Grateful Dead

Higher Education: Grateful Dead Scholars Convene

By Gary Lambert

One of the more fascinating things about the history of the Grateful Dead and the Dead Head community is the number of subcultures-within-the-subculture that the scene spawned and supported. You had your tapers and your spinners, hardcore tourheads and weekend hippies, parking-lot miracle-seekers, kind-veggie-burrito vendors and a dizzying variety of others. One particularly intriguing faction among all these, and one that has grown significantly in numbers over the decades, is the Dead Head Scholar - professional academics and curious amateurs alike, engaged in serious, intensive research relating to various aspects of the Dead's musical, historical, sociological and cosmological significance. An impressive body of work has emerged from these studies, suggesting that the Dead's legacy will prove to have been, as the song goes, built to last.

This scholarly bent will find its fullest expression thus far on the weekend of November 16-18, when the University of Massachusetts at Amherst plays host to a symposium titled "Unbroken Chain: The Grateful Dead In Music, Culture and Memory." As the university's announcement of the event states: "Scholars, artists, performers, students and members of the extended Grateful Dead family will gather for the event featuring more than 50 presenters for 20 panel sessions ranging from music composition and improvisation to an examination of the band's business model - as well as musical performances, gallery exhibits, and presentations."

The incursion of Dead-friendly subversives into the halls of academe is not an entirely new phenomenon: for example, it's been nearly two decades since sociology professor Rebecca Adams began her groundbreaking studies into the Dead Head culture at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro; and Fredric Lieberman, professor of music at the University of California at Santa Cruz (and co-author of two books with Mickey Hart), has taught classes on the band's music. There have also been previous symposia on the Dead, most notably at the annual meetings of the Southwest/Texas Popular Culture Association. But the upcoming gathering at UMass will be by far the largest, most ambitious such event to date, and the first held under the auspices of a major university.

We had the opportunity to talk to a featured participant in the upcoming conference and a leading light in the world of Grateful Dead scholarship, Nicholas Meriwether. His work in the field has led him to compile three volumes so far in a series called Dead Letters, collections of writings from varied perspectives on the Dead experience, and the recently published All Graceful Instruments: The Contexts of the Grateful Dead Phenomenon. Nick's academic credentials are unimpeachable: educated at Princeton and Cambridge, he is the Oral Historian of the South Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina. His Dead Head cred is also rock-solid. He tells us that attended his first Dead show either in late 1985 or early ‘86 [NOTE: In the Grateful Dead world, confusion over exactly when and/or where something happened is generally taken as a sign that the experience had the desired effect]. The attraction was instantaneous, according to Nick: "I ‘got it' with a vengeance ... it soon struck me that I was witnessing one of the most profound defining cultural moments of the 20th Century... it was like having a front-row seat at the Eleusinian mysteries... there was a mythopoetic tint to everything you saw." Before long, Meriwether, who had been looking to shift his focus from the specialized field of Southern history to his ever-growing interest in the Beat movement and other aspects of American bohemianism, began thinking of ways to incorporate his passion for the Grateful Dead into his studies. It was not an easy sell in the academic world, he recalls: "There was a stigma and taint attached to it" - not just to the Grateful Dead, but antipathy to the idea that anything associated with popular culture was worthy of serious examination. But with time and perseverance, the resistance began to lessen, and Nick began to find kindred spirits among his peers - including another scholar-turned-Dead Head, Dennis McNally. "In comparing notes with Dennis, we found that we had almost identical reactions to our early encounters with the Dead: ‘look at this intellectual depth!'" Today, Meriwether happily notes, "people are not so immediately dismissive" to the notion of the Grateful Dead as a suitable subject for study - a fact made evident by the willingness of an institution such as the University of Massachusetts to sponsor an event such as the approaching symposium (perhaps it is just as Jerry Garcia said when he jokingly compared the Dead to "old whores and bad architecture," suggesting that you eventually earn respect simply by sticking around long enough).

For Dennis McNally (who will serve as the symposium's keynote speaker), it is especially satisfying that the event is being held at Amherst. It was at UMass that Dennis stepped onto the path that resulted in his becoming the Grateful Dead's official historian/biographer, writing a doctoral thesis on Jack Kerouac that was later turned into an acclaimed Kerouac bio (a connection we discussed here at a little while ago). In fact, it was an offhand remark made by Dennis to a UMass dean - that an entire college curriculum could easily be built around the Grateful Dead - that set the wheels for the conference in motion.

Joining McNally and Meriwether will be some fifty luminaries to discuss the Dead from their own special perspectives. Among the most notable will be: longtime Dead audio wizard Dan Healy, one of the principal architects of the legendary Wall of Sound, who brings with him an astonishing wealth of technical expertise and a great batch of personal anecdotes; Carolyn "Mountain Girl" Garcia, a cherished member of the family from its beginnings; Bob Bralove, musician and MIDI expert, who helped the band extend its sonic palette immeasurably in the 80s and 90s; David Dodd, author of The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics; Rex Foundation executive director Sandy Sochot; Lee Johnson, creator of a recent symphonic work based on Grateful Dead themes; the aforementioned professors Fred Lieberman and Rebecca Adams; and many others. A detailed schedule of events is available here.

