By David Dodd
Here’s the plan—each week, I will blog about a different song, focusing, usually, on the lyrics, but also on some other aspects of the song, including its overall impact—a truly subjective thing. Therefore, the best part, I would hope, would not be anything in particular that I might have to say, but rather, the conversation that may happen via the comments over the course of time—and since all the posts will stay up, you can feel free to weigh in any time on any of the songs! With Grateful Dead lyrics, there’s always a new and different take on what they bring up for each listener, it seems. (I’ll consider requests for particular songs—just private message me!)
Someday it would be fun to collect all the songs that mention the city of Memphis, Tennessee. Surely they would fill a book of their own—something about the city, with its deep history of being a birthplace of the blues, resonates with generation after generation of musicians. The Dead played a number of songs featuring Memphis, including “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion),” “Big River,” “New Minglewood Blues,” and “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.”
Robert Hunter doesn’t set “Candyman” in Memphis, but it’s where the narrator rides in from, and where he plans to return after dealing with one particular necessary act of justice, or revenge. More about that in a bit.
The Hunter/Garcia song debuted in an acoustic set in the middle of a show on April 3, 1970, at the Field House at the University of Cincinnati. It was played steadily (277 times) throughout the remainder of the band’s career, although it was only played once between February 1971 and October 1972, according to DeadBase X. The final performance took place on June 30, 1995, at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
“Candyman” fits perfectly with the set of songs on American Beauty, released in November 1970. Garcia plays an absolutely amazing pedal steel solo on the studio recording, ethereal in the same way as his work on that instrument on his solo album, Garcia, especially on ”The Wheel.” It’s mixed a ways into the background, so it has a distant quality, almost ghost-like. His singing is sly and perfectly in character.
Now, about that act of revenge or justice. It’s not overtly stated, but it seems likely that the object of the reference to there being “one less man alive” when the narrator’s current sojourn is done could well be one “Mr. Benson.” I give a complete reference to the possible identity of this character in the Annotated Lyrics book, but it seems likely that Mr. Benson could be the Texas sheriff referenced in the Leadbelly song “Midnight Special”:
If you ever go to Houston, you better walk right, You better not stagger, you better not fight Sheriff Benson will arrest you, he'll carry you down And if the jury finds you guilty, penitentiary bound
Maybe the Candyman has come back to Houston to settle a score with the sheriff for past mistreatment. At any rate, he is ready to kill, that seems certain. Hunter commented on this line in an interview with Blair Jackson, as part of a conversation about crowd reaction to certain lines in his songs.
“Then there’s the line in ‘Candyman’ that always gets the big cheers: ‘If I had a shotgun, I’d blow you straight to hell.’ The first time I ran into that phenomenon was when I went to the movie Rollerball and aw the people were cheering the violence that was happening. I couldn’t believe it. I hope that people realize that the character in ‘Candyman’ is a character, and not me.”
I might be inclined these days to think that the cheers are less about the violence than about the anti-authoritarian sentiment expressed in this, and in other cheer-garnering lines. Others that come to mind include the line in “Bertha”: “Test me, test me—why don’t you arrest me?” and from “Tennessee Jed”: “Drink all day and rock all night, law come to get you if you don’t walk right.” There are others, I’m fairly sure, and they all have in common a certain attitude of belligerence or resentment vis-à-vis law enforcement.
The Candyman of the song is a gambler, a drinker, a musician, and a ladies’ man—that much is certain. He is also, likely, from context and from the traditional use of the moniker, a drug dealer. So he is on the wrong side of the law, as is the case with many of the narrator characters in Grateful Dead songs.
I’ve said before that one benefit of the prevalence of down-and-out, or even outright criminal characters in Dead songs is an increased opportunity for empathy with the entire range of human experience; a means for us to identify with the “other.” We need not be homeless or on the street ourselves to feel empathy for August West.
But I’ve been coming to think that there is something else about the placement of so many shady characters in the songs, who are in so many difficult predicaments with the law or with circumstances. While Hunter wants it to be clear that he is not the Candyman, he nevertheless writes about such characters repeatedly. And I think Deadheads, many of us anyway, tend to feel in some ways that we are societal outcasts, or that we are challenging society’s norms in any of a number of ways, and that our heritage belongs with the Beats and the Hippies, with the Counterculture in general. Or it did at one time. So the cheers generated by lines such as these come perhaps from a place of identification with the extremities to which the characters in the songs are driven.
Whether it’s Mr. Charlie, or Charlie Phogg, or Mr. Benson, or the sheriff in “Friend Of the Devil,” we find ourselves cheering their opponents and hoping that they get a comeuppance.
The Candyman seems to have something for everyone. He appeals to the pretty women, to the gambling boys, to the guys sitting around drinking and playing music. There are ready consumers, in other words, for all the vices he is peddling. And if it weren’t for the Mr. Bensons of the world, we would all be happy—right?
I think of the opening cartoon sequence from the Grateful Dead Movie, in which the Uncle Sam character, innocently trying to have a good time and live a life out on the road, riding his motorcycle, finds himself in jail. What saves him and sets him free? The Statue of Liberty crashes through his jail cell walls, and the music, “U.S. Blues,” comes blasting through.
Freedom. Nothing to be taken for granted. And music can help us get there, or at least remind us of what we may be up against.
I think there may be some stories out there about your experiences with these issues—please share them if you can.