Blair’s Golden Road Blog — Cornell ’77 Enshrined for the Ages
by Blair Jackson
On May 23, the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry announced this year’s list of 25 songs, instrumental pieces and historic recordings to be added to the prestigious institution’s permanent collection. There’s lots of great stuff on the list: Prince’s “Purple Rain”; Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors”; Vince Guaraldi’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas”; Donna Summer’s euro-disco “I Feel Love”; the first-ever commercial recording—a version of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” created for the first talking doll by one of Thomas Edison’s employees; the only surviving record of early 20th century Broadway sensation Lillian Russell; the 1943 NY Philharmonic debut by conductor Leonard Bernstein; the Grateful Dead’s May 8, 1977, concert at Cornell University’s Barton Hall… Whaaaaat? Where did that one come from?
Maybe it helps to have friends in high places. After all, Mickey Hart has been associated with the Library of Congress for many years. But when I asked him about it the morning the list was announced, he denied any involvement. “What can I say? The people have spoken!” he said with a laugh. “It’s true that I wrote part of the legislation for the [LOC’s digitization and preservation] project in 2000. It was copied after the Lucas-Spielberg Film Preservation Act. But when it came to voting, I recused myself.”
Voting? “People have been voting all year, and then the board decides what is culturally significant, and the librarian, James Billington, makes the final cut and the call.”
Ah, the power of Dead Head unity in action. Stuffing the ballot box—a tradition as old as this great republic itself!
All kidding aside, a copy of Cornell 5/8/77 is a perfect choice for the National Recording Registry. Consider this: It has never been released commercially (legally), yet it is probably among the most collected, traded and downloaded concerts by any band ever. That’s not hyperbole, either.
The original pristine audience recordings of this show started circulating among tape collectors very shortly after the concert, and quickly became a favorite of everyone who heard them—this at a time when Grateful Dead tape trading was just beginning to explode nationwide. In the pre-digital age, when all we had were cassettes, the show was part of any respectable tape collection, passed among untold thousands of people. It was always big news each time a cleaner, lower-generation copy would come through my circle of traders; had to have it! (It was also bootlegged as vinyl records and, later, CDs, and sold — boo, hiss! Not cool!) One of the late, great taper Jerry Moore’s greatest legacies is his audience recording of 5/8/77. I'm not sure whose recording I had originally; I didn't know any tapers by name back then.
But we really thought we’d gone to heaven when the much-ballyhooed show turned up among the famous “Betty Boards” in 1986-87—200+ hours of soundboard masters recorded by Grateful Dead sound engineer Betty Cantor, who stashed them in a storage locker for years, until they were auctioned off (due to non-payment of storage fees)—and bought by Dead Heads! What a treasure trove of tapes that turned out to be! So, gorgeous new SBD copies of 5/8/77 soon circulated to hundreds of thousands of collectors, further solidifying its reputation. (This chain of events also explains why 5/8/77 is, alas, not in the Grateful Dead tape vault, where it rightfully belongs, as the Dead, not Betty, were the rightful owners of their own master tapes, auction be damned.)
The show was reproduced many thousands more times when collectors transferred their tapes to CD. “Gotta get Cornell!” Again. By the time online live music repositories started popping up in the late ’90s—such as etree and the Internet Archive (Archive.org), who entered into a cooperative arrangement—high quality versions of the show became available to anyone with a computer, for streaming or downloading. There are currently 15 versions of 5/8/77 up on Archive—audience recordings, soundboards, and matrix combo versions. I frankly haven’t investigated deeply enough to know what the differences are—which came first, which is an “upgrade,” etc. (My own rule of thumb with Archive Dead shows is I look for Charlie Miller’s name, and if it’s attached to a recording, I’ll usually check that out first, since his name is synonymous with the highest quality transfers and upgrades.) Want to know how many times 5/8/77 has been downloaded from Archive.org? Are you sitting down? I added up the numbers beside each version: 928,006 as of May 23! I’m guessing that adding in all the copies that were made (tape and digital) in the years when the Grateful Dead was actually around, and when collecting was at its apex, the number could easily reach 2 million. Incredible for a so-called bootleg recording!
