The Meaning of the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’”

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    The Meaning of the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’”
    Published: November 27, 2023

    Truckin’ Up to Buffalo, featuring the show from July 4th 1989 – an official release from July of 2005.

    “Truckin’” is one of the defining songs in the Grateful Dead canon. Released in November 1970 on the group’s famous album American Beauty, “Truckin’” made its live debut on August 18th, 1970 (along with “Operator,” “Brokedown Palace,” and “Ripple”), and remained a staple in the rotation for the next twenty-five years.

    With lyrics by Robert Hunter and music by Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, and Bob Weir, “Truckin’” encapsulates the freewheeling spirit of the Grateful Dead, and of the time in American history that they came up during.

    “Truckin’” contains a handful of references to real events in the early days of the band, and also contains the lyric, “What a long, strange, trip it’s been,” one of rock’s most iconic lines.

    Today I’m diving deep into “Truckin’” to explore not only the song’s background and influences, but also a deep analysis of the meaning behind the lyrics and a look at the timeline of the song’s live performance.

    Grateful Dead – “Truckin’” (American Beauty, 1970)

    “Truckin’” Origins

    While the Grateful Dead may have made the term “Truckin’” famous, they were not the first ones in the history of American pop culture to use this phrase. To those familiar with Robert Hunter’s songwriting, this is not surprising.

    The term itself has roots in 1920s and 1930s dance, which included a step called “trucking.” This was mentioned in a number of songs from the era, including the blues “Keep on Truckin’” and Blind Boy Fuller’s “Truckin’ My Blues Away.”

    Blind Boy Fuller – “Truckin My Blues Away” (1935-1936)

    Several dances of the time included the “trucking” step, although some people preferred to call the move “strutting” because “trucking” was also a slang term for “f*cking.”

    This dance was so engrained in the pop cultural landscape that even John Lennon of the Beatles himself was photographed making a reference to it via a silly walk at the Cannes Film Festival, and that in 1971.

    Here are some examples of “trucking” in the late 1930s:

    Truckin’ in the late 1930s (Video)

    Also of note is this clip from a 1997 interview that Bob Weir, Robert Hunter, Mickey Hart, and Phil Lesh did with VH1, where they discuss the meaning of the song with the perspective of two years removed from Jerry Garcia’s death and the final Grateful Dead tour.

    Bob Weir, Robert Hunter, Mickey Hart, and Phil Lesh discuss “Truckin’” (1997)

    “Truckin’” Lyrics Meaning

    Lyrically, as the band members discuss in the above video, “Truckin’” is autobiographical and was inspired by the Grateful Dead and their life on the road.

    Let’s dive into the lyrics and see what they’re all about, making note of any references brought in along the way. They

    Chorus 1

    Truckin’, got my chips cashed in
    Keep truckin’, like the doodah man
    Together, more or less in line
    Just keep truckin’ on

    First chorus to “Truckin’” by the Grateful Dead.

    These lyrics refer to laying it all down on the line to hit the road. “Cashing in your chips” means that you aren’t holding out for anything. Nothing’s holding you back, and you’re free.

    The meaning of the “doodah man” here has been speculated.

    Skeleton Key, the 1994-published “dictionary for Deadheads” claims that Robert Hunter himself cited this as a reference to Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races.”

    Others say that it was a reference to the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, a Grateful Dead contemporary from the 1960s.

    Either way, we’re trucking on, and our journey is just getting started.

    Verse 1

    Arrows of neon and flashing marquees out on Main Street
    Chicago, New York, Detroit and it’s all on the same street
    Your typical city involved in a typical daydream
    Hang it up and see what tomorrow brings

    First verse to “Truckin’” by the Grateful Dead.

    Traveling around the country, playing shows in different cities. While the city may change, the scene becomes a blur, and they all look the same after a while. All part of the “typical daydream.”

    Each night when they go to sleep, they wake up in a new city, full of new adventures and surprises.

    Chorus 2

    Dallas, got a soft machine;
    Houston, too close to New Orleans;
    New York’s got the ways and means
    But just won’t let you be, oh no

    Second chorus to “Truckin’” by the Grateful Dead.

    This verse offers critiques of certain cities.

    Dallas having a “soft machine” suggests the ease of political swaying by financial means, or a corrupt government.

    Houston being too close to New Orleans is a reference to their famous pot bust in their hotel on Bourbon street in 1970. This is referenced again later in the song, and I will go into it in more detail.

    New York seems to have it all, but in the bustle you never get a chance to relax.

    Verse 2

    Most of the cats that you meet on the streets speak of true love
    Most of the time they’re sittin’ and cryin’ at home
    One of these days they know they gotta get goin’
    Out of the door and down to the street all alone

    Second verse to “Truckin’” by the Grateful Dead.

    Here, the lyrics reference meeting people on the street who seem to be their own worst enemies. They talk a big game about true love out on the streets, but spend most nights at home by themselves.

    The song encourages them to get out there and find what they need down on the streets, rather than hiding out in their homes and wallowing in self-pity.

    Chorus 3

    Truckin’, like the doodah man
    Once told me “You’ve got to play your hand”
    Sometimes the cards ain’t worth a dime
    If you don’t lay’em down

    Third chorus to “Truckin’” by the Grateful Dead.

    The doodah man makes another return here, this time to tell our narrator that it’s time to make a decision. You could have the best hand in the world, but if you never play it, you’ll never win the prize.