In addition to the scheduled lectures and panel discussions, there will also be exhibits of iconic Grateful Dead imagery in the form of photographs, posters and other artwork. And to make sure that any notions of all work and no play are banished, the weekend will feature musical performances by the American Beauty Project and Dark Star Orchestra.

Public registration for the event will be limited to 350 people, so prompt action is highly recommended. For full information, visit the official website.


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007
American Beauty Project Concert download available

(press release)

April 6, 2009


Unique Contemporary Interpretation of Two Grateful Dead Classics

Available for Download

BOULDER, CO - When scholars took a break from their Grateful Dead
Symposium at UMass Amherst, their entertainment reflected their own
scholarly approach, as new old-time band Ollabelle and a circle of
musical friends entertained and enlightened scholars of the Grateful
Dead with a contemporary interpretation of 1970’s “American Beauty”
and “Workingman’s Dead.”

The performance, recorded on November 16, 2007, at the Fine Arts
Center on the UMass Amherst campus, is now available for download
or 2-CD set by mail from digital music purveyor The
concert has not previously been widely available, making it a very
desirable find for Dead fans. The ensemble has performed the show a
handful of times since its original incarnation in New York City in
January 2007.

The Woodstock-based Ollabelle gathered musicians with a variety of
connections to the Grateful Dead to form The American Beauty Project
ensemble. Among those joining the performance in Amherst were
Nashville’s Jim Lauderdale, who has written songs with Dead lyricist
Robert Hunter; and David Gans, host of the long-running radio show,
“The Grateful Dead Hour.”

Discussing the ensemble’s approach to the two records’ worth of material,
Music Director and guitarist Larry Campbell said, “We wanted to treat
these great songs as ‘songs’ rather than Grateful Dead experiences.”
The prominence of the female voices - NY-based vocalists Catherine
Russell (Paul Simon, David Bowie, Donald Fagen) and Teresa Williams
(Richard Shindell, Levon Helm, Julie Miller) joined by Ollabelle’s Amy Helm
and Fiona McBain – is a significant part of the fresh interpretation on
display in this release.

Ann Blonston, founder of FestivaLink says, “‘The American Beauty Project’
is what FestivaLink was made for: we work to preserve those special live
moments and bring them to a larger audience. The band’s recordists
captured the spirit of this event - and our Airshow team brought some
polish to it through remastering. We have a real keeper.”

Reviewers and radio hosts may request a download code from:

The show is available for purchase here:

rainbow_trout's picture
Joined: Jun 6 2007
Grateful Dead at Red Rocks 1987 link
rainbow_trout's picture
Joined: Jun 6 2007
UMass Symposium on DVD
izzie's picture
Joined: May 26 2007
Your wish....

is your mod's impetus for a new topic.

xian's picture
Joined: May 26 2007
post-Symposium yarn-spinning?

Is there a central place here at for sharing thoughts after UMass? Things like "Wasn't MG's academickese poem during DSO's The Other One fab?!?"

Joined: Oct 26 2007
so long as the stories continue...

...we'll all be just fine This appears to be a chance for more story growing and sharing. I applaud the effort behind the symposium...and the thought behind the learning...but most of all the music, which is what its always been about

....or so I've imagined...

Zaorish's picture
Joined: Jun 21 2007

Excerpts from the Rolling Stone 1972 interview with Jerry Garcia:

Reich: You have a reputation that during the Haight-Ashbury time and later, that you were the sort of spiritual adviser to the whole rock scene.

Jerry: That's a crock of shit, quite frankly.

~ ~ ~

Jerry: ...As for coming to me for advice and shit like that, that's ridiculous. That's like "Captain Trips." That's bullshit.

~ ~ ~

Reich: What I'm trying to get at is your idea of what rock meant .

Jerry: It was music I loved. That's what it meant; I mean it didn't mean anything--it meant have a good time, it meant rock & roll. Whatever--I like the music, that was the thing. It was the background music for the events of my life. My theme music. Them rock & roll songs--that's what was happening.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
God is good.

Joined: Oct 25 2007
That Music

THAT MUSIC has given rise to a tad bit more than 2 am discussions and I think that is a sound foundation for the symposium. I do regret that I cannnot attend as I must work to accomplish my goals. I have, however, forwarded the official website to the true scholars in my life. They will enjoy it and I only hope that a government grant may pay for it as they (our taxes) pay for so many bad things! Just my opinion and I wish to offend none. Please vote.

Joined: Jun 5 2007


Joined: Jun 5 2007
Don't worry DOODah

Is there such a thing as taking all this too seriously?

These are good folks with the right spirit. It IS the music, but how many 2 am conversations did that music give rise to? The only difference here is that it's the history dept at UMass who was shaking down the couch for pizza money.


Comment viewing options

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