Robert Hunter had his poetic beginnings in the Palo Alto, CA coffeehouse scene in the mid-sixties. It was there that he began writing poetry and found his future song writing partner Jerry Garcia.
Although Hunter had been writing poetry for several years, his career did not begin in earnest until 1967, when he mailed the lyrics to “St. Stephen”, “Alligator”, and “China Cat Sunflower” to his friend Garcia and the Grateful Dead. He was almost immediately taken on as the primary lyricist for the band.
In collaboration with Garcia’s musical talent, Hunter began turning out dozens of poems that would later become well-known songs.
The poems of Robert Hunter have diverse and variegated themes; most, however relate either to folk stories or the vivid emotions and scenes he creates in order to illustrate his point. Hunter’s lyrical themes can be divided into three main categories. First are themes used in a traditional vein, written about classical ideas and told in a folkloric fashion.
Second are themes employed in a contemporary tone, about modern concepts and written in a more current style. Last are themes that are either used frequently in both contemporary and traditional ways, or transcend the division of contemporary/traditional and form their own categories.
One of the main traditional themes that Hunter uses is the gambling theme. The poems “Candyman” and “Loser” exemplify this motif the best:Come on boys and gambleRoll those laughing bones.
Seven come eleven, boysI’ll take your money home.
–“Candyman”Last fair deal in the country, sweet SuzyLast fair deal in the town.
Put your gold money where your love is, baby,Before you let my deal go down.
–“Loser”Both are about professional gamblers, and both (especially “Loser”) carry overtones of trouble and treachery. The following lines illustrate one such instance in “Candyman”:I come in from Memphiswhere I learned to talk the jiveWhen I get back to MemphisBe one man less aliveThe Candyman obviously has a score to settle with someone in Memphis. The “trouble” notion is both more and less apparent in “Loser”:Don’t you push me babybecause I’m moaning low.
I know a little something you won’t ever know.
Don’t you touch hard liquorjust a cup of cold coffee.
Gonna get up in the morning and go.
The idea of trouble is more central in this song, but expressed in a subtler fashion.
Another of the primarily traditional themes Hunter uses is that of travel. “Jack Straw” is a good example of this that also demonstrates the use of the railroad as a symbol:Catch the Detroit LightningOut of Santa FeGreat Northern out of CheyenneSea to shining sea.
Gotta get to TulsaFirst train we can ride…
The chorus is a good model of the travel motif in the poem:Keep a rollin’Just a mile to goKeep on rolling, my old buddyYou’re moving much to slow.
This poem also speaks of the adventure associated with long-distance travel.
Love is one of Hunter’s themes that could surpass the traditional/contemporary division, but is used almost exclusively in his folk poems. The best instance of the love notion is “Sugar Magnolia”, one of Hunter’s classics that speaks of an ideal lover:She’s got everything delightfulShe’s got everything I need.
A breeze in the pine in the summer night moonlightCrazy in the sunlight, yes indeed…
The poem goes on to describe this ambrosial woman, nearly sprite-like in quality.
“Cumberland Blues” is an excellent example of Hunter’s labor theme. A story of a coal miner in the Cumberland mines, this poem carries strong parallels to the “conventional wisdom” theme.
I gotta get downI gotta get downOr I can’t work there no more.
Lotta poor man make a five-dollar bill/Keep him happy all the timeSome other fellow making nothing at allAnd you can hear him crying’Can I go buddyCan I go downTake your shift at the mine?’Conventional wisdom is a motif that Hunter uses in several of his traditional poems, namely “Greatest Story Ever Told”, and “Uncle John’s Band”. These deal with aspects of day-to-day country living and the common-sense wisdom found in many classic folk tales. “Uncle John’s Band” is the prime illustration of this theme, and is perhaps the epitome of Hunter’s traditional style of the early 70’s.
Think this through with meLet me know your mindOh, oh what I want to know Is are you kind?”Greatest Story Ever Told” is a satirical ballad playing on the wisdom of the biblical figure Moses. Once again, the common-sense theme is prevalent, but told in a more sardonic vein.
His brain was boiling, his reason was spentHe said if nothing was borrowed then nothing was lent.