Is Cornell ’77 the greatest Dead show ever, as many have asserted through the years? (It’s been a consistent poll-winner.) Is it even the best show of the justly heralded spring ’77 tour? It doesn’t matter. It’s all opinions in the end, and we each have our own preferences for certain years, certain songs, etc. I don’t like to deal in those sorts of absolutes.
But it’s indisputably an amazing show. (OK, some might even dispute that. Sorry, this time you’re wrong!) The first set is solid and occasionally spectacular—the “Loser”; that speedy-confident “Lazy Lightning” > “Supplication”; “Row Jimmy” with beautiful Garcia slide, a fantastic “Dancing in the Street” that puts every disco song on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack (released fall of ’77) to shame. The second set reaches some of the highest moments the Dead ever attained—particularly the jam after the second (final, in those days) verse of “Fire on the Mountain” and the completely transcendent version of “Morning Dew,” which has to be heard to be believed. Throw in “Scarlet,” “St. Stephen,” a really dynamic and elongated “Not Fade Away” and the then-new “Estimated Prophet”—each played with unbridled energy and enthusiasm—and you’ve got one helluva set. Is it perfect? No. Does that diminish its greatness? Not at all.
I asked Mickey what, if any, recollections he has from the show? He laughed. “Oh, I don’t remember shows that way. I know it’s famous. I guess there’s a great ‘Morning Dew’ and some others. I haven’t heard it in many years. But if the Dead Heads say that it’s one of the best shows, I believe them. They know.
“What’s funny is my wife [Caryl] was a student at Cornell at the time but she didn’t go to the show. She was off with her boyfriend seeing Barry Manilow or some dumb thing! She never got to see the Grateful Dead until we met in the ’90s.”
Well, it’s never too late to get into 5/8! Dig it now, Caryl!
All right, now it’s time to put you on the spot. If you were to choose just one Dead concert to represent the band forever in a digital archive, which would you pick and why?
I'll concede the treading water aspect of some old Lovelights and Good Lovin's and also that there are plenty of great Scarlet-Fire's, Samson & Delilah's, etc. Different era, different sound, but if I were trying to impress someone with a rock'n'rollin' One More Saturday Night or Bertha, I wouldn't go beyond Europe 72. As far as the sell-out issue is concerned, until I hear Truckin' used to sell pick-ups or Touch Of Grey for that Cary Grant look, I choose to believe in the integrity of those concerned.
Back to the question of a representative show, in addition to my first choice of 5/2/70, I've always thought 12-31-80 has been a vastly underrated show. Great acoustic set, first set is great once it gets past Alabama > GSET, and set 2 is fantastic with an amazingly powerful SSDD (it rocks) to wind it up before the Satisfaction encore. The recordings I've heard are less than pristine however. Ah, well.
I think the choice of 5/8/77 is an excellent choice to add to the Library Of Congress' National Recording Registry. But somehow there is a political ploy to this. The original master tapes do not reside in the GD audio/visual recordings at Warner Brothers Vault or where ever they are kept. I think this is a call out to the owner(s) of these original tapes to return them to their rightful owners, similar to, but not the same as, the tapes known as "The Houseboat Tapes" which became Dick's Picks Volume 35.
Maybe someday soon this will happen and the show will get an official release.
My personal choices for inclusion to the Library Of Congress National Recording Registry are either 4/8/72 Wembley Empire Pool or 6/9/77 Winterland. Both shows master tapes reside in the GD vault, both have seen the light of day as official releases.
6/9/77 was recorded in the band's "hometown" of San Francisco, California USA, so therefore, a completely American product.
Dov wrote: "a union of souls through the invisible medium of spontaneous music was achieved."
I can relate to that experience very strongly. It was one of the things that got me interested in the Drateful Dead and fueled/influenced many parts of my life ever since.
