Robert Hunter 1941-2019

Fare you well my honey
Fare you well my only true love
All the birds that were singing
have flown, except you alone

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Photo by Jay Blakesberg

I am not qualified to call myself a Deadhead in the same way that I am not qualified to call myself a Christian. To be a Christian you need to believe in the divinity of Christ, and to be a Deadhead your favorite band needs to be the Grateful Dead. Still, I am a great admirer of both entities and in part due to the same thing: their words. Jesus wrote The Lord’s Prayer and The Sermon on the Mount, stone cold classics in any book. Many, if not most, of the greatest lyrics of the Grateful Dead were written by Robert Hunter.

In the early days of rock music when artists like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Buddy Holly did something that set them apart from most popular music of their time. They played and sang songs that they also wrote. For the next few decades most of rock’s lyricists were also musicians and/or singers. Robert Hunter, along with a few notable contemporaries like Eddie Holland and Bernie Taupin, left his mark on music history through words alone.

On the Dead’s third album, Aoxomoxoa, there are listings for The Band, The Supporting Musicians, and The Crew. Under the last heading is the line “The Words – Robert Hunter.” By their sixth album, American Beauty, seven names are listed as The Dead – the six musicians in the band and “Robert Hunter – songwriter.”

The inspiration behind songwriting is as close to divinity as anything I have experienced. As it was for Hunter, who remembers one sacred afternoon holed up in a hotel room with a bottle of booze and his muse this way:

Once in a while something would sort of pop out of nowhere. The sunny London afternoon I wrote ‘Brokedown Palace,’ ‘To Lay Me Down,’ and ‘Ripple,’ all keepers, was in no way typical, but it remains in my mind as the personal quintessence of the union between writer and Muse, a promising past and bright future prospects melding into one great glowing apocatastasis in South Kensington, writing words that seemed to flow like molten gold onto parchment paper.

In the swirling events of this season from the global (climate disasters) to the national (impeachment) to the local (Yankee playoffs) to the personal (some heavy shit), it is easy to lose track of the radar blip that was the news of Robert Hunter’s death. Lyricists of his caliber are so rare that those of us who love this music will be doing ourselves a favor if we block out the rest of the distractions in our life for a few minutes and meditate on the work of this man’s life.

Fare you well, my honey,
fare you well my only true one.
All the birds that were singing
are flown, except you alone.
Going to leave this brokedown palace,
On my hand and knees, i will roll, roll, roll
Make myself a bed by the waterside,
In my time, in my time I will roll, roll roll
In a bed, in a bed,
by the waterside I will lay my head.
Listen to the river sing sweet songs
to rock my soul
River going to take me
sing me sweet and sleepy
sing me sweet and sleepy all the way back home
Sing a lullaby beside the water
Lovers come and go, the river roll, roll, roll
Fare you well, fare you well
I love you more than words can tell
Listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul
Going to plant a weeping willow
On the bank’s green edge it will grow, grow, grow
It’s a far gone lullaby, sung many years ago
Mama, mama many worlds I’ve come since i first left home
Going home, going home, by the riverside i will rest my bones
Listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul
Fare you well, fare you well
I love you more than words can tell
Listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul

 

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