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A trip through Robert Hunter’s lost America


Robert Hunter had a particular fascination with a very specific kind of America. After taking in the likes of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and the classic stories found in folk and bluegrass music, Hunter grew fond of a certain kind of rural version of the United States, one that would go on to define not just his personal style, but the entire songbook of the Grateful Dead.

Initially positioning himself as one of the preeminent interpreters of the psychedelic experience, Hunter soon evolved his lyrical sets and settings until they became reflective of a long-lost America. Featuring chain gangs, old west shootouts, classic folklore, and unimpeachable iconography, Hunter’s tales could have come straight out of a John Steinbeck novel, to the extent that you could practically still feel the dust on them.

However, if you wanted to know the exact details of what was happening, you were out of luck – during the Dead’s contemporary run, Hunter became averse to interviews, specifically when the topic of his words came up. “This is a man who will pull out a gun and shoot you if you start analysing his lyrics,” band publicist and biographer Dennis McNally explained in the documentary series Long Strange Trip.

“Hunter’s got his own window into what those are about and mean to him,” Bob Weir claimed in the same series. “He’s notoriously reclusive, so I doubt that he’d be willing to sit for an interview. But he might.” Indeed, Hunter doesn’t sit down the way that the band’s other surviving members do for the docuseries, but a quick backstage chat with Weir finds Hunter remaining open and joyously vague when it comes to dissecting the meaning out of ‘Dark Star’.

That track, in particular, was representative of Hunter’s early lyric writing style. Songs like ‘St. Stephen’ and ‘China Cat Sunflower’ were as psychedelic as they were inscrutable – direct storylines and straightforward tales took a backseat to impressionistic word painting. There was still a plot to follow, but it was nearly impossible to find the same interpretation twice from listener to listener. But as the Dead moved away from their acid-soaked sound, so too did Hunter begin to evolve his style towards tales of gamblers, backwood dealers, and dire wolves.

There was a brief period where the two styles overlapped. ‘Cosmic Charlie’ was more akin to a psychedelic bumpkin, foreshadowing the band’s transition into Americana, while ‘Dupree’s Diamond Blues’ brought in old-time traditional references like jelly rolls and into a wild-west-esque robbery. When the Dead started collecting new songs for Workingman’s Dead, however, a specific sepia-toned world suddenly opened up.

“His lyrics seem to come out of a much older world than they literally came out of,” writer Steve Silberman observed. “It was like those songs came from some kind of subterranean, old, weird America. One that had important information in it that you would kind of have to live your way up to understanding.”

As Silberman speaks of Hunter’s lyrics, ‘Dire Wolf’ plays in the background. In many ways, ‘Dire Wolf’ is the song that is most emblematic of Hunter’s Americana phase of lyric writing, one that would dominate not just Workingman’s Dead but also its two follow ups, American Beauty and Europe ’72. In a rare interview, Hunter explained his mindset behind ‘Dire Wolf’ to author Blair Jackson.

“The situation that’s basically happening in ‘Dire Wolf’ is it’s the middle of winter, and there’s nothing to eat for anybody, and this guy’s got a little place,” Hunter explained. “Suddenly there’s this monster, the dire wolf, and the guy is saying, ‘Well, obviously you’re going to come in, and why don’t you pull up a chair and play some cards?’ But the cards are cut to the queen of spades, which is the card of death, and all the cards are death at this point. The situation is the same as when a street dude, an up-against-the- establishment guy, approaches the Establishment and says, ‘We can coexist.'”

Clearly, the plot of ‘Dire Wolf’ is taking place in a time and place far removed from the modern day. Fennario, the setting for the tale, was a (possibly) fictional place from classic American folklore, also used as the setting for the Dead’s cover of ‘Peggy-O’. The wolf itself comes from a similar branch of folklore, running around everywhere from the Appalachian mountains to the desert plains of New Mexico.

Card games would also become a recurring theme in Hunter’s works, including ‘Deal’, ‘Loser’, ‘You Win Again’, and ‘Ramble On Rose’. Gambling imagery helped solidify the cowboy personas that the Dead had adopted by the end of the 1960s. Although this image would mostly be solidified by covers like ‘El Paso’ and ‘Me and My Uncle’, it’s not hard to imagine the characters in songs like ‘Mountains on the Moon’, ‘Greatest Story Ever Told’, and ‘High Time’ with spurs and boots as well.

The subterranean world that Silberman mentioned largely came in the form of mines, most famously in the songs ‘Uncle John’s Band’ and ‘Cumberland Blues’. The latter is a fascinating look at Hunter’s pre-sprawl America under a microscope – workers make five dollars a day, which is still good money. Any more and they’d have to move away from the small towns and Depression-era shacks that would no doubt litter an area like Cumberland.

Pigpen gets in on the old-timey settings as well, picking up and axe and cracking rocks for a living on ‘Easy Wind’. While it’s not specifically a look into the past, ‘Easy Wind’ could have just as easily taken place in 1870 as it could in 1970. The same goes for ‘Casey Jones’: although it directly references the 1900 death of the railroad engineer by the same name, the cocaine references and ladies in red seem to be allegories for some more modern indulgences.

Hunter didn’t stop exploring this particular version of America after Workingman’s Dead. ‘Friend of the Devil’ plumbs the depths of American folklore much in the same way that ‘Dire Wolf’ does, while the five dollar bill from ‘Cumberland Blues’ gets updated to a $20, a small fortune for a man on the run. The major update on American Beauty was that Hunter brought in a significant amount of nature imagery to flesh out his otherworldly settings, including on tracks like ‘Sugar Magnolia’, ‘Box of Rain’, ‘Ripple’, ‘Brokedown Palace’, and ‘Attics of My Life’.

He wasn’t done as the band moved out of 1970 either: Europe ’72 contains a number of songs that seem to take place in the same throwback America that Hunter created for both Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. ‘Brown-Eyed Women’ gets two specific years mentioned, 1929 and 1930, while ‘Tennessee Jed’ combines nearly all of the previous characters from Hunter’s tales into one avatar – the bumpkin persona of ‘Cosmic Charlie’, the degenerate gambler of ‘Deal’, and rock-breaker of ‘Easy Wind’, and the rollicking train rider of ‘Casey Jones’.

Europe ’72 also contained a song that seemed to exist in both the old-timey America that Hunter created and a more modern world that he would embrace in the new era. ‘Ramble On Rose’ had plenty of classic references to the past, including the blues slang of the mojo hand and the jaunty rhythms of ragtime music, but it also brought in the distinctly British figure of Jack the Ripper and the then-modern king of subversive counterculture, radio DJ Wolfman Jack. The reference to the Wolfman serves as an early precursor to the more present-day allusions that Hunter would make on tracks like ‘US Blues’, ‘Estimated Prophet’, and ‘Shakedown Street’.

But Hunter wasn’t done with his cracked Americana just yet. ‘Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo’, ‘Row Jimmy’, ‘Scarlet Begonias’, and ‘Ship of Fools’ all seemed to exist in the world that Hunter lovingly crafted from his folky roots, but as the Dead continued to evolve into their later years, Hunter progressively moved away from his singular take on a bygone America. Nevertheless, the indelible country that he created and refined took on a life of its own, helping to create the alternate universe that became synonymous with the Grateful Dead.

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