"The sky was yellow and the sun was blue"

Leonardo Words From Out a Silk Trombone: Nonsense & Whimsy in Robert Hunter's Lyrics

A thematic essay for The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics.
By David Dodd
Library, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs
There is a long-standing and honorable tradition of nonsense in English language poetry, and Robert Hunter has contributed several notable examples of the form in his years as lyricist for the Grateful Dead.

Several entire songs come immediately to mind:

Many of these songs in the nonsense genre spring from the early days of the band's activity; indeed, almost the entire AOXOMOXOA album could be seen as a collection of nonsense verse set to music, and whose theme includes the title of the album.

A characteristic of nonsense is that it lends itself so well to diverse interpretation, when in fact the key might be that there is "no sense" to the verse; images are free to resonate independently of actual meaning.

Carolyn Wells, in her introduction to her 1902 collection, A Nonsense Anthology, writes as follows:

"On a topographical map of Literature Nonsense would be represented by a small and sparsely settled country, neglected by the average tourist, but affording keen delight to the few enlightened travellers who sojourn within its borders. It is a field which has been neglected by anthologists and essayists; one of its few serious recognitions being in a certain "Tratise of Figurative Language," which says: "Nonsense; shall we dignify that with a place on our list? Assuredly will vote for doing so every one who hath at all duly noticed what admirable and wise uses it can be, and often is, put to, though hever before in rhetoric has it been so highly honored. How deeply does clever or quaint nonsense abide in the memory, and for how many a decade--from earliest youth to age's most venerable years.""

Nonsense is a perfect refuge for the cherished sense of ambiguity with which Hunter seeks to imbue his lyrics; interpretation is a task which, though not entirely pointless, can also never be entirely sensible. Acknowledging this from the start is a very liberating thing; we are free to pour our own meaning into the empty cup which the song represents.

As noted, the propensity towards nonsense was most evident in Hunter's early work; can we find any examples of more recent lyrics which fit into this category, or has our poet become too serious?

I think rather that Hunter has begun to integrate nonsense into otherwise more straightforward lyrics, as in "A Touch of Grey", which, in the midst of its anthemic verses, makes statements such as "The cow is giving kerosene," which fits with the sense of a world gone topsy-turvy, but is itself nonsense. And "Liberty", with lines like "If I was the sun, I'd look for shade / If I was a bed, I would stay unmade / If I was a river I'd run uphill..." and so on. Nonsense has been sharpened into a tool which can express a state of mind in a few words. Hunter now uses the tool selectively, and with greater care, than in the drug-drenched days of the late sixties, when nonsense was a suitable way of expressing the dissolving of the sense of the world as a stable and orderly place.

Another example of Hunter utilizing nonsense in this way is in "Scarlet Begonias", when the lyrics veer suddenly away from the immediate story being told into "the wind in the willows played Tea for Two, the sky was yellow and the sun was blue..." It's a world where the unexpected occurs, and we'd better be ready for it.

Perhaps the only rock lyricsts who shared with Hunter this propensity towards nonsense were John Lennon and Paul McCartney, with songs like "Yellow Submarine," "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," and "I Am the Walrus." They, too, were attempting to share something of the nature of their expanded, altered, consciousness with the world, and the childlike abandon of "Yellow Submarine" is a perfect way of communicating the sense of a world beyond this one, in a land "beyond the waves".

Sometimes the only way to say the most serious things is by engaging that part of the mind which is the territory of dreams, laughter, terror, and absurdity. And of childhood, where possibility is only as limited as one's imagination.

English language Note:
"It [nonsense poetry] is a peculiarly English phenomenon (though Germans, especially Heinrich Hoffman, have contributed a share) whose hierophants are Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll."
--A Dictionary of Literary Terms, p. 417

First posted: May 22, 1995
Last revised: June 26, 1996