    A reference to cards places this right in line with many of Robert Hunter’s other gambling references, such as in “Deal” and “Loser.”

    Bridge

    Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me
    Other times I can barely see
    Lately it occurs to me
    What a long, strange trip it’s been

    Bridge to “Truckin’” by the Grateful Dead.

    Here we have one of the most famous lyrics in the entire canon of the Grateful Dead, and even some of the most iconic in all of American rock music, depending upon who you ask.

    This segment means that sometimes the light clearly marks your path, and other times you must find your way through the darkness. Lately, you’ve been thinking how weird this path through life really is.

    Robert Hunter has credited the band with the lyric “sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me.”

    The lyric here has been used to describe the entirety of the Grateful Dead’s existence, and is often repeated as sentimental parting words for dear friends, coworkers, and family members. It really resonates as a special, timeless lyric.

    Verse 3

    What in the world ever became of sweet Jane?
    She lost her sparkle, you know she isn’t the same
    Livin’ on reds, vitamin C, and cocaine
    All a friend can say is “Ain’t it a shame”

    Third verse to “Truckin’” by the Grateful Dead.

    While the first thought of many might be that this is a reference to the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane,” Robert Hunter once said that the line was more of an inside joke that nobody else understood.

    Despite this, it has been seen as a reference to marijuana, or of a general loss of innocence as someone grows up and moves on from youth and drugs like cannabis to a harder living smoking Marlboro reds, eating Vitamin C to ward off illness, and snorting cocaine.

    As a friend, one just shakes their head and says it’s a shame. There’s not much that can be done to correct the course of another person’s life.

    Chorus 4

    Truckin’, up to Buffalo
    Been thinkin’, you got to mellow slow
    Takes time to pick a place to go
    And just keep truckin’ on

    Fouth chorus to “Truckin’” by the Grateful Dead.

    The Dead often played in Buffalo, and had a sizable fanbase in the city. The lyric fits well within the flow of the verse, which suggests that you take it easy and don’t hurry, but eventually pick somewhere to go.

    No matter what you decide, you’ve just got to keep on moving forward.

    Verse 4

    Sittin’ and starin’ out of the hotel window
    Got a tip they’re gonna kick the door in again
    I’d like to get some sleep before I travel
    But if you got a warrant, I guess you’re gonna come in

    Fourth verse to “Truckin’” by the Grateful Dead

    This is a reference to the Grateful Dead’s first trip to New Orleans in 1970, in the winter of 1970, when the whole band was busted for pot in their hotel on Bourbon Street.

    It was this bust that produced not only this lyric, but also the famous Jerry Garcia mugshot, which features him cheesin’ at the camera, clearly not very concerned about his arrest.

    Chorus 5

    Busted, down on Bourbon Street
    Set up, like a bowlin’ pin
    Knocked down, it gets to wearin’ thin
    They just won’t let you be, oh no

    Fifth chorus to “Truckin’” by the Grateful Dead.

    This lyric continues the reference to their bust in New Orleans, and references their frequent struggles with the law during this time period, notably related to their sound man Owsley Stanley’s status as the “The King of LSD.”

    Verse 5

    You’re sick of hangin’ around and you’d like to travel
    Get tired of travelin’ and you want to settle down
    I guess they can’t revoke your soul for tryin’
    Get out of the door and light out and look all around

    Fifth verse to “Truckin’” by the Grateful Dead.

    Bringing to mind a restless soul and the passing of time, the message is one of acceptance for the way things are. Nobody is going to fault you for trying your best to soothe your restless soul.

    Whatever you decided to do, get out in the sunlight and take in all the sights. Keep on moving.

    The famous bridge repeats here again, followed by the final lyrics in the sixth chorus.

    Chorus 6

    Truckin’, I’m a goin’ home
    Whoa whoa baby, back where I belong
    Back home, sit down and patch my bones
    And get back truckin’ on
    Hey now get back truckin’ home

    Sixth chorus to “Truckin’” by the Grateful Dead.

    Back home at the end of a tour, and they’re ready for it. However, they’re only home for a quick rest before the head back out on the road once more, and the story goes on and on….

    This is the American dream, as lived out by the Grateful Dead and the fans that joined them on their long, strange trip, and continue to ride that bus today!

    Live Performance Timeline

    Being one of the group’s defining songs, there were many notable performances over the years. I’m going to give a timeline of some of the most famous, and best renditions, plus some personal favorites. Let me know in the comments if there are any that I need to check out and add!

    “Truckin’” (8/18/70)

    The first known recording, and likely the first ever public performance of the song. Acoustic show opener.

    “Truckin’” (5/26/72)

    Perhaps the most famous live recording of “Truckin’”, from the Lyceum in London, released on Europe ’72.

    “Truckin’” (5/19/74)

    Released on the Pacific Northwest ’73-’74 live compilation in 2018. Absolute heater.

    “Truckin’” (9/3/77)

    Labor Day Weekend 1977. One of the most famous Dead shows off all time, for good reason.

    “Truckin’” (10/30/80)

    From the cherished Radio City Music Hall run of October 1980. And with video!

    “Truckin’” (6/30/84)

    Dirty mid-80s “Truckin’” from a summertime show in Indianapolis.

    “Truckin’” (10/02/87)

    “Truckin’” (7/16/90)

    Full concert available, but “Truckin’” begins at 1:42:36.

    “Truckin’” (6/13/93)

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