Ragtime Willie
Does "Beyond the Mecca plain" mean 'beyond the plain of holy worship'?

This figures with the religious images that follow, perhaps it's a different 'plane' of worship or of being. The sacred Ka'aba at Mecca is surrounded by a flat area which is circled by the hadjis or pilgrims. This might be a plain too.

The fact that she’s a lady on a mountain reminds me of the Old Man of the Mountain, who ran things around the Middle-East at the time of the Arabian Nights tales, with his band of assassins. The word comes from hashish-in, as the Old Man kept his assassins under control with copious amounts of the substance. He was aided in this onerous task by a number of beautiful houris, thus giving them visions of paradise on Earth. This is the paradise they would arrive in if they died in his service. He lived somewhere in the Lebanon.

Hindu: The ‘mother of the Earth’ (Hindu) is carved in stone, the queen of avatars. 6 An avatar is the incarnation of a deity in Earthly form, and comes from the ten incarnations of the Hindu god, Vishnu. That’s the direct meaning, but it has also come to mean the embodiment of a concept or a philosophy in a single person. But this would seem to be the direct meaning. The carving has avatars with the Mother-Goddess. In Hindu mythology the mother-goddess is Jaganmata, a form of the female principle as mother of the Earth. She is similar to the Greek goddess, Gaea, the earth-mother. Gaea gave birth to the race of Gods and the human race. I can't find any reference to "seventy children (who) were given birth" in either myth. 7

Greek: Gaea was the object of worship (among others) at the Delphic Oracle (as mentioned in Jupiter Hollow). The priestess of the oracle had visions, which held the key to the future:

She had a vision, and now she holds the key

The Hindu and Greek myths both are linked to the female deity, the mother goddess. Like goddesses in both religions, her initial apparition is seductive:

I was stranded on (the damn / a dim / a damned / a damp) coast when a lady
called to me in a voice so soft and low

The lyrics posted on the site have "on the damn coast' . The Toshiba-EMI remasters have "on a dim coast". I used to hear 'a damp' or 'a dank' coast, which sounds like India. The only logical one, for a hellbound people is 'on a damned coast.' After repeated listenings, most unusually, I think that the Japanese transcriber is right. It's on a dim coast, a coast without light. A coast is somewhere where you're sidelined, beyond the Light (of her message, truth, God whatever). So the first person narration is from someone outside the light.

But though the voice is seductive, the message is spiritual and powerful:

Her words resounded like a fountain of truth
And then she faded like a rainbow

Chariots of the Gods: Spacemen walked the Earth and left their symbols on ancient carvings. Erich von Daniken’s work 8 was at its peak in the mid 70s, spawning a series of books. So we get

Her golden spaceship with the Mother of the Earth
carved in stone, the queen of avatars
where seventy children were given birth
she then returned back to the stars

The song reminded Greg Duns of Hirth From Earth, an album produced by Robertson. Von Daniken liked to illustrate his ideas with blurred photographs of ancient carvings, which puported to show people in spaceships next to the gods. Notice that after giving multiple birth, the mother of earth returned back to the stars. The sequel to Chariots of The Gods was called Return to the Stars. 10 The author ended up in a Swiss prison on an unconnected charge of fraud. It was a convincing "Wow! These Indian dance costumes are really meant to be spacesuits" sort of read, and those of us who were around in the early 70s can hardly criticize Robertson for continuing the story.

Cajun: Pepote Rouge sounds like she’s from Louisiana. Is this just because the name echoes ‘Baton Rouge’ (or in prosaic English “red post”)? Or is it the French rouge ? And rouge is face make-up:

Ragtime Willie
She's a radiant, mysterious lady, a phantome, but what about her name? Pepote "Rouge" reminds me of the "madams" in whorehouses in western movie towns. Am I right or am I right? 11

Native-American: why rouge? Red. Pepote red. It links to the idea of a saga. Eric the Red reached America in the sagas. But it also links to the idea of Red Indian. Redboy. Or in this case Red Girl. The Cherokee had a god of thunder called 'Red Man'. Greg Duns (above) pictured a Native American tribe, presumably from the name. After all there was a tribe fashionably called the Nez Percé.

