What follows is a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 10/12/19, a reflection about Robert Hunter, who wrote lyrics for the Grateful Dead.
Those of you who are obituary readers may remember that just about 3 weeks ago a man named Robert Hunter died. It is likely you had never heard his name before, but articles about his life appeared in all of the major news papers in the country, and his death was even mentioned on TV and the radio. You probably would not have recognized the name, because Robert Hunter, as famous as he was in some circles, was an entirely behind the scenes kind of guy, and a bit of a recluse at that.
His fame, such as it was, came from his writing – not the kind of writing you normally expect – he didn’t write books, or articles for magazines. Instead, Robert Hunter wrote poetry, but more than that, lyrics for songs. And he became famous because the words that he wrote – his lyrics – were set to music and sung by people like Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, and Bruce Hornsby. All stars in the world of rock and roll. But by far the most important song writing partnership for Robert Hunter was with a man named Jerry Garcia, whom I imagine you’ve heard of, particularly since I am your rabbi. Jerry Garcia, of course, was the lead guitarist in the Grateful Dead, and Robert Hunter was the man who wrote the words to every original song Jerry Garcia ever sang.
Hunter lived a long and eventful life. He was 78 when he died, surrounded by his wife and his family. He came of age in the late 50s and early 60s, and living in the San Francisco Bay area, he met the Beatniks, and when he was around twenty or so, he became friendly with Garcia. He was largely self educated, but he loved the spoken and written word, and he fell in love with classic American folk music. He wrote lyrics in great blasts of creative energy, some days writing two or three songs in a single sitting, words that once given to Garcia became classic songs, staples of the American musical lexicon. In his writing he referenced psychedelic experiences, old ghost stories, English sailing songs, the blues, mythology and the Bible, and the old west as well, often painting landscapes of a dark America filled with desperate losers. And yet for all the darkness, the possibility of redemption was always there, just on the horizon, just at the next town or train stop. In his own words, from the song New Speedway Boogie, ‘this darkness has got to give.’
I’ve been thinking abut Robert Hunter a lot since he died. I’ve been listening to Grateful Dead music from the time I became bar mitzvah, and as you know if you were here last Shabbat, that is now 42 years ago, most of life. His lyrics are always in my mind, a snippet here, a phrase there, sometimes an entire line, but always just under the surface of whatever I am doing, saying, or thinking. He had a way – like I guess all of the great poets, the great lyricists, the great wordsmiths, of capturing a feeling that you knew from your own heart, and phrasing it in just exactly the right way. And when Hunter’s words so seamlessly and perfectly blended into Garcia’s melodies and chord changes, and you would hear them sung in Garcia’s ragged tenor, you would simply say, that is me and that is my life.
And here we are this morning, having read from the Torah Parshat Ha’azinu. If you were following along in the Humash you know the portion consists of an extended poem that Moses recites in front of the people before he ascends Mt Nebo, where he will die. Moses’ poem is often called in Hebrew שירת משה, or in English ‘the Song of Moses.’ It got that name because of a verse near the end of the portion, which describes the moment when Moses publicly said these words. Here is that verse: ויבא משה וידבר את כל דברי השירה הזאת באזני העם – and Moses came, and recited all the words of this – shirah – this song – in the hearing of the people.
I’ve often wondered if Moses actually did sing the words, standing there in front of the people so long ago. I wonder what his voice sounded like, or what melody he would have used? The words themselves naturally create a rhythm, as all great lyrics do, the syllables of one line often matching the next. Even not knowing or understanding the Hebrew, one can hear the poetry just from those words, their sound and rhythm, and of course when chanted in the Torah, their melody.
The Torah includes an interesting note about the end of Moses’ recitation of the song, a last comment that Moses makes to the people, in fact the very last thing he ever says to them: “and when Moses finished reciting all these words to Israel, he said to them: Take to heart all the words with which I have testified to you today. Enjoin them upon your children, that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this Torah. for it is not a trifling thing for you; כי הוא חייכם – it is your very life…”
Tradition teaches us that Moses said those words to the Israelites some 3,000 years ago. And here we are today, having read them. As we will next week, and the week after that. Teaching them to our children and our grandchildren, living them in our lives, finding meaning in them, and a sense of hope and faith and light. This darkness has got to give.
Here is another Robert Hunter line, this from the elegy he wrote when Jerry Garcia died in 1995 –
“If some part of that music is heard in deepest dream,
Or on some breeze of summer a snatch of golden theme,
We’ll know you live inside us, with love that never parts;
Our good old Jack O Diamonds, become the King of Hearts”
The great lyrics truly do live on, long after their singers are gone. Their words can be heard in our dreams, or in the summer breeze that gently blows through the trees, or seen in the turning of the leaves in the fall, or the softly falling snow of winter. Those words reside in our hearts and souls, informing our lives, bringing meaning to our days, easing our difficult moments, giving us comfort during dark times, helping us always to see the light in God’s world.
One last line from Robert Hunter, this the celebratory last lyric from the classic song Ripple: “Let there be songs to fill the air.”
so may it always be –