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Greatest Stories Ever Told - "Candyman"

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.


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Joined: Nov 8 2016
Can't buy the Candyman-Benson identity

Sure a lot of lyrics (literature too) have shifting points of view but Candyman never explicitly changes from first to third. So to accept the identity you'd have to accept some unconventional things.

1) Two different first person narratives.
2) Candyman-Benson would shoot himself (not impossible, if he is self loathing due to the nature of his existence).
3) Multiple personality disorder?
4) Candyman will already be dead when he gets back to Memphis (presumably in a coffin?). How's he going to get there?

Also not sure that Benson is the "one less man alive." Candyman (or whoever is narrating) only wishes he had a shotgun. How else is he going to kill Benson?

Candyman's not a badder than usual guy--you know it by the line and the way Jerry sings it: "Hand me my old guitar, pass the whiskey round." Isn't that just the essence of the Dead? That's pathos, and very pure at that, and it is what David has his finger on in talking about the outcast, or I would say, outsider (after all many of choose to stand off, we have not been cast off), feeling to many of the Hunter/Garcia songs.

Joined: Jul 15 2013
One less man alive

While I have come over time to interpret the "one less man alive" line the same as David - that being Mr. Benson will be the one less man alive after the Candyman (who I believe is the narrator not Mr. Benson) gets back to Memphis and settles one old score - when I first heard this song as a 14 year old (and for a couple of years after that) I thought the Candyman himself would be the one less man alive if he showed his face again in Memphis (where he learned to talk the jive) either because of a jealous husband or boyfriend of one of his pretty ladies or because someone who either lost money to him when he was throwing lucky dice and thought they were a little too lucky (although I'm sure the Candyman is as honest as a Denver man can be) or someone to whom he owes some gambling debt. Maybe even a drug deal gone bad.

But, due to the fact that the Mr. Benson line immediately follows this line, I've come to agree that Mr. Benson would be the one less man alive (although I don't think it's completely free from doubt). The postings of those suggesting that Mr. Benson is in fact the Candyman would actually connect the two (i.e., Mr. Benson, who is the Candyman, would be the one less man alive), but I still view the narrator as the Candyman.

Joined: Jun 15 2007
Underground Velvet Truffles

Grace Slick once said, and I paraphrase from an old songbook, that even Joan Baez flattened velvet when she sat down...though I am quite certain Joan already knew that to be true. Even Joan though, I presume, would still admit it was a damned good line!

Someday too, even the Grateful Dead have to have to sit down and see their flattened velvet. Will they be so content, for better or worse as the case may be, as Joannie?

"Look out, look out, the Candyman...Here he come and he's gone again..."

There are actually a couple of candy recipes referenced in this song that could use some looking in to.

Or as the United Negro College Fund once said in the 60's: The mind is a terrible thing to waste...unless, of course, it becomes absolutely necessary..,in also which case, the right people are indeed on the job and we'll go first.

Grateful Dead.

slo lettuce's picture
Joined: Jul 20 2012
in the grateful dead arena...

tens of thousands of us have benefited (or suffered) from the "candyman", the dealer of pleasures. Many of us have played either the role of the candyman, the one waiting for the candyman or the one trying to stay away from the pleasures the candyman brings to town.

Owsley was quite the candyman; a sprinter. Mr. Sand was much more the marathoner, if we are to give credit. Both producing the candy so many of us desired.

I've always wondered what effect the presence of the Hells Angels had on Robert's lyrics, if any. They were a substantial part of the early scene. Candy providers in quantities and people boldly living the outlaw lifestyle. Just a thought.

I've always loved this song. Essential Dead.

One Man's picture
Joined: May 17 2011
Mr. Benson

In my mind, Mr. Benson has always been the candyman. The dealer. The pusher. He's "doing well" from drug sales. The narrator wants to kill him because of the mayhem he has enabled. Jerry sings this, but don't forget it's just a song. A made-up story. Nothing like the singer's actual life, where the dealer was apparently welcomed. I wonder how that little conflict got compartmentalized or otherwise denied. Life is complicated. And this song is full of the best Hunter/Garcia collaboration. I loved the period where Garcia would use the rotating speaker (Leslie) effect during the solo. I always brighten up when this one rolls around on the set list. It's heavy in all of the best ways.

Joined: Jan 19 2011
A lot of talk

The narrator talks a big game about what he is going to do, but when he comes face to face with his nemesis nothing goes down. He isn't trouble, he is the guy who goes out the back door when trouble comes in the front.

Charbroiled's picture
Joined: Jun 19 2007
Hand me my old Guitar

Jerry was the Candyman to me. I love the melody of this song and after the jam the humming into the final verse.

Another one that always got a big cheer, Drink down a bottle and be ready to Kill.

Pass the whiskey round, a little early now but always willin'

Joined: Dec 23 2010
Phun Phact....

At around 7 measures into the intro you can hear a dog barking in the background. Sounds like a large dog, maybe a German Shepard. My guess is that it was a dog on site at the studio and bled through on the final take. Also, Jerry's using his good old wah wah pedal on the solo which helps give it that ethereal sound. My band does note for note versions with every instrument of Dead tunes and we employ both of these when playing live. Fun!

Underthevolcano's picture
Joined: Feb 6 2008
the candyman is

the evil twin of...PANAMA RED. (ha) Remember those westerns where the bad guy(s) come to town, the shop keepers tremble, the sheriff starts sweating and the menfolk are looking to lock away their womenfolk who are peeking out of the curtains repulsed/fascinated by the bad-uns. Oh yeah-and the evil leader doesn't want to get toppled by the new bad guy.

hippyjameZ's picture
Joined: May 4 2008
Mr. Benson..

In my story - and everybody has their own movie - Mr. Benson is the Candyman. He is the essence of drugs. Drug addiction has lots of valleys and peaks. Ups and downs. We feel good when we do them. Whenever they where off, we feel bad. It's all such a love/hate relationship.

Anytime I would be coming off the drugs, I would get the biggest headrush whenever during the shotgun verse.


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