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 dead.net 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.