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Defining Grateful Dead, With Primary Sources

Owlsley Book ClubEvery now and again you meet with an object that gives you physical proximity, and makes you feel a connection to a moment that resonates deeply across time and space. In this case, THEE dictionary edition referenced by Jerry Garcia as the primary source for the band’s name, now on view at the UC Santa Cruz Grateful Dead Archive.


From Blair Jackson’s Garcia: An American Life:

“One day we were over al Phil [Lesh]’s house… He had a big dictionary. I opened it and there was ‘Grateful Dead’, those words juxtaposed. It was one of those moments, you know, like everything else went blank, diffuse, just sort of oozed away, and there was GRATEFUL DEAD in big, black letters edged all around in gold, man, blasting out at me, such a stunning combination. So I said, ‘How about Grateful Dead’? And that was it.” – Jerry Garcia

The Funk & Wagnall’s Dictionary defines Grateful Dead as:

“The motif of a cycle of folk tales which begin with the hero’s coming upon a group of people ill-treating or refusing to bury the corpse of a man who had died without paying his debts. He gives his last penny, either to pay the man’s debts or to give him a decent burial. Within a few hours he meets with a travelling companion who aids him in some impossible task, gets him a fortune, saves his life, etc. The story ends with the companion’s disclosing himself as the man whose corpse the other had befriended.”

For more on the folklore, check out The Grateful Dead the History of a Folk Story by Gordon Hall Gerould, which at least a few people have bought thinking it was about the band.

Next, how the Grateful Dead went from this dictionary edition to embodying the folk motif that defined their name.

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