Unbroken Chain: Revisiting The Grateful Dead at UMass
Published: December 22, 2007
By Doug Collette
Unbroken Chain: The Grateful Dead in Music, Culture and Memory
University of Massachusetts
November 16-18, 2007
Attending this three-day event might not have wholly transformed a
skeptic's view of the Grateful Dead, their music and their culture,
but it would have provided abundant insight into the reasons for the
group's posthumous staying power. That understanding would have come
as a slow-growing realization because Unbroken Chain so closely
mirrored this influential band's musical approach along with the
dutiful, often-defensive devotion of its fans.
Rebecca Adams' Friday morning analytical presentations on the
traveling legions of Deadheads coexisted with PhDs' scholarly
dissections of the groupâ˜s performances later that
afternoonneither of which approach could recapture during the course
of the weekend that elusive element so often dubbed "magic," despite
the scholars' obvious passion for their subjects. Those academics
did, however unintentionally, demystify scholarship at least to some
degree by proving, elaborate PowerPoints aside, that some phenomena
cannot be represented neatly in a category, even one of its own making.
It was no real surprise (and no reflection on chairman David
Ganshost of The Grateful Dead Hour on radio and editor of
Conversations with The Dead bookthat a panel discussion of criticism
bogged down in near argument about the downside of the Dead's rise to
fame: it was the one moment otherwise coy references to drug use over
the weekend carried a darker undertow. But such narrowly escaped
discord was in marked contrast to the illuminating likes of David
Lemieux' insight into the archiving of Grateful Dead music, both the
technical and esthetic challenges.
Likewise photographer Herb Greene's portfolio of images from the
Sixties: his photographstogether with an honest account of his
personal travails as related to his vocationsuggested more than any
self-referential statement might communicate precisely because it was
But it was the self-effacing presentation of Grateful Dead sound
engineer Dan Healy that supplied the most insight into the Dead
philosophy. Full of laughter and colorful language, Healy described
from his vantage point behind the soundboard in various venues how he
sculpted the live sound of Grateful Dead shows, the two fundamental
principles of the band's operations: enabling the band to play better
because they could hear themselves accurately and therefore assuring
the audience enjoyed themselves more because they could all hear the
band clearly no matter the venue. His casually pragmatic approachto
only a slightly less degree comparable to Bob Bralove's more
high-tech approachseemed the antithesis of the stereotyped
laissez-faire hippie attitude so pervasive in mainstream cultural
perceptions of all things Dead.
With the benefit of some academic hindsight combined with his insider
perspective, keynote speaker Dennis McNally's whimsical yet erudite
presence provided a thread of continuity for the symposium. Appearing
in panel discussions about the significance (or lack thereof) of the
Sixties decade in which the Grateful Dead came to be, contributing a
sagacious perception of the evolution of the band's business
(including face-offs with Ticketmaster) and attending the November
16th concert of The American Beauty Project, the Dead
biographer/publicist became a symbol of continuity at the heart of
the Grateful Dead spirit.
The aforementioned concert was, not surprisingly, illustrative in its
own way of the Grateful Dead ethos. Playing the entire songlist,
though not in sequence, of Grateful Dead's early Seventies watershed
works Workingman's Dead (Warner Bros./Rhino, 1970) and American
Beauty (Warner Bros./Rhino, 1970), the group, led by ace guitarist
Larry Campbell (Bob Dylan, Phil Lesh), created some scintillating
moments: an exquisitely sung and played âœBox of Rainâ that
brought out every bit of melody inherent to the tune and an intimate
rendition of âœAttics of My Life,â with Campbell's soft electric
guitar accompanying angelic vocals by his wife Theresa Williams and
Amy Helm (daughter of ex Band drummer Levon).
The overall performance, often rendering all-too glossy arrangements
via musicianship lacking the Dead's inimitable charm, yet held its
share of merely pleasant moments. Likewise, Unbroken Chain contained
its own merely entertaining intervals. The storytelling of Healy,
Jerry Garcia's wife, Carolyn Adams Garcia (aka Mountain girl) and
late arrival Bill Walton played to the preconceptions and biases of
their after-lunch audience on Saturday November 17th. And with the
synchronicity appropriate to the moment (the theme of same an
undercurrent to this event and its subject), a UMass student given
the floor to explicate the rationale for the student strike that
occurred coincidentally with Unbroken Chain, was only slightly less
articulate: "...it wasn't just to cut classes...".
