Grateful Dead

Grateful Dead Hour no. 386

By David Gans

Grateful Dead Hour by David Gans

Week of February 12, 1996

Featured: an interview with Alan Trist, longtime member of the Grateful Dead family, who in 1990 published The Water of Life: A Grateful Dead Folk Tale. Alan says there are still some copies in Eugene, Oregon - contact if you're interested in acquiring a cop.

Grateful Dead 2/27/70 Family Dog, San Francisco

Grateful Dead 12/28/88 Oakland Coliseum Arena JACKAROE

Simon and Garfunkel, Wednesday Morning, 3AM

Grateful Dead, Europe 72

This interview is from a live broadcast on KPFA in June of 1990, following the publication of the original hardcover edition of The Water of Life: A Grateful Dead Folk Tale.

David Gans: With me in the studio is Alan Trist, who's down from Oregon with a new book that he's written called The Water of Life: A Tale of the Grateful Dead.

Alan, your involvement with the Grateful Dead goes back a long way. Your knowledge of the term "grateful dead" goes back even further. What can you tell us about this? This is more than just a little children's book, here.

Alan Trist: Well, yes, the "grateful dead" term goes back perhaps two thousand years. That's the earliest literary reference to it we have. So when the band chose that name in the '60s, they were choosing a very old myth to call themselves by. That's lived with them all along, and I think people have been aware that there is that mythic connection in their name. My purpose in writing this book was to bring that out and make people aware of it.

Gans: What can you tell us about this story and what it represents to modern times?

Trist: The Grateful Dead theme, which you find connected with many hero tales that have been told to us by storytellers of many generations, is what folklorists call a "helper" motif. The grateful dead man is somebody who helps the hero on his journey, his quest, which will take many forms. In this particular story, "The Water of Life," the hero has to obtain this substance and with it cure his father, the king, who as in all old stories is associated with the land and the health of the land. So the king and the land

are sick, and the hero will cure it by finding the water of life. He's helped by the grateful dead man, and that is where that theme comes in, to achieve this quest.

Gans: The "grateful dead man" - there's an actual corpse involved here, right?

Trist: Yes, there is. Perhaps I could read a section here where the hero meets the grateful dead man in various guises. He first meets him, in fact, as a talking fox who is a shape-change of the grateful dead man:


The next day, the prince continued on his journey. At noon, he came to a place where three roads crossed. There, he spied a dark bundle hidden in the grass. As he drew near, he saw it was a man wrapped in a cloak. The man was dead, the cloak a shroud to cover his head. The prince wondered why this corpse was tossed beside the road, abandoned, unburied, and prey to vultures. Then he saw a note pinned to the shroud, which he unfastened and read. 'This man died a debtor. For that, his mortal remains are left by the wayside, for none can afford to bury him.' The prince thought to himself, 'A poor debtor. Though his arm outstretched his reach, I will see his body buried for the sake of his memory.'


He asked at an inn how much it might cost to ransom the body of the dead man. He paid the price of the man's debts, which were many, nearly emptying his purse, and returned to claim the body. At the crossroads he met an old woman who said, 'This man owed me for his lodging.' So the prince paid her, too, with his last three coins. And then indeed his purse was empty. The old crone blessed him and departed.

He buried the cause of his bankruptcy there and then, by the crossroads, in the shade of a great yew tree. It is said that a dead man's bones can speak through the roots of this tree, that the wind bears his words in the whispering of its leaves and carries them away.

The prince set out once again. Immediately, as he entered the forest, he met a stranger who was sitting on a stump, almost invisible in the dappled shadows of evening. He was dressed as a harlequin, and from his belt there hung an assortment of objects, the uses for which were not at all obvious. The stranger hailed the prince and said, 'If you are traveling through the forest, may I join you? The way ahead is dark.'

'Certainly you may,' said the prince. 'But since night is upon us, let us quickly make a fire and prepare camp.'

They found a great oak tree whose branches were so wide, a hundred people could sleep dry underneath, and here they made camp. The roots of this tree jutted out like armchairs and, nestled in their mossy enclosure, the stranger produced an apple from his bag. Carefully, he cut it exactly in half, and gave one piece to the prince, and the other he bit into heartily, saying, 'My name is Jack of All Trades. Let us be companions for the journey. Tell me, what adventure takes you into the wild mountains where there are dangerous ravines and vultures which circle overhead?'

