It all began with a dictionary. After a few months performing as the Warlocks, the band discovered a single by another band with the same name, and in November 1965, they met in Palo Alto to discuss options. Bob Weir recently reflected on that afternoon. It had been unseasonably rainy; Weir laughingly recalled it as “a dark and stormy night.” The band had been batting around several names for days, none of them particularly satisfactory. After another round of fruitless discussion, Garcia jumped up in frustration and strode across the room to the bookcase; Weir recalled him as reaching for “the biggest book on the shelf,” which happened to be a dictionary: the Funk and Wagnalls New Practical Standard Dictionary, Britannica World Language Edition.
In a time-honored gesture that scholars call bibliomancy, Garcia pulled the first volume of the two-volume set off the shelf and leafed through it, stopping at random. Years later, he described the incident to Yale law professor Charles Reich: “I opened it up and the first thing I saw was ‘The Grateful Dead.’ It said that on the page and it was so astonishing. It was truly weird, a truly weird moment. I didn’t like it really, I just found it to be really powerful.” Everyone recognized that power. As band associates Bobby Petersen and Alan Trist later wrote, the name “struck a chord of mythic resonance, with a contemporary ring, echoes in the past and ripples in the future.” Phil Lesh remembered that “it hit me like a hammer - - it seemed to describe us so perfectly. I started jumping up and down, shouting, ‘That’s it! That’s it!” Kreutzmann and Weir were more skeptical, but Garcia and Lesh’s relentless enthusiasm banished any qualms, and in December, the Grateful Dead made their formal debut.
In time, both band and fans would find the name and its deeper roots to be a rich source for rumination; as Robert Hunter explained, “The evocative power of that strange, not at all comical name is considerable, for grace and ill. I know that my own input into the scene, my words, were heavily conditioned by that powerful name. It called down sheaves of spirits on us all.” The entry named those spirits:
GRATEFUL DEAD 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 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 disclosing himself as the man whose corpse the other had befriended.
It was a wonderful story - - but an odd entry for a dictionary. Few would have recognized the phrase “grateful dead,” but colleagues of Princeton literature professor Gordon Hall Gerould (1877–1953) were familiar with the term. As detailed by Gerould in his 1908 book, The Grateful Dead: The History of a Folk Story, the phrase describes a folk motif found in every culture, from the dawn of human history. A reflection of the universal belief that we should honor the bonds of humanity, the underlying idea of the grateful dead motif would strongly resonate with the Haight-Ashbury counterculture, and later take root in Deadhead culture. At its simplest, the idea expresses karma, reflected in the Deadhead mantra “what goes around, comes around” - - or more simply, give with no thought of reward, and you will be rewarded. It was an ideal that would inform the young band’s philosophy; as Alan Trist and Bobby Petersen observed, “The Grateful Dead are a band of musicians and artists who by their name suggest the myth and through their music express its meaning.”
Trist was an old friend of Garcia’s and Hunter’s, and worked for the band for many years in several capacities, including as longtime manager of the Dead’s publishing company Ice Nine. He and occasional band lyricist Bobby Petersen first published an essay on the motif in the band’s 1983 concert program; Trist followed with a complete version of the folk tale in 1989, providing an accessible and evocative story that demonstrated the rich narrative potential of the motif with a synthesis of many of its most prominent elements.
And all of that was sparked by Garcia’s chance encounter with a dictionary. For years, the story of that discovery remained apocryphal: no one in the band could remember exactly which dictionary Garcia had consulted, and the Haight-Ashbury myth that the band’s name came from the Egyptian Book of the Dead sent curious fans down several unproductive rabbit holes (despite assiduous efforts by Garcia and others to quash that canard). But one Deadhead took the story of the dictionary seriously: Kimball Jones, who made it a quest for a couple of years, scouring libraries and second-hand book shops until finally, in 1977, he found a copy of the 1955 edition. Jones contacted the band’s office, providing photocopies of the entry and title page; images of those pages would eventually appear in The Official Book of the Deadheads, finally laying the question to rest. Jones donated his copy of the dictionary to the Grateful Dead Archive, where it is currently on display.
