Meaning Behind the Song “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane

The meaning behind Jefferson Airplane’s classic tune “White Rabbit” is one that reflects the decade in which it was born. Dealing in ’60s-era psychedelia, the mind-altering rock anthem takes listeners on a whimsical journey through Wonderland after a dizzying tumble down the rabbit hole.

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The Origins

“White Rabbit” was penned by Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick when she was still a member of the band The Great Society. She borrowed the song’s trippy imagery from Lewis Carroll’s timeless children’s books, Alice In Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.

Slick explained to The Guardian how she wrote “White Rabbit” on a piano that cost her around $50. “It had eight or 10 keys missing, but that was OK,” she said, “because I could hear in my head the notes that weren’t there. I used that piano to write several different songs.”

“White Rabbit,” in particular, was a product of its time. Appearing on Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 sophomore album Surrealistic Pillow, the first with Slick as a vocalist, the song closely resembled the decade – its ethos and the counterculture – and would soon become synonymous with it.

“The 1960s resembled Wonderland for me,” Slick told the outlet. “Like Alice, I met all kinds of strange characters, but I was comfortable with it.”

The song’s mind-expanding meaning came with the help of mind-expanding substances. “In the 60s, the drugs were not ones like heroin and alcohol that you take to blot out a terrible life, but psychedelics: marijuana, LSD and shroomies,” Slick said. “Psychedelic drugs showed you that there are alternative realities. You open up to things that are unusual and different, and, in realizing that there are alternative ways of looking at things, you become more accepting of things around you.”

She admits the tune is darkly tinged. “It’s not saying everything’s going to be wonderful,” she added. “The Red Queen is shouting off with her head and the White Knight is talking backwards. Lewis Carroll was looking at how things are run and the people who rule us.”

But the main message comes with the closing line feed your head, wailed in repetition. “[It is] both about reading and psychedelics,” she said of the lyric. “I was talking about feeding your head by paying attention: read some books, pay attention.”

The song explores psychedelics in their fundamental form, the band’s bassist Jack Casady echoed in the same interview. “The idea of taking psychedelic drugs to open you up and make you more receptive,” he added. Many people during that era took psychedelics, he explained. “That was part of the environment of the time and ‘White Rabbit’ reflected that.”

The Lyrics

The song opens in a hazy disjointed death march before an intoxicating guitar riff slithers up through the smoke and into the ear. Slick’s sharp, defiant words pierce the song as she bellows, One pill makes you larger / And one pill makes you small / And the ones that mother gives you / Don’t do anything at all / Go ask Alice / When she’s 10 feet tall.

While heady, the seemingly out-there lyrics come together to make sense. Like Carroll’s titular character, Alice, who changes size after eating something strange or drinking a peculiar liquid, the song depicts the same feeling of change that comes with drug use.

And if you go chasing rabbits / And you know you’re going to fall, the song continues, saying if you follow your curiosities down the rabbit hole, there will be a smoking caterpillar, in a sense, there to guide you through your drug-induced state.

When logic and proportion / Have fallen sloppy dead, Slick sings. She warns that things won’t always make sense and that might seem threatening when the White Knight is talking backwards / And the Red Queen’s off with her head. She sings it’s important to Remember what the dormouse said / Feed your head / Feed your head.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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