Grateful DeadWhat's in a name?
I'm sorry but at this point the Grateful Dead are worked so deeply into the fabric of my life that the name has lost all meaning. I can't even look to my kids to get a fresh perspective on what they think the band's name is all about. For them, the Grateful Dead has been around forever, so there was never a moment where they saw it as new and questioned me about the potentially creepy nature of the name, or what it's all about. To one degree or another, the band's persona is also woven too deeply into the soundtrack of their lives to wonder about this.
Just the same, the phrase Grateful Dead is pretty intriguing, whether for a rock band or otherwise. And while I am far from the first to do so, I thought it interesting enough to spend a little time discussing the collective wisdom that surrounds the nature of the band coming to be called the Grateful Dead (changing their name from The Warlocks in late 1965) and the potential meaning behind the name. If you haven't happened across all of this stuff yourself, it's a nice little read concerning the origin of the band's name.
I think all that can be uniformly agreed upon is that Jerry Garcia landed upon the name while perusing some encyclopedic/reference publication. Yet on the details of this point Wikipedia's Grateful Dead entry notes more than one angle to the saga:
Phil Lesh's biography: "...Jer[ry Garcia] picked up an old Britannica World Language Dictionary...[and]...In that silvery elf-voice he said to me, 'Hey, man, how about the Grateful Dead?'"
Alan Trist, director of the Grateful Dead's music publisher company Ice Nine, notes that Garcia found the name in the Funk & Wadnalls Folklore Dictionary, when his finger landed on that phrase while playing a game of "dictionary". In the Garcia biography, "Captain Trips," author Sandy Troy states that the band was smoking the psychedelic DMT at the time.
In the summer of '69, Phil Lesh told another version of the story to Carol Maw, a young Texan visiting with the band in Marin County… In this version, Phil said, "Jerry found the name spontaneously when he picked up a dictionary and the pages fell open. The words 'grateful' and 'dead' appeared straight opposite each other across the crack between the pages in unrelated text."
And in Blair Jackson's book "Playin' In The Band" we find all of these paths fusing in Garcia's own telling: "One day we were over at Phil's house...He had a big dictionary. I opened it and there was 'Grateful Dead', those words juxtaposed. It was one of those moments, you know, like everything else went blank, diffuse, just sort of oozed away, and there was GRATEFUL DEAD in big, black letters edged all around in gold, man, blasting out at me, such a stunning combination. So I said, 'How about Grateful Dead?' And that was it."
This last version is the one that rings most true with how the story made its way to my ears long before there was a wikipedia or multiple books that speak to the subject.
There is also the thinking that they picked the name after finding it in the Egyptian Book of the Dead. But this somehow implies far more thought process being involved. The band is historically documented as being devoid of any desire to inflict their own "trip" on anyone, and the thought that they were thinking the naming through on this level strikes me as a bit preposterous. Perhaps personally they mused over such things, but as for trying to design a particular aura around the name—I doubt it highly.
That said, it is interesting to note the reference:
We now return our souls to the creator,
as we stand on the edge of eternal darkness.
Let our chant fill the void
in order that others may know.
In the land of the night
the ship of the sun
is drawn by the grateful dead.
-- Egyptian Book of the Dead
Very thought provoking. This is a wonderful connection to the term "grateful dead" and lyrically it could just as easily come out of some lost song that didn't make it on to the Aoxomoxoa album.
Finally, the band's musical story-scape itself finds a wonderful tie in when checking out that old Funk & Wagnalls Folklore dictionary entry which reads something like this:
GRATEFUL DEAD: The motif of a cycle of folk tales which begin with the hero 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 a decent burial. Within a few hours he meets with a traveling companion who aids him in some impossible task, gets him a fortune or saves his life. The story ends with the companion disclosing himself as the man whose corpse the hero had befriended.
Good stuff to ponder over when you somehow find time to spare while not listening to the over abundance of Grateful Dead music out there. As if there wasn't enough music to fill our heads 24 hours a day, when we do manage to take a breather from those 1973 Dark Stars, we have no shortage of things to think about.
Have you ever heard any other stories related to the naming of the Grateful Dead?
Not Sure Where To Begin?
my thoughts on Music & Being, which guide my writing.