If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung
Would you hear my voice come through the music?
Would you hold it near, as it were your own?
— “Ripple,” Robert Hunter
However free-floating and loose the Grateful Dead’s music could get — and even the most devoted Deadheads readily admit that it could get awfully loose — one thing always kept it rooted: the words of Robert Hunter.
As a non-performing member of the band, generally writing lyrics for music by guitarist-singer Jerry Garcia, he was behind many of the Dead’s best-loved and most enduring songs. (The two met around 1960 before either was 20, at a local Palo Alto production of “Damn Yankees,” of all things, and played in various folk and bluegrass ensembles.) Across the years, launching with the hallucinatory wonder of early staples-to-be “St. Stephen” and “China Cat Sunflower,” he presented a landscape of the nation cutting across eras and ethos, populated with scoundrels, troubadours, miners, card-sharps, vagabonds, some winners, more losers, all dreamers.
Hunter, who died Monday night, tapped into a deep American mythos in ways that at times drew legitimate comparisons to Walt Whitman and even his English Romantic predecessors, Keats, Blake and company. It was said that he was the great-great grandson of Scotland’s bard Robert Burns, and that could fit as well, so let’s just go with it. It is of no small consequence that in addition to writing with Garcia and, on occasion, other members of the Dead, as well as various quasi-related acts after Garcia died in 1995, Hunter was one of a very, very select group of people to whom Bob Dylan turned for lyrics, including all but one song on 2009’s “Together Through Life.”
With the on-the-lam ramble “Friend of the Devil,” the genially defiant don’t-tread-on-us ode “Uncle John’s Band” (said to have been written for folk-scene photographer and New Lost Ramblers member John Cohen, who just died last week), the card-sharp ballad “Deal” and the mining-life ditty “Cumberland Blues,” among the best known and most concise Dead songs, he can be placed squarely among those who drew on rural scenes and lore to shape what we now call Americana. These are songs that can stand tall alongside those of such clear influences as Marty Robbins and Merle Haggard. (The Dead’s other main lyricist John Perry Barlow, who primarily wrote with the band’s other frontman, Bob Weir, died in February.)
With “Sugar Magnolia,” “Scarlet Begonias” and, of course, “Truckin’,” which friskily details exploits and perils of life for the Dead on the road, he gave vivid snapshots of moments in time. None of that nature may be more affecting than “New Speedway Boogie,” in which he created an image of the Altamont tragedy every bit as powerful as the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” but with arguably more poetic nuance. Perfectly paired with Garcia’s bluesy shuffle, the song simmers through its attempt to get a handle on an un-handleable horror with a sense of hardened frontier wisdom in the face of not just a turning point but a breaking point:
Now I don’t know, but I been told
If the horse don’t pull you got to carry the load
I don’t know whose back’s that strong
Maybe find out before too long
Sometimes it’s the little details that catch the ear, such as the tuckered-out miner in “Cumberland Blues” moaning to his affectionate companion Melinda: “Little Ben clock says quarter to eight, you kept me up till four.” Sometimes it’s the larger, borderline-mystical views he put in play, a la “Eyes of the World.”
Wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the world
The heart has its beaches, its homeland and thoughts of its own
Wake now, discover that you are the song that the morning brings
The heart has its seasons, its evenings and songs of its own
And sometimes he was just plain playful in love — or lust. His descriptive flips in “Scarlet Begonias” (“The sky was yellow and the sun was blue”) were not so much trippy as skippy, as in what the heart does when the eye is turned by a passing beauty, while the song’s expansive street scene (“Strangers stopping strangers, just to shake their hands”) wasn’t a hippie dream, but a genial wish that the good in the world, the joy the narrator is experiencing, can be honored, celebrated and shared by all.
But for all that, the most beautiful and at times saddest words he wrote, the ones that hit hardest and settle in deepest, are in his sentimental revels and elegies. “To Lay Me Down,” “Stella Blue,” “Brokedown Palace” and “Box of Rain,” a beautiful tribute he wrote with Dead bassist Phil Lesh to the musician’s dying father, stand out, never turning sappy, and remaining just as moving after hundreds of hearings as on the first one.
As with all meaningful folk music, all meaningful art for that matter, death is a regular traveling companion. And in the course of his decades as a lyricist, Hunter wrote any number of lines and verses that could stand as his epitaph.
From “Brokedown Palace”:
Going home, going home
By the waterside I will rest my bones
Listen to the river sing sweet songs
To rock my soul
From “Stella Blue,” originally released on 1973’s “Wake of the Flood” album:
And when you hear that song
Come crying like the wind
It seems like all this life
Was just a dream
And with “Box of Rain,” the song he chose to title a book of his lyrics as well as a centerpiece favorite of the ragged performances on his now-and-then gigs and tours, he concluded with the difficult truth that life is short, death is forever:
Such a long long time to be gone
And a short time to be there