Robert Hunter, the beloved poet and lyricist whose work with the Grateful Dead has become ingrained in the heart of American music, died Monday night at the age of 78.
In the wide world of songwriting, few lyricists have had a more profound and palpable effect on popular song and the American ethos than Hunter. Penning the words for the majority of the Grateful Dead’s songs, Hunter’s work has gone on to become a beacon for counterculture and the ideal of personal expression and freedom that sprang from the late 1960s. Blending traditional American themes and language with fantasy, history, psychedelia and the abstract, Hunter was a one-of-a-kind wordsmith that not only voiced the character of his generation, but influenced and inspired the generations to come after.
The news of his death came Tuesday when his family released a statement reading, “It is with great sadness we confirm our beloved Robert passed away yesterday night. He died peacefully at home in his bed, surrounded by love. His wife Maureen was by his side holding his hand. For his fans that have loved and supported him all these years, take comfort in knowing that his words are all around us, and in that way his is never truly gone. In this time of grief please celebrate him the way you all know how, by being together and listening to the music. Let there be songs to fill the air.”
Born Robert Burns in San Luis Obispo, California, in 1941, Hunter befriended Jerry Garcia in the early 1960s and the two became involved in the Palo Alto beatnik scene. Over the course of the decade, that scene evolved into San Francisco’s legendary hippie culture. After being an early volunteer test subject for LSD in Project MKUltra (along with other icons such as Ken Kesey), Hunter utilized the creatively formative drug and began to compose lyrics for the Grateful Dead.
In 1967, he wrote his first set of lyrics for the band, “China Cat Sunflower.” From there, Hunter and Garcia formed a songwriting partnership that resulted in some of the most popular and integral songs of the 1960s and the Twentieth Century as a whole, including “Ripple,” “Scarlet Begonias,” “Friend of the Devil,” “Box of Rain,” “Sugar Magnolia,” “Touch of Grey,” “Truckin’” and many more.
Never one to bask in the spotlight, Hunter kept a relatively low profile for the duration of his long and colorful career. Seldom performing on stage, he released 11 solo albums and nine books. After Garcia’s death in 1995, Hunter continued to write, working on songs with Bruce Hornsby, Jim Lauderdale, Greg Anton, Steve Kimock, David Nelson, Pete Sears and more.
While the musical experimentation and innovation of the Grateful Dead are often hailed and celebrated, it is impossible to separate the sprawling legacy of the band from Hunter’s lyrics. To Deadheads (and many non-Deadheads), Hunter’s words offered a gospel of sorts, giving a vocabulary to express their sorrows, their ups and downs, their exclusion from the mainstream and their joys and love found in life. In addition to the countless T-shirts, bumper stickers and tattoos that don them, Hunter’s words are readily available on the tongues, minds and hearts of many. Remaining relevant throughout the decades, the work of Robert Hunter is irreplicable and will be part of the American canon of song for generations to come.
Listen to one of Robert Hunter’s most moving set of lyrics, “Brokedown Palace,” below.