Part of the major appeal of the Grateful Dead is that they have constructed an entire universe of mythos around them. From the outside looking in, seeing people identify themselves as Wharf Rats or having them ask you to point them to wherever Shakedown Street is set up can seem confusing, but Deadheads have codified their own unique language of references thanks to the vast catalogue of characters and stories that populate the band’s songs.
Some of these characters have become iconic: the historic Casey Jones, the hapless Tennessee Jed, the wayward August West, the murderous Jack Straw, just to name a few. The peanut gallery featured in the Dead’s extensive oeuvre is eclectic enough to be a world unto itself, but according to lyricist Robert Hunter, there is another character that hits much closer to home.
In his book Conversations with the Dead, author David Gans asks Hunter about an interview he gave where Hunter claims that songs like ‘Bertha’, ‘Dire Wolf’, and ‘Cumberland Blues’ feature a character that acts as a stand-in for the Dead themselves. Gans quotes Hunter as having “mined that vein clean,” which Hunter confirms.
“That’s true. The character was dispensed of nicely in Workingman’s Dead, then he popped up again in ‘Brown Eyed Women’,” Hunter claims. “It’s some composite relative of mine, part of my gestalt baggage. These things have as many layers of potential meaning to me when I’ve created them as they do to the listener, and I look for that.”
All four songs have first-person narratives (‘Brown Eyed Women’ includes some third-person as well), and it’s possible that the character could be the central Gentle Jack Jones of ‘Brown Eyed Women’. But more likely, Hunter didn’t give this particular avatar a name or even a specific role in the song. Instead, it would seem apt for this apparition to be more nebulous and metaphorical than a traditional character at the forefront of a narrative story.
Still, all four songs mentioned have some similarities: all four include life-threatening scenarios, with ‘Bertha’ and ‘Dire Wolf’ being particularly fatalistic. Could the Dead character be the danger-prone central entity that narrates these seemingly-disconnected stories? Could the Dead themselves be the minor who breaks his back day in and day out in ‘Cumberland Blues’, or the sin-cursed child at the heart of ‘Brown Eyed Women’?
It’s also possible that, as was his occasional way, Hunter was simply messing with Gans and the audience of diehard Deadheads who hang on his every word. There’s a reason why another prominent personification of the Grateful Dead is The Fool from tarot, as he appears in the artwork of Europe ’72: the Dead were disciples of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, happy to stir in a bit of anarchy and insanity that often manifested in acid-soaked practical jokes and glib witticisms. Fans would believe anything Hunter said, and as a writer with a notorious dislike of explaining or deconstructing his work, it could make sense that Hunter could give readers an illogical throughline for the Dead that didn’t actually exist.
Check out all four songs down below and see if you can catch some recurring motifs or even the character that Hunter claims is present.