The other night I went to Phil's Telstar performance at Terrapin Crossroads and felt that synesthesia between band and audience, within and between both entities for the first time in 20 years or more. It was perhaps the most magical post-Grateful Dead moment I have experienced.
For those who don't know, Telstart was billed as a night of improvisation, no songs, no setlist. Just improv without a net. Dare I say it, the band seemed really high, whether or not they had ingested anything. They just went into the stratosphere in the most musical and connected way possible. There were moments when, as Dov said, you could here a pin drop. The jams turned on a dime and Phil even did some spoken word weirdness at one point. I would do almost anything to have a recording of the evening.
They "broke format" twice during the evening to sing the verses of Dark Star (1st by Phil, 2nd by John Kadlecik) and to close the hour and forty five minute set with Morning dew, but even those felt totally loose, unexpected and appropriate. Not a moment of contrivance.
After the set ended, Phil said something like "That's all we have for you tonight." Although I would have liked a second set, it would have been gilding the lily. A most extraordinary night of music. I highly recommend people check out the next time Phil does this type of thing.
By the way, Jon Graboff was a revelation to me. Did not know anything about him before the show, but had been intrigued that Phil would include pedal steel for two weeks of shows. He was pure magic. Very beautiful and intuitive player. The rest of the musicians were also wonderful and the whole evening felt like the ghosts of Miles Davis, Jerry, and Albert Ayler were haunting the place.
yeah, the rockin debate is kind of odd.
how about Jazzin? As the Dead went through the years and their musicianship got better and better, the level of their musicianship and improvisational abilities also got better and better, so maybe if they lost some 'Rockin' quality, they picked up some 'Jazzin' to compensate.
There are times, if your 'mind is right' when you can listen from stuff from 67-73, where you feel that you are hearing the music from a different persction and the music can strike deep into your inner being.
Back in those days, there were times when some of the boys in the band would be onstage, and their minds were also in the right place, if you get my drift, and a union of souls through the invisible medium of spontaneous music was achieved. That was a powerful experience for all involved. Anyone who experienced that knows exactly what I am talking about. It's hard to describe in words, yet the experience left it's mark.
In later years the boys in the band didn't go on stage very often in that frame of mind. Garcia once remarked in an interview it was way to stressfull to play under those conditions.
So, some of the magic of the early days definitely disappeared or at least became rare.
But, that doesn't mean that the Grateful Dead weren't a uiquely fabulous band in every era they played in. I'm not claiming they didn't have bad nights, anyone who followed them saw bad nights. But they still had magic nights in the 80's and even in the 90's. It was a different kind of magic to be sure, but nothing stays the same forever, or as Hunter once said 'There's nothing you can hold for very long'.
Each era had it's magic.
the problem is that when miracles happen, they are so intoxicating, so profoundly impactful, that we don't want to let them go. But if we let ourselves become desparate to hold onto miracles, then we don't see the miracles that are right in front of us.
First off, that is excellent news. There are hundreds of thousands of American musicians who are not represented in the Library of Congress, so this is quite an honor (whether Mickey had anything to do with it or now). Dead Heads can debate till the end of time and everyone would never agree on which show to put in. Personally, 5/8/77 is not my favorite show, but it is a very good one from a highly regarded tour and the most downloaded show ever.
This rockin' debate is strange. To argue that the Dead was not a rockin' band after 1974 when Mickey came back in the fold is plain silly. Someone has a very limited sense of what constitutes rock and roll. So, once a band is successful and not "hungry" anymore they no longer rock? By this definition, Led Zeppelin c. 1974 doesn't rock? They were clearly successful and wealthy. Per Zuckfun, give DP18 a good listen-- that Scarlet/Fire/Truckin'/Other One sequence with brief Drums is my favorite piece of rock-n-roll music ever.
They were definitely a different band post-break and the one drummer period had a "swing" to it that changes with Mickey's return. I find that period to be their jazzy period and not their rock period because of that "swing." You know, it don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that swing....
How about a box set of everthing from 65 to 95.
Not sure why, but "Bertha" felt like a gift from the gods the first time I heard it. It immediately became one of my favorite songs. Still is.