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've wondered what the story was all about concerning the Betty Boards and how they got leaked.
It is my viewpoint that it is impossible to sum up the Grateful Dead by one mere show out of thirty years worth of shows.
Granted, Cornell '77 is popular, as is 2/13/70, 5/2/70, 8/27/72, 12/31/78 ect ect ect, but no one year can ever fully represent what the Dead were all about.
.......I was 13 years old thumbing through my brother's album collection ....reading vertically, my eye caught "Moody Blues" so thinking I wanted to hear Knights in White Satin I grabbed for the album......but I didn't pick out the MB album, my greasy little fingers snagged the Skull and Roses album by mistake.......placing it on the turntable, still not realizing I had made a fundamental error, Bertha and Phil's bass line lit up the room.....I remember thinking, damn, the Moody Blues are pretty good......
.....that was 1973....and the Moody Blues are pretty good......but the Dead have been my favorite ever since......I wore out that album......my girlfriend got tired of it so she bought me American Beauty and Live Dead for my birthday.....I could never quite reconcile at that early age that the same band produced both albums....AB was easy to love for a (then) Eagles fan......LD was an acquired taste and took a little more listening before I was in love with that album too.......but it took me til college to see them live....1979.......so that should be my favorite era , right? '79,80,81,82......all great and some of the best times of my life.......but if I'd have to vote, I'd vote for any of the best of '72.....5/26/72 is tuff to top, imho.....to me it is the quintessential Dead sound....maybe not as polished as later on......but for me that's the appeal...(it is rock 'n roll afterall).....Keith and Pig.....piano and organ.....Bobby's chopping rhythm......Phil...well Phil is and was and will be the alpha and the omega.....billy filling ALL the voids...just dancing....and Jerry on the Strat'....all of it's good but good '72 just makes me smile, smile, smile......
Driving to my home Costa Rica hearing it announced on the local radio station , was thrilling as only deadheads know it can Be, In my house here, I have the poster hanging in a frame that I ripped off the sidewalk when I bought my ticket outside Barton, Hall, ( Has a rip down the middle , the promoters thought if they ripped the posters no one would take them, ha ha, )
On occasion I hear from people that it was the best show, For some reason, from the 100's of tapes I have to say that is one of the top played, other's are the :LIVE DEAD and Englishtown but for sure, never had such a good time and would like to have one time more,, You know I never really like hearing people talk about the best this or the best that,,It was all incredible, I just was a skinny College Kid squezzed up against the stage in a GYM. Every time someone comes to my house, they see the poster and I explain the nigth, man that was cool .. My daughter were's the shirt I bought that night As for now I would do almost anything just to see the" worst" show tonight
musigny23 has it right. Once you get beyond 1972 alot of the songs became what I refer to as "Mama's Family" versions. They don't rock, they don't swing. Just like Lawrence Welk drained the soul out of anything he touched, some of the tunes became ghosts of their former selves. Specifically, the OMSN encore that follows one of the most breathtaking Morning Dew's ever from Cornell. Aack! I really don't have a problem with the choice of 5/8/77 and I'm glad they're now enshrined but to really "get it" you have to go back to the glory years.
I would tend to agree that this show is overrated. Good show but certainly I agree with the 8/27/72 comment. Truly a Dead classic. I must take issue, as has been known to happen on boards like these, that the Dead were better in the 80s. That's when I started seeing them in the late 80 through the end and while I have fond memories of my experiences to make this contention is absurd. Bobby's playing did not get better nor did his tone(mosquito tone anyone?). Jerry's tone got worse(Heavy Metal Pedal anyone?) and the overall sound of the band got worse. The band peaked in the Mickey-less years. Coincidence? I think not. Jerry's voice was at his sweetest, Bobby's tone and playing were at their peak and the band took the music and jams further out since Billy did not have to drag anyone else along(The boys never needed more than one drummer). Also the sound of the band/blend of tones was at its peak. Keith was the best keyboard player the Dead ever had when he was in his prime. Thats my opinion and happy to have gotten an opportunity to share it. I'm sure many agree and I'm sure many disagree.
I find it hard to really find a show that would be fair in terms of representing the Dead as whole for the simple fact that the Dead were constantly evolving; it seems like every 5 years they were practically a different band, but I do agree with this show for one simple reason: this is the show that really, really turned me on to the Dead, and I don't think I'm alone in that.
My buddy at work recommended Cornell to me after he heard me listening to the Morning Dew from Europe '72 one night when i had first started working there; i downloaded it off archive when i got home that night and i was totally melted by the end of it - not long after that, him i were closing the kitchen to a show whenever we worked together, which is still the tradition over a year later. This show opened my mind to what was out there and i haven't stopped since.
This isn't my favorite show by any stretch, I've tried pickin one but there's always a hundred "but this shows got" afterwards, so I've given up on favorites. I have my go-tos, but as others have said - my favorite show is the one that's on right now!
While I am elated that the music of the Grateful Dead will become a permanent part of the collection at our LOC, I would have chosen a different show. I must agree with some of my other fellow deadheads that the 80's were some of the best shows around. To me, there was magic between Brent and Jerry during some shows - a an electric link that produced some of the best music I've ever experienced. Also by that time, Bobby's guitar playing skills had developed and improved immensely. It's hard to pick a favorite show but I like the summer solstice show at Shoreline (6/21/89). But I won't complain. I'm happy the dead are being honored by our nation's library. And I never saw the dead play a bad show.
For my money 12/01/79 was the best head-on, no rear-view
mirror. That said given the consideration of soundboard
tapes and proper reflection - 11/30/80, 08/03/82 and
09/11/83 are hard to top.
It deserves wider recognition.
Also: 9/7/85: I listened to that recently, and am AMAZED by the vibes.
7/8/78 is the more powerful show. 9/7/85 has special energy anyway...give it a listen.
As one goes later through their career and into the eighties the sample size of people who attended shows grows exponentially. That seems to be a main driver of popularity. I think however if you bring freshness, originality, Jerry's voice quality and physical energy level, sheer intensity and similar factors into play as objectively as possible, then the period that begins in '69 and ends towards the end of '72 is the era to look overall peak greatness. 1977 has polish (too much) and professional consistency which may be technically better in certain respects but simply doesn't truly ROCK, due to often plodding tempos and too much Donna. Compare the 5/8 St. Stephan/Not Fade Away to 9/19/70 or 4/28/71 for example. Those versions are far superior.