The Grateful Dead You May Not Know

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Hippies. Potheads. Tie-dye shirts. Endless jamming. These are few of the things that come to mind when someone mentions the Grateful Dead. To many people, the band’s name itself is a pejorative term, something associated with bums, drugs, dropping out. This is an unfortunate legacy for a band that was unequivocally great but terribly misunderstood.

Yes, the Dead were a traveling circus for many years. Towards the end of the band’s and Jerry Garcia’s lives, a Dead show meant a sold out football stadium or arena and a city full of Volkswagen Microbuses and broke, ticketless Deadheads holding up hopeful fingers in search of that “miracle” ticket. The aftermath of a Grateful Dead concert meant parking lots full of garbage and the lingering stench of patchouli and stale beer.

More positively, The Dead were community builders. Their loyal fans were mostly peaceful, well-behaved, and always idealistic. This idealism and desire for freedom (and drugs) of both the fans and the band have since spawned a new musical genre and touring style. But that’s a whole other article.

The kind of social impact The Dead had is pretty obvious and well documented but the band’s musical impact and place in the American musical tradition is now, and has always been, sorely misunderstood. In short, the group’s style has largely overshadowed its substance. Its jams have, according to the accepted story of American music, overshadowed its songs. Its countercultural tendencies have overshadowed its ties to the deepest roots of American music, not to mention its origins as a jug band.

Jerry Garcia's Bluegrass Roots(Jerry Garcia’s bluegrass roots)

Not that the jamming wasn’t substantial or out of line with American musical traditions. The band members were all jazz fanatics and took their cues directly from improvisational legends like Coltrane, Miles, and Ornette. But, unfortunately the public’s preoccupation with the group’s jamming (and its circus atmosphere) has been to the detriment of the songs themselves. On a whole, they’ve gotten lost in the melee.

A good place to begin a search for them is in the music that The Dead played that was not their own. Over the span of a 35 year touring career, of the six most often played songs, three are covers, including Buddy Holly’s 1957 classic “Not Fade Away” and “I Know You Rider,” a traditional song as old as the hills. On any given night, the group could play anywhere from two to umpteen cover songs ranging from Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” to Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” to Woody Guthrie’s “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad” to the traditional “Cold Rain and Snow.” The point being that The Dead could easily follow a huge, freeform jam with a song written by a banjo picker on a Kentucky porch in 1905 (a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point).

But most people (writers, critics, and Deadheads alike) have always focused on the jam, for better or worse, and have tended to overlook the roots music. And that’s what the Dead was: American roots music. And it isn’t just the band’s impressive catalogue of covers that leads to this conclusion.

Robert Hunter is a name that not too many people outside The Deadzone are familiar with. For you unDead people, Hunter was Garcia’s writing partner. He is responsible for penning the lyrics to over one hundred Grateful Dead songs. Which wouldn’t be terribly impressive if it weren’t for the songs’ tremendous quality.

Hunter’s greatest talent was in writing songs that sounded like they came from backwaters of the American past. Songs that rose up out of a field somewhere and tempt you to say, “I’ve heard that somewhere before,” but you can never pinpoint where that “somewhere” is. The songs are rusty, dirty, and epic. Tunes like “Ripple,” “Brokedown Palace,” “Brown-Eyed Women,” “Dire Wolf,” and “Ramble on Rose,” are just a handful that exhibit these qualities. But, there are many, many others just like them.

In a sense, The Dead’s social success damaged this great musical legacy. Too many people will remember the caricatured Deadhead and the stereotypical jam without listening to Robert Hunter’s words, Jerry Garcia’s arrangements, and the band’s ability not to string out a 30 minute instrumental, but to play a song straight out of the American songbook, and play it well.

Hope is not lost, though. Recordings of almost any of the Grateful Dead’s shows can be found here to stream. If you haven’t given the band a shot, play a show with a high rating from the seventies (I would recommend ‘72-’74 for rock/blues fans or ’77-’79 for the jazzier, mellower folk) and try to come to it without any hippy-bias. And don’t get discouraged if you have to fast-forward through a jam or two, it happens to the best of us.


Written by JustJake

April 20, 2008 at 8:15 pm

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