The prince, accepting his half of the apple, said, 'I seek the water of life for my dying father, the king. And I must find it, no matter the danger.'

When the prince had recounted his recent adventures, Jack said, 'If you wish, I will go with you and be your companion. I am a minstrel bound for the court of the very ogre who guards the water of life. I will help you in your quest. But first, since I know you are a fair man, you must promise to reward me with half of whatever fortune comes your way.

The prince agreed to this bargain at once, and in the morning, they set off together to find the ogre's castle."


Now, that section from the book describes the deal that the grateful dead man and the hero strike up. And the rest of the story concerns the achieving of the quest, the way in which the grateful dead man - who, of course, we learn is Jack of All Trades - helps him to achieve this.

Gans: This is a very moral story.

Trist: As all fairy tales and folk stories are, of course.

Gans: It reminds me of Joseph Campbell's discussions of the hero's journey. This is a very archetypal trip going on here. This is told in sort of medieval terms and in that kind of setting, but it seems very relevant to right now. In fact, I felt a lot of resonances with what Deadheads go through on their road trips, this very summer.

Trist: Well, I call the story a book for "children of all ages," as I think folk stories have been passed down to us in that way, as fairy tales, and that's how they come into our culture at this time. They do hold those morals, and at various points you'll find lists of those sort of attributes and qualities which have always been embedded as significant. We find them so today as well. As Joseph Campbell has pointed out, it is those aspects which make them very relevant for us today.

Gans: Modern times don't really support this sort of morality, and yet in this story we find that sacrifice and kindness are rewarded again and again.

In fact, the modern viewer listens to this story and hears this guy encountering a corpse at the side of the road, and for no apparent reason, and for no self-interest whatsoever, settles the guy's debts and sees that he gets a fair burial. That's a kind impulse, but it seems anachronistic somehow.

Trist: It may seem so, but you will find it everywhere. You only have to go on the road with the Grateful Dead and there you'll find it. You'll find the Deadheads helping each other in exactly the kind of ways that this story talks about. There's at one point a list of qualities you must give of yourself when no one asks. That is a quality which I didn't dream up out of the blue, but one you find in stories that are thousands of years old, or at least hundreds, and I think that is a quality you will find if you look around today, particularly in those circles that I just mentioned.

Gans: I also tend not to think that it's a coincidence that two brothers drove off and rather thoughtlessly passed that grateful dead man and met untimely fates. And it was the third, the crippled brother, who succeeded in the quest and ended up bailing everybody out. That brought to mind Bob Weir's favorite phrase, 'misfit power.'

Trist: Indeed, I don't know whether that ratio of two to one is significant or not [laughs], but we do find that they occur in triplets a lot. The first two, indeed, they didn't succeed. They failed in the quest because they didn't have the right qualities of righteousness to begin with. The third brother, who was the youngest, he was a hunchback, he was weak of eye, he had a lot of things going against him, on the physical plane, so to speak. But one thing he did have going for him was a pure heart and good intention. That's what carried him through.

Gans: I don't want to give away the ending, but he does end up walking upright by the end of the book, right?

Trist: Indeed, and again it is the fox, who is a magical shape change of the grateful dead, who achieves that straightening out of his back with a loud crack.

Gans: Maybe you can tell us if there's a place called Fennario - and if so, where and what?

Trist: Well, David, I was able to find the answer the question to that question. If you're a songwriter and you need a word, you might refer to Alan Lomax's Song Archivist, and there he suggests that "Fennario" is a perfect place name, if you need a generic name for an indeterminate place, because it has four syllables: Fen-na-ri-o. If you a need a three-syllable place name,

you might use "Fivio." So Fennario is a place in the imagination. The syllabic imagination, perhaps.

Gans: I was hoping there was some history to it....

Trist: [Laughs] You were hoping it was a real place that had a lot attached to it. Well, I think you can attach those things to it yourself. It's a very evocative name.

Gans: Your history with Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead goes back quite a ways, to before they were playing electric instruments.

Trist: Before they were a band. In fact, in '60 and '61 Jerry and Hunter spent a lot of time in Kepler's bookstore and a number of cafes in Palo Alto and Menlo Park, and that's where I first met them. That was a period of folk music for Jerry and Bob.

