Robert Hunter had his poetic beginnings in the Palo Alto, CA coffeehouse scene in the mid-sixties. It was there that he began writing poetry and found his future song writing partner Jerry Garcia.
Although Hunter had been writing poetry for several years, his career did not begin in earnest until 1967, when he mailed the lyrics to "St. Stephen", "Alligator", and "China Cat Sunflower" to his friend Garcia and the Grateful Dead. He was almost immediately taken on as the primary lyricist for the band. In collaboration with Garcia's musical talent, Hunter began turning out dozens of poems that would later become well-known songs.
The poems of Robert Hunter have diverse and variegated themes; most, however relate either to folk stories or the vivid emotions and scenes he creates in order to illustrate his point. Hunter's lyrical themes can be divided into three main categories. First are themes used in a traditional vein, written about classical ideas and told in a folkloric fashion. Second are themes employed in a contemporary tone, about modern concepts and written in a more current style. Last are themes that are either used frequently in both contemporary and traditional ways, or transcend the division of contemporary/traditional and form their own categories.
One of the main traditional themes that Hunter uses is the gambling theme. The poems "Candyman" and "Loser" exemplify this motif the best:
Come on boys and gamble
Roll those laughing bones.
Seven come eleven, boys
I'll take your money home.
Last fair deal in the country, sweet Suzy
Last fair deal in the town.
Put your gold money where your love is, baby,
Before you let my deal go down.
Both are about professional gamblers, and both (especially "Loser") carry overtones of trouble and treachery. The following lines illustrate one such instance in "Candyman":
I come in from Memphis
where I learned to talk the jive
When I get back to Memphis
Be one man less alive
The Candyman obviously has a score to settle with someone in Memphis. The "trouble" notion is both more and less apparent in "Loser":
Don't you push me baby
because I'm moaning low.
I know a little something
you won't ever know.
Don't you touch hard liquor
just a cup of cold coffee.
Gonna get up
in the morning and go.
The idea of trouble is more central in this song, but expressed in a subtler fashion.
Another of the primarily traditional themes Hunter uses is that of travel. "Jack Straw" is a good example of this that also demonstrates the use of the railroad as a symbol:
Catch the Detroit Lightning
Out of Santa Fe
Great Northern out of Cheyenne
Sea to shining sea.
Gotta get to Tulsa
First train we can ride...
The chorus is a good model of the travel motif in the poem:
Keep a rollin'
Just a mile to...