"Once in a while you can get shown the light
in the strangest of places if you look at it right"
--"Scarlet Begonias"

Light and Dark in the Lyrics of Robert Hunter

A thematic essay for The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics.
By David Dodd

Copyright notice
His job is to share the light, and not to master... --"Terrapin Station"

We humans spend our lives bumbling along, and occasionally we have moments of insight, or of grace. They don't last long, but they somehow make life more worth living. Many writers have attempted to capture this feeling of momentary magical thinking; religions are founded upon seeking a permanent state of illumination or grace; and those who use drugs as "escape" are often seekers of the light.

The light. Robert Hunter's lyrics for the Grateful Dead make repeated allusion to the gold ring of understanding, knowledge, bliss, grace, or whatever else "it" might be called, which all too often just slips away when we try to reach it. It's a transitory thing, this "knowing."

Hunter uses evocations of light and dark, of day and night, to present many shades of meaning. Dawn and dark can be seen as birth and death, as well as knowing and unknowing. And they are not completely separate at all times: sometimes there is only grey. Sometimes the darkness gives birth to the light, as mystery and the unknown are as necessary as revelation. And sometimes, as in "Blues for Allah," the seeds of light give birth to darkness: knowledge brings a price with it.

(Image from the Vatican's Raphael Loggias. For a larger version of the image, see the Vatican's museum site, which offers the image.)

It's a dichotomy as old as every creation story, or as old as Adam and Eve and their apple. And there is the final, terrifying truth that "the more you know, the more you know the less you know." But it's the occasional moment of enlightenment, of transcendence, that makes all the bumbling about worthwhile.

Hunter's use of dichotomy, of the invocation of opposite-ness, extends beyond the light/dark references to fire and ice ("Uncle John's Band"), hot and cold ("Fire on the Mountain") and life and death themselves. The yin-yang consciousness is present in the repeated evocation of the symbol of the rose.

Here's a partial inventory of references to light/dark in Hunter's lyrics: