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 like almost every thing from 69 to 79 but shows from 1974 and 1977 had fantastic energy, ya know. I have a lot of different copies, some better than others. I've never seen one for sale though.
Dang. All this praise for 5/8/77 is fascinating to me. 30+ years of listening to the Dead and I still don't get it. How could anyone choose a post-retirement show as a "best"? I'd take even the worst show from 68-74 over anything from 1977. The last "Road Trips" (76) was a revelation to me, so I'll even extend that to 68-76. What's the fascination with 1977? Jerry sounds great but Phil and Bob sound more like backup musicians in 1977. And I'm no "pre-retirement snob"- I'd take any 1980's "space" compilation over anything from 1977, too. Okay, okay- I'll keep trying. I'll never give up! I'll start spinning 2nd set 5/8/77 now. Oh, my pick(today) for Library of Congress is 2/14/68.
My choice of representative show would be the Berkeley Greek on Sunday, 7/15/84. We know the Dead's sound evolved through many stages from the raw Warlocks to the bluesy '69-'71 era, to the spacey early 70's, and beyond. For my taste, the power and polish of their sound fully came together in the mid-80's, especially in the amazing Berkeley Greek shows which I was so fortunate to attend. This particular show is fabulous, and is available in very high quality recordings. The opening Dancing in the Streets is high energy, followed by an exquisite Bird Song. The second set starts with a surprising Why Don't We Do It in the Road, and then proceeds into a fabulous sequence of China Cat -> Rider -> Playin' in the Band -> Uncle John's Band. Along with the post-space China Doll, and a Brokedown Palace encore, this show has everything you could ask for. If you have not had the good fortune to hear it, you must - today!
I was there! What a day! Yeah! Hey wow! That's right, 39 years to the day today! :)
This was indisputably the right choice as far as I am concerned. Blair described it well, but for me that St.Stephen >NFA>St.Stephen>Dew is the most amazing piece of music I have ever heard. No sequence has been played as many times as that one for me. It really is deserving of the place of honor it has just received.
Others? In 1977 I would add 2/26 and 10/11. Honorable mention goes to 5/7. That's as far as I can commit, as after number 1 (5/8) there are too many number 2's to pick from.
Shakedown franklins so crisp and snappy only time ever played like that franklins is so sharp and peaking just go and take a listen way better than all of raidio city and warfield combined.The truckin jam drums space the other one so razors edge stella blue good lovin and casey jones.Would make a great daves picks but i dont think its in the vault.That last leed on truckin jerry bends the strings so hard and loud its like a cats tail got cut off the drums space one of the best of all times jerrys got the magic wand thing going on and everything builds and builds and explodes into a massive other one like nothing i ever heard again and i went to 160 shows after this.Listen to that franklins one for the ages and i never heard one like that again.I know its not the best dead show by far but maybe its the best show i ever saw.And one of the best audience tapes i ever heard too.
the following was meant to be a reply as a private message to arichman, not as a comment on Blair's post...oh, well...still getting used to to this new way of communicating...sorry about that.
am with you and I get it hugely when you speak about the eleven and doin' that rag and new potato caboose...all versions of the eleven take me out completey...as background, my 1st show was in 1968, in st. louis, mo at the national guard armory...as near as I can tell, I have been to approx, 135 shows, all starting in 1968 in st. louis and the next year, I moved to San Francisco to see more of this incredible band I saw once in st. louis...thanks for the post...later
After listening to 5/8/77 I want to switch my previous posts. I think it is a very historic recording and deserves the honor given to it.
That is a show i have on tape. I listened to it one evening "in the right mood", and was transported.
shug9: right on with Lewiston Maine!
how bout' 2/9/73 stanford u