Gans: Also, I see by your outfit that you're not from around here, originally. How did you happen to end up on the west coast of the United States, hanging out with those freaks?

Trist: I happened to spend a year in California in 1960-'61, from England, in between leaving school and going to Cambridge University. That's where I met those freaks, and some eight, nine years later, I came back to California and hooked up with them again.

Gans: And you worked with the Grateful Dead. I remember when I first started hanging around the Grateful Dead office, you were involved in the publishing and other management matters.

Trist: Yes, from 1970 when I started working for their publishing company, Ice Nine Publishing Company, until 1983. I was involved in the songs, publishing the songbooks.

Gans: Now there's another question you might be able clear up. What was the origin of the name Ice Nine Publishing?

Trist: That comes from a Kurt Vonnegut novel. Ice nine is a substance, or a form of water, which once released has the capability of causing all water in the world to turn to permanent ice, which is an interesting situation.

Gans: Do you have any idea what the reason was that they chose that image for the publishing of Grateful Dead music?

Trist: I think that's a very poetical image, and the answer is in the poetry of it. You have to feel what that means to yourself. [Laughs] Okay, I'll scoot around that one.

Gans: Reading that story I get the idea that probably it would pay off to be generous and kind to strangers, and a lot of other of what are known now as "traditional family values." Can you talk about that?

Trist: There are several sets of these which occur in the book, but as far as a relationship between our hero and Jack Of All Trades, they center around the deal that they make together. Let me read the culmination of their relationship, and perhaps that will answer the question. Of course, the hero has achieved the quest, he's got the water of life, he's brought it back, he's healed the king with it, he's even won the princess with true love during the course of this adventure:


After a while, the land was fully restored to health. Then Jack said to the prince, 'A minstrel's life is to be ever upon his way. So I have come to bid you farewell, and claim my half of the bargain.


'You shall have it,' said the prince. 'But to live up to the bargain, I must cut the princess in two. To avoid so dreadful a division, I beg you to accept my entire kingdom, instead of the half of it.'

Whereupon Jack said, 'Have no fear for the wholeness of Kate, for in fact, you have already paid me fully. I am the spirit of he whom you buried at the crossroads. I am grateful for your kind act, which frees me to return to the netherworld in peace. There I will have no use for a kingdom, or even half of one. You have been honest, generous with your friendship, and you owe me nothing.'

The prince was too astonished to say anything in response to this revelation, but when the king heard of it, he said to the grateful dead man, 'This is a wonder that shall be proclaimed to the ends of the earth! You have helped my son succeed in fetching the water of life, and thereby the bounty of the land is restored, and the animals once more bear their young. As a reward, you may choose anything in my kingdom to take with you on your journey to the netherworld.'

And Jack chose the lute and magic arrows, food and drink for the journey, and departed, but not without a wink at the beggar who was sitting in his usual place by the gates of the city."


Gans: I want to ask you about these fabulous illustrations. There's a very classic feel to them, that has sort of a modern, almost cinematic point of view in a lot of them, too.

Trist: Jim Carpenter is a friend of mine in Eugene, Oregon, and he is a very brilliant artist. We were going for a sort of generic, turn-of-the-century children's illustrated book-feel, so you find these illustrations done in pen and ink, and they have that feel to them. I wish you could all see them out there.

Every Wednesday, we post a program from the Grateful Dead Hour archives for your enjoyment and enlightenment. You can browse or search the playlists at or on the GD Hour Search page, and let me know what program(s) you'd like to hear by emailing me at

Thanks for listening!
David Gans

Listen Now


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
Joined: May 26 2007
Alan Trist interview

The interview was broadcast twice on the GD Hour, in programs 94 and 386.

BlewJ's picture
Joined: Jun 15 2007
A Question On the Day

Hello, and thank you for the music. In this article it is stated that "This interview is from a live broadcast on KPFA in June of 1990...", but according to, this Grateful Dead Hour was no. 94 (not 386), and it was broadcast during the week of July 9, 1990. I'm just wondering if you could help me clear away these apparent discrepancies. Thank you and good night.

Joined: Sep 4 2007
Thanks for this data

Exciting stuff . I study gnostic christianity , and our studies include a really big chunk of these types of tales from centuries and milenia ago . This book looks real bright . And since it has a connotation to the term GD , we may be able to get even quite perhaps more out of it , since our affinity with this band .

I hope there s some copies left in OR



Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.