Robert Hunter: Lyricist, Poet, and Musician

by Marshall Bowden

Robert Hunter was as much responsible for the overall image of the Grateful Dead as any performing member of the band. As much as the visual imagery associated with the band, as much as the parking lot with its perpetual circus of food, drugs, ticket hawking, guitar playing and just hanging out. His recent death is another layer of mist that shrouds the hippie Avalon that once was deeper into memory and farther from the world we all continue to live in. 

At first, the Dead was their audience, literally a part of the party at Ken Kesey’s acid tests. As they evolved and became more well known their fans became more and more devoted to their music, their lifestyle, and the sense of Tao, of wholeness, imbued with a sense of mysticism and magic that hung over the music.

Robert Hunter was a poet who scored the best gig ever. He joins Peter Sinfield, Hal David, and Bernie Taupin in a select group of non-performing ’70s lyricists whose work was indispensable in creating the identity of the musical composers with whom they worked. Sinfield with King Crimson and Taupin with Elton John were more than songwriting partners or lyricists–when Crimson or John was up on stage performing, Sinfield and Taupin were right up there with them, a part of the band. 

So it was with Robert Hunter. Reputed to have been the great-grandson of Scottish poet Robert Burns, he had an ability to use words in ways that could suggest a sepia-toned era without filling in too many details. By the same token, he could create a fantasy world that was both futuristic and mystical and at the same time full of down-home wisdom. He could be inspired by American roots music and old English ballads or he could open with a Homeric entreaty: “Let my inspiration flow/in token rhymes suggesting rhythm.”

But Robert Hunter was not just a poet (he translated Rilke’s Duino Elegies) and lyricist; he was genuinely steeped in traditional American folk music and he and Jerry Garcia were playing the cafe scene together before there even was a Grateful Dead. From Garcia, he learned a lot of traditional songs from the bluegrass and jug band genres and he knew how to structure his lyrics to fit these musical forms. 

Some of Hunter’s early lyrics for the Dead were, unsurprisingly, influenced by the band’s experimentation with LSD and the famous acid tests hosted by writer Ken Kesey. Like Kesey, Hunter was a volunteer for government experiments with psychedelic drugs and he turned his experiences into poetry and song lyrics. While the lyrics do have a drug-induced haze about them, they also harken to writers and poets who treated words in a playful way and were not above using nonsense syllables, such as Edith Sitwell and James Joyce:

“You know, I’ve written things which are so personal nobody could ever have the slightest idea, like, you know, look at – look for a while at the China Cat Sunflower proud walking jingle in the midnight sun. Now that gets into kind of Joycean word salad. And some people, strangely enough, know just what I mean by it. But don’t – I couldn’t explain that.” 

His lyrics could be hard-edged as well, as on “Jack Straw,” which he wrote with Bob Weir, about two grifters traveling together when one becomes murderous: 

Hurts my ears to listen
Burns my eyes to see
Cut down a man in cold blood, Shannon
Might as well be me

By the end of the song, the narrator’s fears have come true:

Jack Straw from Wichita
Cut his buddy down
Dug for him a shallow grave
And laid his body down

Or “New Speedway Boogie,” which documents the aftermath of the Altamont murder in chilling detail: “Now I don’t know but I’ve been told/in the heat of the sun a man died of cold.”

While Garcia was easily Robert Hunter’s most frequent writing partner he worked with a number of other songwriters and musicians, perhaps most notably Bob Dylan. The two wrote a couple of songs on Dylan’s album Down in the Groove (1988) and pretty much the entire Together Through Life (2009) album and the song “Duquesne Whistle Stop,” (2012) which Dylan still frequently performs live. “He’s got a way with words and I do too,” said Dylan in 2009. “We both write a different type of song than what passes today for songwriting.”

The Dead’s lyrics, music, and the sense of community that they shared with their fans came from shared values and a sense of all being in this predicament of life together. That’s the same kind of feeling that aligns so many country music performers with their audiences of everyday people just trying to make it through another week. Hunter’s lyrics for “A Touch of Grey,” one of the Dead’s few mainstream hit records, could just as easily have come from the pen of performers like Hank Williams or Willie Nelson:

The shoe is on the hand it fits, there’s really nothing much to it
Whistle through your teeth and spit ’cause it’s alright
Oh well, a touch of grey kinda suits you anyway
And that was all I had to say and it’s alright
I will get by
I will get by
I will get by
I will survive

So may we all. 

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