I asked him for mercy, he gave me a gunHe said ‘Now and again these things got to be done.’One of the most interesting themes that Hunter uses in his contemporary poems is his personal experience with the Grateful Dead. Undoubtedly the most famous example of this theme is the poem “Truckin'”:Arrows of neon and flashing marquees out on Main StreetChicago, New York, Detroit and it’s all on the same street.
Your typical city involved in your typical daydreamHang it up, see what tomorrow brings…
Sitting and staring out of the hotel windowGot a tip they’re gonna kick the door in againI like to get some sleep before I travelBut if you’ve got a warrant, I guess you’re gonna come in.
BustedDown on Bourbon StreetSet upLike a bowling pinKnocked downIt gets to wearin’ thin,They just won’t let you be.
This poem highlights some of the less pleasant aspects of travelling with the Dead, but is an accurate representation of Hunter’s experiences. Another poem that is written about the author’s dealings with the band is “New Speedway Boogie”, written about the disastrous Altamont Speedway concert in Altamont, California. This poem is also representative of Hunter’s dynamic and adaptable writing style.
Spent a little time on the mountainSpent a little time on the hillSome things went down we don’t understandBut I think in time we will.
One way or anotherOne way or anotherOne way or anotherThis Darkness got to give.
Another of Hunter’s contemporary themes is friendship. This theme is represented in “Built to Last”, “Foolish Heart”, and “Brokedown Palace”. “Built to Last” speaks of the search for true friendship and stability:There are times when I can help you outAnd times that you must fallThere are times when you must live in doubtAnd I can’t help at all.
All these trialsSoon be pastLook for somethingBuilt to last…
There are times when you offend meAnd I do the same to you If we can’t or won’t forget itThen I guess we could be through.
“Foolish Heart” bears a similar theme, although it is geared more in the direction of “choose your friends carefully”.
Do everything that’s in you That you feel to be your partBut never give your love, my friendUnto a foolish heart.
Dare to leapWhere the angels fear to tread…
But never give your love, my friend Unto a foolish heart.
Here, the author admonishes his friend to do whatever he or she feels is right, to live life to the fullest, but to be extremely careful when selecting companions.
One more instance of the friendship theme is the poem “Brokedown Palace”, characteristic of Hunter’s style at the time. This one could be considered a love poem, but more likely it is symbolic of the parting of two close friends, and the observation that life goes on:Fare you well my honeyFare you well my only true one.
All the birds that were singing Have flown except you alone…
…Lovers come and go – the river roll, roll, roll.
Many of Hunter’s contemporary poems use a theme of nostalgia and express a desire to return to a better time. “Standing on the Moon” is an eloquent example of this, expressing feelings of wistfulness and isolation.
Standing on the moonI see the battle rage belowStanding on the moonI see the soldiers come and go…
Standing on the moonWhere talk is cheap and vision trueStanding on the moonBut I would rather be with you…
A lovely view of heavenBut I would rather be with youHunter speaks of standing back and observing life, and implies that “hindsight vision is 20/20”.
The final theme that Hunter expresses in a contemporary form is hope. “Touch of Grey”, one of Hunter’s latest poems, is an excellent example:Cows are giving keroseneKid can’t read at seventeenThe words he knows are all obsceneBut it’s all right.
I know the rent is in arrearsThe dog has not been fed in yearsIt’s even worse than it appearsBut it’s all right.
I will get byI will survive.This poem stresses faith even in the face of great adversity and the idea that somehow, life will go on.
The most prevalent of Hunter’s themes that cannot be classified as modern or folkloric is the light/dark or “opposite” theme. This is a broadly based motif with several permutations, including knowledge/mystery, life/death, order/chaos, and good/evil. A classic example of two of these themes is “Dark Star”, which illustrates both the light/dark and the order/chaos themes.
Dark Star crashespouring its lightinto ashesLady in velvetrecedes in the nights of goodbyeReason tattersthe forces tear loosefrom the axisMirror shattersin formless reflections of matter”New Speedway Boogie” also plays on the order/chaos theme:It’s got no signs or dividin’ linesAnd very few rules to guide.
One of Hunter’s classic traditional poems, “Friend of the Devil”, focuses on a parable-like confrontation of good and evil.
Ran into the devil, babe, he loaned me twenty bills.
