For the casual fan of the Grateful Dead, it’s probably one of the more easily overlooked complexities of the band’s repertoire that a good portion of well-known lyrics contain a variety of little known anecdotes and clever references spanning everything from Greek mythology and timeless nursery rhymes to classic literature. This is attributable to the fact that in addition to being the only non-performing member of a band ever inducted to the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame and co-writer of the majority of the band’s best material (as well as a bit of Bob Dylan’s), longtime Dead lyricist Robert Hunter (born Robert Burns) was a well studied poet, storyteller and literary translator.
With entries based on and culled from The American Book of the Dead: The Definitive Grateful Dead Encyclopedia by Oliver Trager, let’s take a look at a sampling of some of the best references and anecdotes from the Robert Hunter songbook.
Reuben and Cerise – Reuben and Cerise has been a fan favorite since day the early days with JGB for its pleasant music and singalong lyrics, but Jerry Garcia used to joke about the sinister difficulty of remembering the sheer amount of words and lack of repeated verses and choruses. It’s a stealthily complicated tune for that reason, but what’s perhaps most interesting about the song is that the story actually tells a modernized version of the Greek myth where Orpheus journeys to the underworld to retrieve the body of his love Eurydice. Specifically, the Hunter version actually takes from a 1960s film called Black Orpheus, which retells the original myth set Rio at Carnival, but this one is set at Carnival in New Orleans.
Jack Straw – This Weir-Hunter collaboration borrows from a key character in the Great English Rebellion of 1381 named Jack Straw, who led the serfs in burning down their masters manors and rebelling against the King – who eventually heeded to the rebels demands. Despite being somewhat controversial at the time of the writing, the line “We can share the women, we can share the wine” makes a little more politically correct sense when placed in context.
Terrapin Station – The big opus actually borrows from both American and English folklore, including a a late 1920′s or 1930′s song called the Lady of Carlisle by Basil May. The old traditional tells the tale of a lady approached by two men – a soldier and a seaman – who vie for her affection. To test their loyalty, she puts them to a challenge by throwing her fan into the lion’s den. Hunter’s version leaves the outcome for the listeners to debate, but in the original only the sailor takes to the task and earns the love of the lady with the fan.
He’s Gone – This song has gone on to have meaning for a number of fallen soldiers including Pigpen, Bob Marley, Bobby Sands, and even Jerry himself, but this song was actually penned for someone who was still alive when it was written – Mickey’s father and one time band manager, Lenny Hart.
Scarlet Begonias – Set in London’s Grosvenor Square and written after Hunter lived in London in the early 1970′s, the song references almost verbatim the British Lullaby, Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross. The old nursery rhyme goes like this, “Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross, To see a fine lady upon a white horse; Rings on her fingers and bells on her toes, And she shall have music wherever she goes.”
New Speedway Boogie – This song is a rather blunt reference to the nightmare at Altamont and written as a reply to a scathing article by rock critic Ralph J. Gleason. Interestingly, Jerry Garcia actually said in a later interview that he felt the song was a bit of an overreaction, recognizing that, “There’s darkness and there’s light and it’s the interplay that represents the game that we’re allowed to play on this planet.”
Mission in the Rain – Mission in the Rain is an interesting lyrical song in that it always seems like the only person it could be written for in the first person would be Jerry Garcia. Well, in this case Jerry agreed, “Occasionally, Hunter writes me an autobiographical song, like ‘Mission in the Rain,’ which is a song that might be about me… it’s autobiographical, but I didn’t write it.”
Loser – Loser has a funny Garcia story behind it as well. While the lyrics are clearly written about a jerk and a loser, Jerry actually inhabited two different personas at different times when performing the song. “The lyrics have the guy an idiot, but the idiot’s version of himself is, ‘Hey, I’m great!’ I can ride that either way and there’s lots of shading in between those things at the same time. I love it when it’s ambiguous like that.”
Box of Rain – The song that Robert Hunter described as coming closest to writing itself was conceived by Phil Lesh as the song he wanted to sing to his dying father. Hunter said Phil that composed every single piece of the song prior to the existence of the words, even down to vocal sounds where the lyrics would later fit. Knowing the heavy-hearted story behind the song, it’s not hard to figure out why the band tabled it for so song.