Arthurian: The idea of a saviour hidden away in the rocks or in the mountains, who will one day return and save the people is common to many myths and religions. Sometimes there is a spiritual level - the Messiah will return. Sometimes it's a hero of old who will return (King Arthur).

Biblical: I get the feeling of a city awaiting retribution, looking for a saviour to lead them from their evil ways:

We stand accused, Pepote Rouge
of being hellbound

and later:

Pepote Rouge come down from the mountain
and lead our people into the light of day
For they are lost and know not where they're going
And all their leaders are cast in clay

This evokes the Sodom and Gomorrah story of a town setting itself against God (standing accused of being hellbound). The people need to be led into the light (a Biblical symbol). The narrator is on a dim coast, outside this light. The people are lost, and all their leaders are cast in clay. There is a double reference here. The baddies in the Bible tended to run off and cast graven images whenever given half the chance. The "golden calf" has appeared in Band lyrics before. But leaders who are cast in clay refers also to political leaders. The song post-dates the Watergate / Nixon resignation era, where leaders were seen to have feet of clay 12 . So the people Pepote Rouge is coming to save are the American people. The mood of the time is this:

Now disbelief and mass confusion
Spreading wild across the land …

Ragtime Willie
In the next strophe ("Now disbelief") everybody is wildly confused, Ragtime included. It seems to me that Pepote Rouge did NOT come down from the mountain out of 'love' or 'wisdom'. ("You can call it love or call it wisdom / To be NOT savin' a drowning man"). What did I miss? Here Robertson lost me. Does it mean that everybody has to find out for himself where to stand in life? Without the helping hand of gurus?

I guess the people could be like the drowning man. I think that the lyrics on the site are wrong here too. The site has:

You can call it love or call it wisdom
To be not saving a drowning man

But I'm sure it's actually:

You can call it love or call it wisdom
To be a god saving a drowning man

Which would mean that she is acting out of love or wisdom, which is much more reasonable than avoiding saving the drowning man.

She can show us just where we went wrong
You don't know where you're goin' til you find where you belong

So the lady will be a spiritual guide. In the mood of the brown album, you don't know where you're going till you find out where you belong. The meaning of the future can only be found in the past.

Americana: This is Robertson, so Pepote Rouge is comin' to town. That immediately sounds American, Wild-West even. 'Look out, Marshall, the Smith Boys are comin' to town!' 14 The effect is emphasized by the shift in the chorus to Levon's American voice. The lady might live in Arabian mountains, but

and with her hands she makes it through the winter …

This sounds like a pioneer lady in the wilderness. Come to think of it, the Saudi mountains aren't renowned for the harshness of their winters. In that latitude you tend to dry season and (in this case) not-quite-so-dry season rather than summer and winter.

Dylanology: One clear reference:

You don't know what you want
Till you find out what you need

So, that is a reversal, conscious or not, of Stuck Inside of Mobile:

Your debutante just knows what you need
but I know what you want …

Buddhism / Spirituality:

Ragtime Willie
In my opinion this is a song about solitude versus mass confusion. Only in retreat will we find the answers to the questions of life. "To be someone is to be someone alone" seems to me the key line of the whole song. Some mysteries remain. I'm not sure whether they are deliberate or just a by-product of RR's ambition to be a great poet.

The important verse quoted here goes:

To be someone is to be someone alone
To be someone is known as solitude
To learn to sing below the surface
You must adjust your altitude

to learn to sing means, I imagine, to learn to fly, to learn your spiritual side below the surface illusion of the real world, which starts to sound Buddhist. I think it is in fact To learn to see below the surface. To do this, you must adjust your altitude, which again sounds Buddhist or Early Christian, you must humble yourself. I'd heard it must be just your altitude which does not make as much sense.

