Grateful Dead

Robert Hunter, R.I.P.

The Grateful Dead lyricist filled a generation with a sense of amused, loving, liberatory patriotism.


Robert Hunter, the main lyricist for the Grateful Dead, has died at age 78 of so-far undisclosed causes. Rolling Stone has a decent summation of his life and career.

Hunter's words were unusual and revelatory for "pop music" and formed a folk philosophy for a large generation of Deadheads who didn't merely enjoy the band's music, but made traveling around with them a modern way to emulate America's grand and troubled tradition of traveling frontier seekers, sometimes helping themselves and the places they traveled, sometimes harming them.

But a certain patriotic vision animated it all. As quoted in a book review on a history of the Dead from Reason back in 2003:

Hunter…found distasteful the fealty to Moscow and Peking (as it was called back then) widespread among prominent '60s revolutionaries. That fealty, he thought, was why that aspect of the '60s faded away while the Dead kept on truckin'. "We honor American culture, and what we find good in it," Hunter said of the Dead. And he knew American culture from many perspectives. As a member of the National Guard, Hunter had been called up to keep order during the 1965 Watts riots.

As Jerry Garcia, Hunter's old friend and the man who composed music to and sang his lyrics, added, "Our trip was never to go out and change the world. I mean, what would we change it to? Whatever we did would probably be worse than the way it is now." Why, Garcia asked, "enter this closed society and make an effort to liberalize it when that's never been its function? Why not leave and go somewhere else?" Hunter was able to take a bemused delight in the country that, as he personified it, "shook the hand of P.T. Barnum and Charlie Chan" and that "lived in a silver mine, but called it Beggar's Tomb."

The psychedelic experience that helped launch the Dead as a worldwide phenomenon, was, in an irony Hunter pointed out, pushed along by the U.S. government itself. Hunter once said that the U.S. government "created me…and [Ken] Kesey and the Acid Tests," since Hunter and Kesey were first exposed to powerful psychedelics as volunteers in government military research in the early '60s.

In one of their most iconic songs, Hunter wrote of the mysteriously inspirational "Uncle John's Band" that "their walls are built of cannonballs/their motto is 'don't tread on me.'"

The America summed up by that image—rugged, ornery, jealous of its liberty—shows what made Hunter's songs of enduring interest to those fascinated by the meaning and accomplishments of the American experiment in liberty, in the vices and virtues of an anarchistic American frontier. Despite what the clichéd image of a doped-out Deadhead might suggest, Hunter dealt with vice and dissolution with a reasonably brutal honesty—anything that felt like a joyous celebration of decadence is rare in his writing. "Casey Jones, you better watch your speed."

Hunter's work, unusual for a career writer of popular song, was also not very heavily focused on romantic love, and his most indelible essaying of the topic, "Scarlet Begonias," is mostly about how men should realize that the endless quest for new women to win might not be serving those men well. Rather, by Hunter's constant references to an imagined and mythical old frontier in general, his technique of making modern tall tales and fables out of sometimes warped versions of his, the band's, or his generation's own experiences and attitudes, his lyrics became a genuine continuation of the American folklore he drew on.

The historical streams of pre-existing folklore and musical style that fed into his songs such as "Cumberland Blues," "Casey Jones," "Jack Straw," and "Dire Wolf" reveal Hunter and the Dead's role in the eternal chain of folk music in a modern context. For American kids of the past 50 years for whom talk of "balling the jack" or "a buck dancer's choice" don't mark the music as arisen from their own intimate and folksy experience but as something exotic, strange, alien—Hunter's vivid, complicated, character-filled lyrics sold back to a certain generation of weird Americans a lost and mysterious version of their own country.

His songs will undoubtedly continue to be sung for a long, long time to come, and to impart means of understanding and coping with the exigencies of many of his themes—many uncommon in pop lyrics—of work, responsibility, fate, death, nature, and music itself. Hunter, in combination with his composing partner Garcia and the machinery of touring and recording the band built around their songs, created a semi-coherent artistic universe where the same characters might meet and interact, helping and cheating each other back and forth, a world that's all difficult and ornery frontier as seen with a God's-eye view, of what seems a largely Godless universe. Still, through all the hardships and inescapable sadness and loneliness of many of his songs, a loving tenderness and awe toward the human and cosmic conditions undergirded it all.

