More so than just about any other song in the Grateful Dead canon, ‘Truckin” is autobiographical. While tracks like ‘Uncle John’s Band’ and ‘Playing in the Band’ have come to encompass a certain poetic version of the Grateful Dead experience, ‘Truckin” is one of the only songs in the band’s discography that can be traced back to real events.
It all started when Robert Hunter proclaimed that the band needed a road song. In the proud tradition of Jack Kerouac, the Dead were perpetually on the road in the late 1960s, and Hunter felt the need to encapsulate that in their music. He just happened to hitch his wagon to the band’s convoy right as they were about to experience one of their most notable drug busts.
The band had been busted by the police before, most notably at their communal 710 Ashbury Street residence in 1967. But when police raided the band’s rooms on Bourbon Street in New Orleans after a gig in March of 1970, it became the inspiration for one of the band’s all-time anthems.
“The cops made it extra heavy for us, too,” then-manager Lenny Hart, the father of drummer Mickey Hart, told Rolling Stone at the time. “They detained the band, handcuffed them all together and lined them up in front of the building for press photos. The cops were enjoying it, just getting their own thing on.” Hart would abscond with most of the band’s money that same month.
‘Truckin” came to mean more than just the drug bust that sits at its centre. With some of Hunter’s most iconic imagery in hand, the Dead sing about their own approach to music and life – “together, more or less in line.” It was fun to pick up on the real-world analogues, but one character in the song didn’t appear to have any connection to real life at all: The Doo-Dah Man.
The question of ‘Who is The Doo-Dah Man?’ is so prevalent that there’s a whole entry in Skeleton Key: A Dictionary for Deadheads about the concept. As quoted in the book (and later in the band’s official podcast, The Good Ol’ Grateful Deadcast), Hunter said that the origins of the character came from “that song ‘Camptown Races’ that goes ‘doo-dah, doo-dah’. I wasn’t thinking about anybody in particular – just that gambler on his way home from the game with a pocket full of tin.”
As host Jesse Jarnow notes, when it’s all said and done, The Doo-Dah Man can ultimately be whoever you want him to be. But in Hunter’s mind, he was just another character floating around the Dead at the time, even if he didn’t actually exist. To help flesh out the harsh realities contained in ‘Truckin”, Hunter probably needed someone like the fictional The Doo-Dah Man.
Check out ‘Truckin’ down below.