Jones’s quest proved how rare the entry was: although it did appear in several editions (actually impressions, or printings - - the type was never reset) of the dictionary, it seems to have appeared in only one other dictionary, one devoted to folklore and mythology, also published by Funk and Wagnalls. The esoteric nature of the entry, and its rarity, raise an interesting question: how did such a specialized entry come to appear in a popular dictionary?
The dictionary itself provides some clues. The intended market for the two-volume set was the entire English-speaking world: it was an explicitly international audience, and part of the dictionary’s achievement lay in its innovative approach to representing inflection and pronunciation, with an eye toward facilitating translation between English and six other major languages. While folk motifs might seem to be obscure, their broad currency and transnational character made them a logical fit for the dictionary’s scope. Scholars have speculated that the entry might also be a tribute to Gerould, a veiled reference to his groundbreaking work on the motif in the same way that indexers occasionally honor colleagues with faux entries; and the publication of the first edition of the dictionary did coincide with Gerould’s retirement.
That may be, but editor Charles Earle Funk provided a reasonable explanation in his introductory essay, “The Plan of the Dictionary of the English Language”: there he credits “Mrs. Maria Leach, M.A., not only for general scholarly ability reflected on every page of this book, but in particular for her researches in American English and in the fields of folklore and mythology.” Leach was also the editor of the company’s Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend, which has the other appearance of the grateful dead as an entry. Leach died in 1977, the same year that Kimball Jones rediscovered her dictionary entry. But the Dead and their fans owe her their gratitude for the decision to include the motif in the dictionary; in a real way, Maria Leach can be considered the godmother of the Grateful Dead.
There is still an interesting story behind the entry, one that traces how ideas take certain forms and expressions and ricochet through people, texts, and time. Garcia’s selection of the entry gave it new life, such that when a new edition of Gerould’s book appeared in 2000, the editor noted that the band had driven much of the recent interest in Gerould’s work. More recently, an academic conference paper given at the annual Grateful Dead Scholars Caucus meeting at the Southwest Popular/American Culture Association conference outlined the story of the entry, a precis of a master’s thesis in library science now underway at San Jose State University’s School of Information. That study will help us better understand the intellectual genesis and cultural transmission of the term, the narrative elements it describes, and the scholarship it draws on, all of which illuminate how the motif fit into the Grateful Dead phenomenon.
It is interesting to contemplate the simple serendipity of Garcia’s discovery, and the ripples that act had down through the years. Choosing that entry placed the Grateful Dead’s art and achievement alongside the deeper meanings and implications of the folk motif itself. For that to happen, the enduring ideals crystallized by the motif had to find a powerful and poetic expression, leaving a group of young musicians awed by its potential as a name. For those interested in the books of the Dead, the dictionary makes a fascinating first tome in the band’s bibliography, one that marks the advent of several themes. How fitting that serendipity and poetry would make the band’s name; no wonder the majesty and mystery of the name would color the band. And how comforting to know that such practical magic attended the birth of the Grateful Dead.
Cohen, Norm, ed. The Grateful Dead: The History of a Folk Story. By Gordon H. Gerould (1908). Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.
Funk, Charles Earle, ed. Funk and Wagnalls New Practical Standard Dictionary, Britannica World Language Edition. 2 vols. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1955.
Gerould, Gordon Hall. The Grateful Dead: The History of a Folk Story. London: David Nutt for the Folk-Lore Society, 1908.
Grushkin, Paul, Cynthia Bassett, and Jonas Grushkin. Grateful Dead: The Official Book of the Dead Heads. New York: W. Morrow, 1983.
Leach, Maria, ed. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1949.
McClanathan, Laura. “Bibliomancy on High Street: A Microhistory of the Dictionary Entry “Grateful Dead.” Conference paper given at the Southwest Popular/American Culture Association, Feb. 10, 2016.
Petersen, Robert M. and Alan Trist. “The Grateful Dead in Myth and Legend.” Grateful Dead Concert Program 1983/84, ed. Alan Trist, Rock Scully, and Dicken Scully. [San Rafael, CA]: Grateful Dead Productions, 1983.
Trist, Alan. The Water of Life: A Tale of the Grateful Dead. Eugene, OR: Hulogosi Communications, 1989.