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Credit: Warner Bros.

The Story Behind the Song: The burden lifted by Grateful Dead's 'Box of Rain'

Phil Lesh had a melody. That’s probably underselling it a bit. Phil Lesh had an entire song, with chord changes and variations on the central melodic theme that unfurled with an unhurried and folky nuance, wholly composed and ready to record. He had shown it to the other members of the Grateful Dead, and they agreed that it was worth fleshing out. The only problem was that he didn’t have any words.

This was a common hurdle in the Grateful Dead’s songwriting process. Among the band’s compositions, of which all members received credits sprinkled throughout their discography but historically fell on the shoulders of Jerry Garcia and, to a lesser extent, Bob Weir, none of the Dead considered themselves expert wordsmiths. The band’s first album was mainly based around covers, and Garcia openly detested the process of writing and rewriting lyrics, never being fully satisfied with the words to songs like ‘Cream Puff War’.

Enter Robert Hunter, Garcia’s old beatnik buddy who played in the initial bluegrass and jug band outfits that Garcia led. Hunter was a voracious reader and a highly attuned intellectual who also happened to share the band’s inclination towards psychedelic drugs. A poet and fiction writer, Hunter had sent his old friend Garcia a series of writings that eventually became the lyrics to ‘Alligator’, ‘St. Stephen’, and ‘China Cat Sunflower’. Seeing a role that needed to be filled within the band, Garcia extended an invitation to Hunter to join the Grateful Dead family.

The insider status that Hunter already had made him an invaluable asset to the Dead camp, and his major stand as the group’s sole lyricist was on American Beauty. His contributions were so prominent that he was listed as an official member in the album’s credits. Already friendly with the members, Hunter could adapt specific phrases and vocal styles to each members strengths, composing the jaunty ‘Operator’ for Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan and indulging Weir’s cowboy rock and roll persona on ‘Sugar Magnolia’ and ‘Truckin’.

Weir’s and Hunter’s relationship was volatile, due to the former’s penchant for changing and flubbing the latter’s carefully composed lyrics. When Weir made substantial changes to ‘One More Saturday Night,’ Hunter had had enough and asked John Perry Barlow, Weir’s friend from boarding school, to officially take over as Weir’s lyricist.

Since he was the in-house lyric writer, Hunter was the one Lesh approached with his new tune. Although the two shared credit with Garcia on ‘Cumberland Blues’ and ‘St. Stephen’, this would be the first direct collaboration between the duo. Lesh had a single request for the lyrical content: something he could sing to his father, who was dying of cancer while the band were recording American Beauty.

As such, Hunter created words based on easing burdens and celebrating the world around you. The central “box of rain” ostensibly refers to the Earth, but like all of Hunter’s lyrics, it remains open for the listener to incorporate their own thoughts and interpretations. Hunter also populated the lyrics with multiple references to natural wonders and the enchanting qualities of the environment, a recurring theme throughout album tracks like ‘Ripple’, ‘Attics of my Life’, and ‘Sugar Magnolia’. 

When it came time to record ‘Box of Rain’, Lesh made a separate request to his bandmates: he didn’t want it to sound like a Grateful Dead song. Garcia obliged by playing the piano instead of his standard lead guitar lines, and the band brought in two additional musicians from Dead offshoot The New Riders of the Purple Sage to contribute. Dave Torbert replaced Lesh on bass while the composer played acoustic guitar, and David Nelson performs the electric guitar lines usually played by Garcia. The track has a pronounced country feel, likely due to the shifted arrangement and heartfelt vocal performance from Lesh.

Not long after the release of ‘Box of Rain’, Lesh began ceding more and more vocal work to his bandmates, especially once Donna Jean Godchaux joined the group. As the band continued to tour, Lesh rarely stepped up to a microphone apart from occasional backing contributions to ‘Truckin’. The exception was ‘Box of Rain’, which was reintegrated into the band’s setlists in their last decade. Lesh was routinely greeted with rapturous applause for his one and only lead vocal spot.

After years of dealing with alcohol abuse and vocal chord damage, ‘Box of Rain’ was once again able to lift the burdens that Lesh had carried, just as he originally intended it to do for his father decades before. After all, a central theme for the song is the sharing of strength and resilience: “Believe it if you need it/If you don’t just pass it on.”

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