A trip through Robert Hunter’s lost America

Robert Hunter had a particular fascination with a very particular kind of America. After meeting people like Jack Kerouac On the road and the classic stories found in folk and bluegrass music, Hunter took a liking to a certain type of rural version of the United States, a version that would define not only his personal style, but the entire collection of Grateful Dead songs.

Initially positioning himself as one of the preeminent interpreters of the psychedelic experience, Hunter quickly evolved his lyrical sets and settings until they became a reflection of a long-lost America. Featuring chain gangs, gunfights in the Old West, classic folklore and pristine iconography, Hunter’s tales could have come straight out of a John Steinbeck novel, in that you could practically still smell the dust on them.

However, if you wanted to know the exact details of what was going on, you were out of luck – during the contemporary run of the dead, Hunter became averse to interviews, especially when the subject of his lyrics came up. “He’s a man who will pull out a gun and shoot you if you start to analyze his lyrics,” publicist and band biographer Dennis McNally explained in the documentary series. Long strange journey.

“Hunter has his own window into what it means and means to him,” Bob Weir said in the same series. “He’s notoriously reclusive, so I doubt he’s up for an interview. But he might. Indeed, Hunter doesn’t sit down like the other surviving band members do for the docuseries, but a quick chat in behind the scenes with Weir finds Hunter remaining open and happily vague when it comes to dissecting the meaning of “Dark Star”.

This piece, in particular, was representative of Hunter’s early style of lyrical writing. With songs like ‘St. Stephen’ and ‘China Cat Sunflower’ were as psychedelic as they were inscrutable. Direct stories and simple stories took precedence over impressionistic word painting. There was still a plot to follow, but it was almost impossible to find the same interpretation twice from listener to listener. But as the Dead moved away from their acid-soaked sound, Hunter also began to evolve his style into stories of gamblers, lumbermen, and giant wolves.

There was a brief period where the two styles overlapped. “Cosmic Charlie” sounded more like a psychedelic thug, foreshadowing the band’s transition to Americana, while “Dupree’s Diamond Blues” brought old-time traditional references like jelly rolls and into a Wild West-style flight. When the Dead started collecting new songs for The worker is deadhowever, a specific sepia-toned world suddenly opened up.

“His lyrics come out of a much older world than they literally came out of,” observed writer Steve Silberman. “It was like these songs came from some kind of underground, ancient, weird America. One that had some important information that you would kind of have to follow to understand.

As Silberman speaks Hunter’s lyrics, “Dire Wolf” plays in the background. In many ways, “Dire Wolf” is the most iconic song of Hunter’s Americana lyrical writing phase, one that would dominate not only The worker is dead but also its two suites, american beauty and European ’72. In a rare interview, Hunter explained his mindset behind “Dire Wolf” to author Blair Jackson.

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

Obviously, the plot of “Dire Wolf” is set in a time and place far removed from modern times. Fennario, the setting of the tale, was a (presumably) fictional location in classic American folklore, also used as the setting for the cover of “Peggy-O” by the dead. The wolf itself comes from a similar branch of folklore, running 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”. Game imagery helped solidify the cowboy personas the dead had adopted in the late 1960s. Although that image was mostly solidified by covers like “El Paso” and “Me and My Uncle”, It’s not hard to imagine the characters of songs like “Mountains on the Moon”, “Greatest Story Ever Told”, and “High Time”. ‘ with spurs and boots too.

The underworld mentioned by Silberman was largely in the form of mines, notably in the songs “Uncle John’s Band” and “Cumberland Blues”. The latter is a fascinating look at pre-Hunter smear America under a microscope – working people earn five dollars a day, which is still money. Longer they would have to get away from the small towns and Depression-era shacks that undoubtedly littered an area like Cumberland.

Pigpen also dabbles in old-school sets, picking up, chopping, and breaking rocks for a living on “Easy Wind.” Although not specifically a look at the past, “Easy Wind” could have been set just as easily in 1870 as in 1970. The same goes for “Casey Jones”: although it makes direct reference to the 1900 death of the railroad engineer by the same name, the references to cocaine and the ladies in red seem like allegories for some more modern indulgences.

Hunter didn’t stop exploring this particular version of America after The worker is dead. ‘Friend of the Devil’ delves into the depths of American folklore in the same way ‘Dire Wolf’ does, while ‘Cumberland Blues’ five-dollar bill is updated to $20, a small fortune for a man in leak. The major update on american beauty was that Hunter brought in a significant amount of nature imagery to flesh out his otherworldly sets, including on tracks like ‘Sugar Magnolia’, ‘Box of Rain’, ‘Ripple’, ‘Brokedown Palace’ and “Attic of My Life”.

He also hadn’t finished when the band left 1970: European ’72 contains a number of songs that appear to be set in the same retrograde America that Hunter created for both The worker is dead and american beauty. “Brown-Eyed Women” is mentioned in two specific years, 1929 and 1930, while “Tennessee Jed” combines almost every previous character from Hunter’s tales into a single avatar – the hunchbacked character from “Cosmic Charlie”, the degenerate gambler from ‘Deal’, and the rock breaker of ‘Easy Wind’, and the fiery train driver of ‘Casey Jones’.

European ’72 also contained a song that seemed to exist both in the ancient America created by Hunter and in a more modern world that he would embrace in the new era. “Ramble On Rose” contained many classic references to the past, including mojo hand blues slang and upbeat rhythms of ragtime music, but it also introduced the distinctly British figure of Jack the Ripper and the genre then. modern subversive counterculture, radio DJ Wolfman Jack. The reference to the Wolfman serves as a precursor to the more current allusions Hunter would make on tracks like “US Blues”, “Estimated Prophet”, and “Shakedown Street”.

But Hunter wasn’t done with his cracked Americana yet. “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo”, “Row Jimmy”, “Scarlet Begonias” and “Ship of Fools” all seemed to exist in the world that Hunter lovingly created from his folk roots, but as the dead continued to evolving into their years later, Hunter gradually moved away from his singular vision of a bygone America. Nonetheless, the indelible land he created as the Refined took on a life of its own, helping to create the alternate universe that has become synonymous with the Grateful Dead.

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