In mid-March of 1970, the Grateful Dead set off on tour, accompanied for the first time by Hunter, who had concluded that the band needed a road song, and that he needed to see the road to write the song. Hunter, Garcia, Lesh, and Weir sat around a pool in Florida during this road trip and Hunter pulled out his almost finished ‘Truckin’’ lyrics which he’d been working on for months, inspired by their bust in New Orleans. Their guitars were within grabbing distance, so Garcia, Lesh, and Weir set music to this song in about a half-hour. The band was scheduled to play several shows in Florida, but some of the dates changed, leaving them time to sit around and write, rather than coming and going to and from various venues. The Grateful Dead were supposed to perform two shows at Pirate’s World, in Dania, FL, just North of Miami, but somehow, they got combined into one show on March 24, 1970. The band was able to finish writing most of ‘Truckin’’ while sitting by the pool at the motel that they were staying in for these Pirates World shows. They had a free afternoon, which made it possible for them to work on the final verses of ‘Truckin’’ and it was most likely finished on 3/23/70.
The Grateful Dead hit the road again after their Pirate’s World show as they were scheduled to play one show sometime between Friday-Sunday, March 27, 28 or 29, 1970 at the Winter’s End Festival, in Miami, FL and this is why they came to Florida in the first place. Robert Hunter said that the lyrics, “Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me” came from Phil. It took Hunter a couple of months to write these lyrics starting off in San Francisco and finishing it up in Florida and he was amazed that it only took the guys about half an hour to put all the music together. In ‘Truckin’’, the band sings about getting “Busted, down on Bourbon Street”, which just happened less than two months earlier. When they sing, “Dallas, got a soft machine, Houston, too close to New Orleans”, their February schedule shows that they just played Dallas on Feb 20, well it was actually in nearby Fort Worth and they were in Houston on Feb 22 just the month before. And as for “Truckin’, up to Buffalo”, they had just played in Buffalo less than a week before they wrote this song. Workingman’s Dead was recorded in February of 1970 and released on June 14, 1970, so ‘Truckin’’ had to wait for American Beauty, which was recorded between August and September of 1970 and released in November. ‘Truckin’’ became inextricably tied to, the Grateful Dead’s experience as a touring band, becoming an autobiographical song, with the lyrics being reflections on real events that happened out on the road.
The first few months of 1970 were tumultuous for the Grateful Dead. They had been all over the country, involved in a New Orleans drug bust on January 31, their organ player Tom Constanten had parted ways with the band by mutual agreement, they found out that their manager absconded with a great deal of their money and they had to fire him, they hired Rock Scully as their new road manager and recorded a successful album, which became #27 on the Billboard album chart, marking the first time they’d cracked the Top Forty. By the 8th of March, they had already played 34 shows. The jamming part of ‘Truckin’’ had its roots in the ‘Nobody’s Fault but Mine’ blues riff song which was first recorded by gospel blues artist Blind Willie Johnson in 1927. This song is about a man that is trying to stay ahead of the evil which is pursuing him and it is clear that he will be doomed, unless he uses his abilities to learn biblical teachings. The band played this song a couple of times in 1970, but they didn’t play it again until fall ’72, when the ‘Nobody’s’ jam became a pretty standard follower to the ‘Truckin’’ jam, sometimes with lyrics, sometimes not. Led Zeppelin included this song on their 1976 Presence album. There is also a Chuck Berry ‘School Days’ influence in this song.
Truckin’ was originally a Harlem dance step in the ‘20s and ‘30s, that was referred to in blues songs like Blind Boy Fuller’s ‘Truckin’ My Blues Away’ that features the lyrics, “Keep on truckin’ mama, truckin’ my blues away.” Hot Tuna later rechristened this song in 1972 as ‘Keep on Truckin’ Mama’ on their album Burgers.) The Mills Blue Rhythm Band recorded a jazz foxtrot called Truckin’ in 1935, with the lyrics “All over town you’ll see them truckin’ along…everybody’s truckin’.” The American cartoonist and musician Robert Crumb was inspired by this old blues song to draw his comic “Keep On Truckin’”, which was published in the first issue of Zap Comix in 1968. The cartoon consists of an assortment of men, leaning back while strutting their stuff confidently forward and this spawned the catchphrase “Keep on Truckin’”, that was picked up by the hippie generation. Hunter may refer to Crumb’s big-footed men in the line “keep truckin’ like the doo-dah man” (though he later said, “Oh, that’s just from the Stephen Foster song ‘Camptown Races’, that goes “Camptown ladies sing dis song, Doo-dah! doo-dah!”
Hunter said that the verse about sweet Jane where it goes, “What in the world ever became of Sweet Jane? She lost her sparkle, you know she isn’t the same”, was lifted from a 1948 toothpaste commercial and this portion of the lyrics was written as a way of poking fun at 1940s radio commercials. It is kind of sad that Millicent never got kissed, because she wasn’t using Pepsodent.
Poor Millicent, poor Millicent,
She never used Pepsodent
Her smile grew dim
And she lost her vim
So folks don’t be like Millicent