It is the season of giving and gratitude. If ever there was a band who embodied this sentiment in both name and spirit, it was the Grateful Dead.
Before we get to the spirit, let’s take a moment to reflect on the name. Interestingly, this most American of bands drew it’s name from a distinctly British source.
Dimethyltryptamine and the Dictionary
As bassist Phil Lesh recalls, guitarist Jerry 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?’”
Jerry had a similar memory of the event, noting that “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.”
It’s probably worth noting that they were under the influence of a psychedelic drug called DMT at the time.
The Ship of the Sun
Surely, they had tapped into something bigger than themselves. But it was only years later when one of them happened upon this ancient passage from the Egyptian Book of the Dead:
Why does this matter? Because the Dead lived this sentiment even before they read it—-endeavoring on an infinite voyage at the helm of the ship of the sun, drawn by those who came before them—-the ghosts of bluesmen and country pickers, of back-porch fiddlers and barrel-house piano players.
The Golden Road to Unlimited Devotion
There were those contemporaries of the Dead who preferred to cast their own arrogant shadows over the graves of the departed, obscuring them from history’s view. (Led Zeppelin—I’m looking in your direction). The Grateful Dead were ever the opposite, extending their gratitude into that other world, raising up the ash and bone to mingle with the living.
American music is an unbroken chain. The Dead understood this, and they understood the part they were meant to play—a link upon which dusty crackling stories were passed on to new hands, given new life, and delivered safe passage from the yellowing songbooks, hissing field recordings, and lacquered platters into an endless tour—an oral tradition unmatched in this history of popular music.
When the Grateful Dead picked a tune off the scrapheap, they did not make it their own. They borrowed it, bent it, bound themselves to it—then they returned it to the universe. They added their own chapter to its story, never failing to read or relate the chapters that came before them.
And they did so which such fluidity that you could be forgiven for mistaking some of their own original compositions for ancient homilies. The line between the two is at times indistinguishable.
But we can help distinguish that line a little bit. While the songs included above are all Dead originals, the playlist below is just a small sampling of songs that the Grateful Dead borrowed for our benefit.
*We’ve included the original versions where possible, but many of these songs are “traditionals,” which means their official authorship is unknown. In other cases, the earliest known versions were not available. In each instance however, the version included predates the Grateful Dead’s.