Watch Robert Hunter (RIP), Grateful Dead Lyricist, Perform His Legendary Songs “Bertha,” “Sugaree,” “Box of Rain,” “Friend of the Devil” & More

Even if you aren’t a fan, a men­tion of the Grate­ful Dead will con­jure hir­sute Jer­ry Gar­cia and band, lit by psy­che­del­ic lasers from with­out, hal­lu­cino­gens from with­in. You’ll recall the Dead’s logo, the skull with a light­ning bolt in its crown; you’ll remem­ber tie-dye shirts with rose-crowned skele­tons on them; you’ll see again those grin­ning, danc­ing bears your col­lege room­mate stuck all over her lap­top and on the back of her beat-up 30-year-old Toy­ota.

You might call to mind these pic­tures with more or less fond­ness, but you need nev­er to have heard a sin­gle song or have stepped into the park­ing lot of a Dead show to have imbibed all of the band’s icon­ic imagery.

Dead­heads, how­ev­er, will see these many sig­ni­fiers as win­dows onto a rich­ly tex­tured extend­ed uni­verse, one filled with lore and triv­ia, and inhab­it­ed by-behind-the-scenes cre­atives who built the band’s look, stage show, and folk-occult mythol­o­gy.

The Dead were at the cen­ter, but their lega­cy would nev­er have car­ried such weight with­out Owsley Stan­ley, for exam­ple, nick­named “Bear”—who inspired the danc­ing (actu­al­ly, march­ing) bears and came up with the skull and light­ning bolt (both drawn by artist Bob Thomas). Stan­ley also bankrolled the Dead with mon­ey from his LSD empire, built their “wall of sound” sys­tem, and served as pro­duc­er, sound engi­neer, and all-around gen­er­a­tive force.

No less crit­i­cal to the band’s exis­tence was Robert Hunter, the lyri­cist who penned the words to “Truckin’,” “Dark Star,” “Casey Jones,” “Uncle John’s Band,” “Ter­rapin Sta­tion,” “Rip­ple,” “Jack Straw,” “Friend of the Dev­il,” “Box of Rain,” “Touch of Grey,” and oth­er songs cen­tral to their huge live and stu­dio cat­a­logue, includ­ing favorites like “Bertha,” a live-only tune “prob­a­bly” about “some vaguer con­no­ta­tion of birth, death and rein­car­na­tion. Cycle of exis­tences, some kind of such non­sense like that.”

So Hunter told an inter­view­er about “Bertha”’s ori­gin, adding for clar­i­fi­ca­tion, “but then again, it might not be. I don’t remem­ber.” The lyri­cist, who died yes­ter­day, wrote “dream­like vari­a­tions on the Amer­i­can folk tra­di­tion,” notes Neil Gen­zlinger at The New York Times—songs that “meshed seam­less­ly with the band’s casu­al musi­cal style, help­ing to define the Grate­ful Dead as a coun­ter­cul­ture touch­stone.”

Hunter earned the admi­ra­tion not only of the band and its legions of fans, but also of fel­low song­writ­ers like Bob Dylan, who thought of Hunter as a peer and often col­lab­o­rat­ed with him. “He’s got a way with words and I do, too,” Dylan told Rolling Stone. “We both write a dif­fer­ent type of song than what pass­es today for song­writ­ing.” Like Dylan, Hunter worked in a mys­ti­cal vein, “with a bound­less knowl­edge of sub­jects run­ning the gamut from clas­sic lit­er­a­ture to street life,” notes The Wash­ing­ton Post.

Hunter was a nat­ur­al sto­ry­teller who wrote “author­i­ta­tive­ly about every­one from card sharks and hus­tlers to poor dirt farm­ers and free-spir­it­ed lovers.” His nar­ra­tives pro­vid­ed the Dead with a cohe­sive “weird Amer­i­can” folk cen­ter to anchor their free-form musi­cal exper­i­men­ta­tion: a base to return to and exclaim, as Hunter famous­ly wrote in “Truckin’,” “what a long, strange trip it’s been.” Though he was him­self a musi­cian, “pro­fi­cient in a num­ber of instru­ments includ­ing gui­tar, vio­lin, cel­lo, and trum­pet,” he nev­er appeared onstage with the band in all their 30 years.

He pre­ferred to stand in the wings or “sit anony­mous­ly in the audi­ence.” Like Stan­ley, he intend­ed his cre­ative efforts for the Grate­ful Dead, not the Grate­ful Dead fea­tur­ing Robert Hunter. But that doesn’t mean he nev­er took the stage to play those leg­endary songs—only that he wait­ed until a cou­ple decades after the band’s last gig. Here, you can see Hunter play fan favorite “Bertha” (top), and sev­er­al oth­er of his beloved Dead songs: “Sug­a­ree,” “Scar­let Bego­nias,” “Box of Rain,” “Brown Eyed Women,” “Rip­ple,” and “Friend of the Dev­il.”

These per­for­mances come from appear­ances at the Stafford Palace The­ater and Nashville’s Ryman Audi­to­ri­um in 2013 and the New­port Folk Fes­ti­val in 2014, before niche audi­ences who knew very well who Robert Hunter was. But while his name may nev­er be as well-known in pop­u­lar cul­ture as the many artists he col­lab­o­rat­ed with and wrote for, Hunter nonethe­less left an impres­sion on Amer­i­can cul­ture that will not soon fade away.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How the Grate­ful Dead’s “Wall of Sound”–a Mon­ster, 600-Speak­er Sound System–Changed Rock Con­certs & Live Music For­ev­er

Take a Long, Strange Trip and Stream a 346-Hour Chrono­log­i­cal Playlist of Live Grate­ful Dead Per­for­mances (1966–1995)

The Longest of the Grate­ful Dead’s Epic Long Jams: “Dark Star” (1972), “The Oth­er One” (1972) and “Play­ing in The Band” (1974)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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