That said, Hunter's world was in many respects a place for stoic men to struggle with necessity and destiny and the entrapping bonds of character—a world, as Garcia once described it, "where the laws are falling apart and every person is the sheriff and the outlaw." It's an America that is rough, challenging, but exciting, adventurous, and well worth living in, and Hunter and the band that sang his songs helped make it all those things.

Hunter wrote in one of his most dazzling lyrics, "Terrapin Station," that, "The storyteller makes no choice/Soon you will not hear his voice/His job is to shed light and not to master," a gorgeous and wise summation of his own contributions, and that of the band that sang his songs. We no longer hear his voice. But of course we still do, and always will.

NEXT: Trump Might Not Support Criminal Justice Reforms Anymore. That Doesn’t Erase His Past Success.

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  1. Rolling Stone has a decent summation of his life and career.

    Does that summation include a gang rape?

    1. What are you talking about?

      1. A reference to the UVA rape scandal that brought the magazine down.

    2. Let us all ignore Diane’s comments from now on.

        1. wow 1 person just be like this 🙂

  2. let my inspiration flow in token rhyme suggesting rhythm.

    r.i.p. buddy.

  3. In memory of Robert Hunter, I’m going to find a woman about twice my height.

    (Yes, I know Bob Weir wrote that one)

    1. Lost Barlow and Hunter recently, two of the best. Rest In Peace.

  4. Fuck man, John Perry Barlow just last year and now Robert Hunter. He was the GOAT. Rest in peace.

    Since the end is never told
    We pay the Teller off in gold
    In hopes he will come back
    But he can not be bought or sold

  5. RIP Robert. God willing, I will be performing his songs until the day I die.

    1. Hunter rolled through Dallas 10-15 years ago did an acoustic set at a little venue a couple minutes from my house it was great.

  6. RIP Robert Hunter, you will be greatly missed but never forgotten and your songs will fill the air forever!

    Hunter’s songs were always tinged in libertarianism and a love of freedom. Free to make your own choices, but also free to fail and suffer the consequences. No longing for an all-encompassing nanny state for him, better to die a free man than live as a slave. From one of his “newer” songs:

    Saw a bird with a tear in his eye
    Walking to New Orleans my oh my
    Hey, now, Bird, wouldn’t you rather die
    Than walk this world when you’re born to fly?

    If I was the sun, I’d look for shade
    If I was a bed, I would stay unmade
    If I was a river I’d run uphill
    If you call me you know I will
    If you call me you know I will

    Ooo, freedom
    Ooo, liberty
    Ooo, leave me alone
    To find my own way home
    To find my own way home

    1. Great song – I love Liberty.

    2. +1 Marco Esquandolas

  7. I read an interesting thing about the LSD tests from back in the late 50s, early 60s. I didn’t know Whitey Bulger was a participant as a federal prisoner. Apparently the CIA said that they were trying to: “find a cure for schizophrenia”, even though this was the MK Ultra program and they were trying to brainwash people, and Bulger was dosed daily for a full year. Whitey said he nearly went insane, and later told an associate he would try to find the leader of that program and whack them. Evil bastards.

  8. RIP Robert.

  9. Nice essay Doherty. Hunter’s works were so open ended they are hard to characterize in just a few paragraphs, but you did well.

  10. RIP Robert!

    Goodbye Mama and Papa
    Goodbye Jack and Jill
    The grass ain’t greener
    The wine ain’t sweeter
    Either side of the hill

    “Brokedown Palace”

    Fare you well my honey
    Fare you well my only true one
    All the birds that were singing
    Have flown except you alone

    Goin to leave this Broke-down Palace
    On my hands and my knees I will roll roll roll
    Make myself a bed by the waterside
    In my time – in my time – I will roll roll roll

    In a bed, in a bed
    by the waterside I will lay my head
    Listen to the river sing sweet songs
    to rock my soul

    River gonna take me
    Sing me sweet and sleepy
    Sing me sweet and sleepy
    all the way back back home
    It’s a far gone lullaby
    sung many years ago
    Mama, Mama, many worlds I’ve come
    since I first left home

    Goin home, goin home
    by the waterside I will rest my bones
    Listen to the river sing sweet songs
    to rock my soul

    Goin to plant a weeping willow
    On the banks green edge it will grow grow grow
    Sing a lullaby beside the water
    Lovers come and go – the river roll roll roll

    Fare you well, fare you well
    I love you more than words can tell
    Listen to the river sing sweet songs
    to rock my soul

  11. Wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the world.


  12. Fare you well my honey
    Fare you well my only true one
    All the birds that were singing
    Have flown except you alone

    Read here and more of his works:-

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