Spent the night in Utah in a cave up in the hills…
Ran down to the levy but the devil caught me there.
Took my twenty dollar bill and vanished in the air…
“Dire Wolf” is another poem that speaks of good and evil, although in a much more ironic sense.
When I awoke, the Dire WolfSix hundred pounds of sinWas grinning at my window, All I said was ‘Come on in’.
The Wolf came in, I got my cardsWe sat down for a game.
I cut my deck to the Queen of Spades,But the cards were all the same.
The character of the poem is confronted with the mythical beast Dire Wolf, and simply invites him inside to play cards. The cards, however, are all the queen of spades, the card symbolic of death. So this character takes a very ironic and lackadaisical view of things in the face of mortal danger.
Another of Hunter’s themes that transcends the traditional/contemporary division is ambiguity. He uses uncertainty in many instances to put a spin on his lyrics and leave them open to interpretation. Two poems that make use of this theme are “St. Stephen” and “Cosmic Charley”.
…Did it matter? does it now?Stephen would answer if he only knew howDid he doubt or did he try?Answers aplenty in the bye and bye…
…Can you answer? yes I can,but what would be the answer to the answer man?–“St. Stephen”Say you’ll come back when you canWhenever your airplane happens to land–“Cosmic Charley”In both instances there are drifting characters and no clearly defined ideas. Neither Charley nor Stephen have big questions or answers, but both are seekers in the quest for knowledge. The final transcendental theme that Hunter uses is “home”. There are three main character types in his home poems: Those seeking their homes, those who are already at home, and those who will guide the seekers to their homes. A good example of this is the traditional “Tennessee Jed”:…You know you bound to wind up deadIf you don’t head back to Tennessee Jed.
Tennessee, TennesseeAin’t no place I’d rather be.
Honey, won’t you carry meBack to Tennessee.
In this instance, Jed plays the role of the seeker or lost character, and the singer is his guide, warning him that he will die if he doesn’t head home. “Jack Straw” also makes use of the home theme:…Ain’t no bed will give us rest, manYou keep us on the run.
Unfortunately, this lost character has no guide to take him home.
OutlineI. Main theme divisionsA. Themes used in a traditional veinB. Themes used in a contemporary veinC. Themes that transcend traditional/contemporary boundariesII. Traditional themesA. Gambling1. “Candyman”2. “Loser”B. TravelC. LoveD. LaborE. Conventional wisdom1. “Greatest Story Ever Told”2. “Uncle John’s Band”III. Contemporary themesA. Hunter’s experience with the Grateful Dead1. “Truckin'”2. “New Speedway Boogie”B. Friendship1. “Built to Last”2. “Brokedown Palace”3. “Foolish Heart”C. NostalgiaD. HopeIV. Transcendental themesA. Light/Dark or “opposite”1. Good/Evili. “Dire Wolf”ii. “Friend of the Devil”2. Light/Dark3. Order/Chaosi. “New Speedway Boogie”ii. “Dark Star”B. Ambiguity1. “St. Stephen”2. “Cosmic Charley”C. Home1. “Tennessee Jed”2. “Jack Straw”Bibliography1. Bubelis, Wally. Home. (Thematic Essay) http://arts.ucsc.edu/gdead/agdl/home.html 1995.
2. Dead, Grateful. American Beauty. Warner Bros. Records, 1970.
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8. Dead, Grateful. Workingman’s Dead. Warner Bros. Records, 1970.
9. Dodd, David. Ambiguity as a Philosophical Stance in the Lyrics of the Grateful Dead. (Essay) http://arts.ucsc.edu/gdead/agdl/ambig.html 1997.
10. Dodd, David. The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics: A Website. http://arts.ucsc.edu/gdead/agdl/#songs 1997.
11. Dodd, David. Light and Dark in the Lyrics of Robert Hunter. (Thematic Essay) http://arts.ucsc.edu/gdead/agdl/light.html 199712. Scully, Rock, and David Dalton. Living With the Dead: 20 Years on the Bus With Garcia and the Grateful Dead. Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1996.
13. Troy, Sandy. Captain Trips: A Biography of Jerry Garcia. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1994.
Cite this Robert Hunter “Palo Alto”
Robert Hunter “Palo Alto”. (2019, Apr 28). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/robert-hunter/