So, what's the song about? If I had to write a synopsis, I'd try refusing first, but if forced:

There's a legendary lady who is the potential saviour of a nation torn by disbelief and confusion. The lady is a visionary, linked to legend and a variety of religions, which may all go back to a common space intervention. She is going to return and save the people. The people are hellbound, led by leaders with feet of clay. She is saving them because it is her destiny to do so.

The Music

Lead vocal: Rick Danko
Chorus: Levon

Levon's voice has something gloriously Old Testament about it, which was utilised in Gimme A Stone from Largo.

Though the song has lyrical similarities with Jupiter Hollow, Garth Hudson clearly spent less time sweetening the final results. Melodically it reminds me of The Band's contributions to the official Basement Tapes. Sort of generic Band. It opens with a lovely soft flurry of drums, and is accented throughout by Robbie's guitar and Garth's organ. When I think back over the original material on Islands, it's the second most memorable tune (after Christmas Must Be Tonight). Donald Joseph pointed us to the ending:

Donald Joseph
I believe the jam at the end of "Pepote Rouge" the last 90 seconds or so of the song, is the greatest pure instrumental jam the Band ever recorded in the studio. Reminiscent of the Brown album, the jam is not a stage for soloists; it is a funky groove arising from the five guys jamming as a single unit, with no solos. I know it sounds heretical to point to a minor cut from a minor l.p. (& a break-up l.p. at that), & claim it's the Band's best jam as a cohesive unit, but go listen to it before you say I'm exaggerating.

Ragtime Willie
And then that wonderful jam at the end. I second Donald. But it is not confused at all. This is not an 'at random' improvisation like the Watkins Glen jam, but an integrated part of the song.

Everybody gets a decent flourish in the last piece, but the most prominent aspect is the guitar.


Studio album



To Kingdom Come
Across The Great Divide
The Collection
(Castle Communications)

There are no live versions at all to my knowledge (which makes transcribing the lyrics more difficult). It came too late in their career, released after they'd packed it in. Danko could do it solo, but as it never had major impact, there'd be little reason for either him or the current Band to do so.


  1. Rob Bowman, sleeve notes to 'To Kingdom Come'
  2. Guestbook, 15 December 1998
  3. See below. Erich von Daniken found one of his pieces of evidence for the "astronauts as God" theory in caves in the Deccan plateau in India. The song is definitely "Mecca plain' - but maybe he misheard it!
  4. 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' has Richmond falling on May 10th (erroneously).
  5. Guestbook, 16 December 1998 - Ragtime noted the lack of capitals for 'Mecca' but as this is a transcription, I think that's simply an error by the transcribers.
  6. See the Toshiba-EMI remaster. The often hilarious lyrics have this as "between the minotaurs" which brings in Greece. But there was only one minotaur. And other gems include " Break the news Before the Rouge is coming to town" and "Where there's a lull beyond the Mecca plain" as well as "Oh, Bonny Rouge come down from the mountain"
  7. The Toshiba-EMI remaster has "where seventy children were giving birth", but "where seventy children were given birth", though clumsy, makes more sense. Just.
  8. Erich Von Daniken, 'Chariots of The Gods: Was God an astronaut?' 1969, which spawned a series of sequels.
  9. I'd always heard it as 'between the avatars' but carefully listening indicates the lyrics on the site are correct - the queen of avatars.
  10. Erich von Daniken, 'Return to The Stars' 1970
  11. Guestbook, 20 December 1998
  12. Maybe this is why we seem to be paying attention to this song again in late 1998.
  13. Guestbook, 16 December 1998
  14. I choose the name 'Smith' in deference to the American preference for English villains. The Pharoah gets an English accent in 'Prince of Egypt' and the evil Mr Big is English in 'Rush Hour'. And that's just one weekend's viewing.
  15. Guestbook, 16 December 1998
  16. Guestbook, 15 December
  17. Guestbook, 16 December 1998

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