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 gamble
Roll those laughing bones.
Seven come eleven, boys
I'll take your money home.
Last fair deal in the country, sweet Suzy
Last fair deal in the town.
Put your gold money where your love is, baby,
Before you let my deal go down.
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 Memphis
where I learned to talk the jive
When I get back to Memphis
Be one man less alive
The 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 baby
because I'm moaning low.
I know a little something
you won't ever know.
Don't you touch...
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1. Bubelis, Wally. Home. (Thematic Essay) http://arts.ucsc.edu/gdead/agdl/home.html 1995.
2. Dead, Grateful. American Beauty. Warner Bros. Records, 1970.
3. Dead, Grateful. Built to Last. Arista Records, 1989.
4. Dead, Grateful. Dead Set. Arista Records, 1980.
5. Dead, Grateful. Go to Heaven. Arista Records, 1980.
6. Dead, Grateful. In the Dark. Arista Records, 1987.
7. Dead, Grateful. Terrapin Station. Arista Records, 1977.
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 1997
12. 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.
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