Though their singing was sometimes off-key, the Grateful Dead struck the right note for several generations of music fans. From the late sixties to 1995 when Jerry Garcia died and the band disbanded, the Grateful Dead played as many as 200 concerts a year, crisscrossing the country. Joining them on this ultimate road trip were the Dead Heads, thousands of fans who formed a caravan that accompanied the band from venue to venue.
Now it’s history. Those who nodded along to “Truckin’”—on an LP, not a download—in their dorm rooms 37 years ago might feel wistful knowing that the music of their youth is fodder for academic study. Rob Weir, though, is over that. The social historian (not to be confused with Grateful Dead band-member Bob Weir) is teaching two courses this fall that take the Grateful Dead as their starting point. These courses—”How Does the Song Go? The Grateful Dead as a Window into American Culture” and “American Beauty: Music, Culture, and Society, 1945-1995”—are part of a larger campus endeavor, “Unbroken Chain: The Grateful Dead in Music, Culture, and Memory.”
A joint effort of the graduate school, the history department, the Fine Arts Center, and Outreach, Unbroken Chain brought together scholars of history, anthropology, sociology, ethnomusicology, business, and journalism and other fields for a conference and symposium in November. On the agenda were such disparate topics as religion, marketing, and the “Contested Meaning of the Psychedelic 60s,” as they relate to the Dead and their times. In the evenings, the Fine Arts Center rocked with the American Beauty Project, an eclectic lineup of musicians that perform covers from the landmark “American Beauty” album, and the Dark Star Orchestra, a tribute band that re-creates specific Dead concerts with, as Rolling Stone put it, “fanatical attention to detail.”
John Mullin, dean of the graduate school, who became a fan of the Grateful Dead when he was in Germany in the seventies, says when Unbroken Chain was proposed to him, “I jumped at the opportunity to focus on a cultural icon, as long as what was done had intellectual rigor. The danger would be that public would take it as a ‘light’ motif.”
Michael Grabscheid had similar concerns, but the director of marketing and communications at Outreach—and a Dead Head since 1972—says the results have been gratifying. “The idea behind Unbroken Chain was to stimulate interaction between academia and the arts, the campus and the community. There’s been a magnetism about the project, a passion for the topic that has made it a transformative experience for faculty, students, alumni, presenters, performers, and other participants.”
Mullin posits another positive outcome: “At the end of the day, I see this coming together of different parts of the campus as a model for future projects that foster cross-fertilization and broaden intellectual discussion.”
At the same time, Mullin is a bit puzzled as to why 20-year-olds dig the Dead. “Is it part of a quest to find heroes?” he asks, adding with a laugh, “I don’t know their music, but they know my music.”
Junior Nicole D’Amico is taking the undergraduate Dead course and is a Dead fan for lots of reasons. “I listened to a lot of classic rock when I was younger because of my dad. I have all the DVDs of the Dead. I love the way they sound, what they stand for, that anyone can relate to them. They have such a history, there are so many layers to their music.
I’m a BDIC [Bachelor’s Degree with Independent Concentration]. I’m interested in holistic healing. I believe music in general has healing powers. When I worked at a special-needs camp, I used to play Dead music for them. Their lyrics tell a story, and people respond to that.”
But then there’s senior Charlie Edwards, a sport management major, who is also enrolled in the course. “I know a little bit of the Dead’s music; I’m not a huge fan. I like history—it’s the big story. I’m interested in the culture, the sixties. There was an idea then that the United States was going to go through a big change. Revolution was in the air, and youth would come to rule the world.”
The idea of the band as a starting point for delving into popular culture is also what hooked his professor.
“The Grateful Dead were a constant in American culture,” Weir says. “The more I get into it, the more interesting they become. They had an enormous and passionate following here. Their following was much smaller in Europe. They were the quintessential American band, the ultimate zeitgeist band.”
The Dead described themselves as merely a dance band. Trying to dodge celebrity, they had one of the longest runs of any bigtime group. Musically, they were synthesists, playing bluegrass, music influenced by the folk revival of the early sixties, psychedelic rock. In 1970, they released not one but two best-selling albums, American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead, that idiosyncratically, brilliantly blended musical genres. “They kept on reinventing themselves,” says Weir. “In Terrapin Station [released in 1977], you can even hear a disco influence.”
Aside from the versatility and staying power, setting the Dead apart was their tie-dye-bedecked following. Their fans were legion, including such fervent admirers as a Nobel laureate in physics, basketball star Bill Walton, Senator Patrick Leahy, the mythologist Joseph Campbell, and Dennis McNally. McNally earned his doctorate in history from UMass Amherst in 1978 and became a Dead Head during his time here. The Dead’s publicist for 11 years, he wrote the book on the band: A Long Strange Trip. Instrumental in the conception of Unbroken Chain, not surprisingly, McNally has his own theories about what’s so special about the Dead.
“The Dead ended up giving rise to a remarkable subculture. They were a group of very bright people trying to ignore all the rules, who became hugely successful because of it. Just one example: they didn’t stop fans from taping concerts—basically they didn’t want to be cops and ruin the atmosphere. That turned out to be a fantastic promotional idea—fans felt entrusted, empowered, and loved the band all the more. Eleven, 12 years after Jerry’s death, sales of their music are still significant. Garcia himself was very conscious of being part of a historic tradition going back to Thoreau, Whitman—the Bohemian tradition—up through the Beat Generation, in which he participated. I don’t believe that most bands have that historic sense of themselves.”
Kendra Nielsen, a junior majoring in history, can relate to that. “I’ve always had a particular interest in studying history through music, art, and literature. The course is allowing me to study 20th-century American history in a way that is accessible and enjoyable.”
Accesssible, enjoyable—but not an easy A. The undergrads must produce three major papers and two shorter ones, as well as do weekly assignments. Says Weir, “I’m asking the students to read, write, and work” and, he hopes, “have fun” pondering a unique pop-cultural phenomenon.
“Popular culture really is American culture. If you don’t talk about pop culture, what are you going to talk about when you talk about American civilization?” Weir says. Noting that more people voted for an “American Idol” than for the president last election, he says, “If you want to understand American culture, you’d better look into why that happens.”