Grateful Dead and its leader, Jerry Garcia, opted out of conventional modes and frameworks. He did not follow convention, he defied it artfully. Growing up in the Mission District of San Francisco during the Beat generation was formative, and Jerry was not going to be a square. Jerry was going to be an artist and an adventurer.
Folk music was the music of cultural change, and Jerry liked the sounds made by the banjo — an instrument with African-American roots. Jerry also learned to play the pedal steel guitar. Both instruments are critical to Country music, then and now.
It’s interesting how he chose traditional stringed instruments and folk music conventions, to create some of the most beautiful folk-rock songs of the 20th century, including “Uncle john’s Band,” “Ripple,” “To Lay Me Down,” “Stella Blue,” “Wharf Rat,” “Ship of Fools,” “Ramble on Rose,” “Standing on the Moon,” “Attics of My Life,” and many more. Songs that bowed to tradition before adding an important new dimension to the musical discussion.
Jerry Garcia Life Lesson: Original Work Is Deeply Rooted
Before you become a master of your craft, you study the masters. Before you have original ideas, you fill up on the original ideas of others. Before you can tell a folk tale of your own, one that takes place in your own neighborhood, you learn how Bill Monroe, Chuck Berry, Jimmy Reed, Buddy Holly, and Bo Diddley did it. Jerry went on to love the music of Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman, among other jazz greats, but first things first.
Before Grateful Dead there were The Warlocks. Before The Warlocks, Jerry was in Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Band. He and Robert Hunter were both fixtures in the Palo Alto folk scene. After studying the folk artists and the bluegrass masters from Appalachia, Jerry knew American roots music.
He and Hunter knew the powerful stories that the songs conveyed and how to play them, and eventually how to make them their own.
Many Grateful Dead songs are western songs. Frontier songs. The storytelling archetypes that Hunter drew on ranged from the classics to The Bible to dime store novels where the hero rides in on a horse, shoots the bandits, and wins the love a lovely local lady. In Hunter’s hands, these tall tales became epic poems. Epic poems that his buddy (and his buddies) made into songs that are now embedded into the consciousness of millions.
Jerry also loved to play cover songs by The Band, Bob Dylan, The Neville Brothers, and many other contemporary storytellers. He loved a well made song. And he learned to make well made songs, one after the next. I consider many of these tunes “porch songs.” Songs sung on porches with a bottle of hootch nearby and a bong.
Shake it, Sugaree!
Songs of liberation. Songs of freedom.
Just one thing I ask of you, please forget you knew my name.
One of the great things about psychedelics is how they help to melt down one’s ego and all the walls we’ve spent a lifetime constructing.
Steal your face right off your head.
The songs matter and the songs last for centuries. The artist is a vehicle for the song to be raised up and celebrated by the tribe. Jerry raised up songs like few others and his songs were received by adoring fans who simply could not get enough.
Jerry’s American roots music, the music he made after studying the form, is now music for the masses. Thousands of today’s musicians are influenced by Jerry and play his songs.
Jerry made a difference. His life impacted so many and his work continues to inspire and inform millions today. Now, it is his tunes that are the folk songs played around campfires, at weddings, and everywhere in between, including all day every day on the band’s own Sirius/XM station.
I will walk alone by the black muddy river and listen to the ripples as they moan.
To read the entire series of Jerry Garcia-inspired articles, click here and let the good times roll. #9DaysofJerry