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The Grateful Dead are Universal When it Comes to Folk Motifs

by LITTLE HIPPIE April 28, 2015

Owlsley Book ClubWhen we visited with Grateful Dead Archivist Nicholas G. Meriwether at UC Santa Cruz, he was kind enough to give us a tour of their current exhibition on the literary tradition of the Grateful Dead. Nick ensured that LITTLE HIPPIE would get all the tidbits not included on the exhibit’s placards, starting at the very beginning with their official formation as a band with a name inspired by a folk tale,

Here is what Nick told us at the outset of our tour through the exhibition.

The Dead really came of age at a time that was the tail end of the Beat Generation. There was tremendous literary and cultural ferment in the Bay Area and so the literary history of the Grateful Dead ends up being a really good way of figuring out how they fit into that broader bohemian tradition, and this is why we started with the name itself, which came from a dictionary, this is the dictionary, not the dictionary but it is a copy of that edition.

GratefulDeadDictionaryThis dictionary was found by a dead head, a wonderful guy, who is a great very high end executive chef. He spent years scouring every single bookstore and library in California. He’s the guy who found this dictionary, sent it into the band, they said, my god you found the dictionary, and that’s what Paul Grushkin reproduced in the Book of the Dead Heads, which you see that there, it’s a wonderful bit of history he put – he circled the entry for you to be able to see.

The other interesting thing about that – once the band chose it as the name they all got kind of interested in the history. They reproduced, they wrote an article about it, that appeared in that concert program. Then Allen Trist who for many years, he was both the band’s secretary, recording secretary and also was the long term manager, of Ice Nine Publishing house, and he did a retelling of the grateful dead folk motif.

The basic way of understanding that folk motif is that its really the oldest idea in human history it’s the only motif that actually appears in every single culture, its absolutely universal, and the western European tradition…the form is basically a traveler comes across a corpse that’s being mistreated, he pays for the corpse’s debts and pays for proper burial and later on in his or her travels he’s helped by a mysterious stranger who turns out to be the reanimated corpse. That’s the mission of the Grateful Dead, but it has a much broader resonance and it really – the best way of putting it is if you honor the past, honor your ancestors with no thought of reward and you will be rewarded. Or as dead heads like to say, what goes around comes around.

The Grateful Dead folk motif is of course also otherwise known as karma. This universality has drawn fans to the band for fifty years and counting, and it is why their legacy will endure.

Coming up next . . . how this all relates to Jack Kerouac, Lenny Bruce and science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon, on this amazing journey through Grateful Dead history.



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