It's often been said that "there is nothing like a Grateful Dead
concert," and this multi-day affair including photo and art exhibits,
its efficient organization still prey to technical difficulties that
prevented recording of some speeches and panel discussions, would fit
that summary. And while there may not have been true epiphanies to
convince a naysayer, there were enough enlightening moments to lend
credence to the philosophy behind the event. For instance, to hear a
twenty-year-old, in the midst of a spirited discussion of Robert
Hunter's lyrics, state that her curiosity was been piqued about music
recorded before she was born, was more than a little provocative.
More important, perhaps, is how this symposium planted and nourished
the seed of inquiry about how the Grateful Dead evoke such passion,
and in so many diverse demographics, more than a decade after the
band's demise with the death of figurehead Jerry Garcia. The first
intellectual enterprise of its kind, Unbroken Chain, would ideally
only set the stage for reprise and, by extension, regular recurrence.
In that respect, as with a concert by the group itself, 2007 would
constitute only the first setâ¦
Visit Unbroken Chain on the web.
Visit Grateful Dead on the web. http://www.dead.net/
Tune in, turn on, but don't drop out: UMass class digs into Deadhead culture
By Kristin Palpini
Published on December 21, 2007
A wandering guitar riff recently greeted students slogging in from
the wintry cold to a University of Massachusetts class on the Grateful Dead.
With student notebooks and pens at the ready, Robert E. Weir (no, not
Grateful Dead singer/guitarist Bob H. Weir) fired up his morning
PowerPoint presentation, turned up the Dead's "Uncle John's Band" and
dipped into a lecture on the band's legacy and impact on American
culture - jam bands, zealous merchandising and Deadheads.
UMass has caught flak from people who question offering academic
credit for a course that ponders the implications of a traveling
hippie band. But the criticism isn't warranted, students said.
"There's a lot to learn from this class about history and culture,"
said Jessica M. Weinbrenner, a senior sociology major, during the
last week of classes. "It was fairly hard. I mean, it wasn't biology
or something, but it was pretty hard."
Weir contends there is more to music than notes plucked on guitar
strings and more to some bands than records and concerts. Music, Weir
said, is either a reflection or an attack on/escape from a society's
culture, and throughout the Dead's 30-year musical career, the band's
tunes acted as a living mirror for the era.
"All music has a social, political, economic and cultural context,"
Weir said. "As a historian I wanted to look at why music exists the
way it does in a particular time.
"People like to take potshots at the class, no pun intended," Weir
said, "but they just don't see the underlying value in music and
Weir's undergraduate class, "How Does the Song Go?: The Grateful Dead
as a Window into American Culture," is no Deadhead reunion, no long
Patchouli oil does not permeate the air, no one is grooving to tunes
between desks, and hardly anyone is wearing tie-dye.
This is academia, man, and UMass has found a way to intellectualize a
band well known for its political indifference, drug use and
"I didn't want to do the academic equivalent of a cover band," Weir
said of his class. "I wanted to wake people up, to show them that
music has a context. What they conclude from that is up to them."
The Dead's music is a psychedelic reflection of the civil rights
movement, folk revival, the war on drugs, the general attitudes of
the '60s and '70s and the development of consumerism, Weir said.
Within this music, the Grateful Dead gave rise to a thriving and
remarkable subculture of fans, the Deadheads, who include notables
such as former President Bill Clinton and right-wing rabble-rouser
"Music is merely a social tool that helps in social change," Weir
said. "Social change happens through the collective energy of a group
working towards a collective goal."
This semester UMass hosted what might have been the first
weekend-long academic symposium dedicated to the Grateful Dead, "The
Unbroken Chain," as well as two classes, at the undergraduate and
graduate levels, on the band and its impact. Both classes are being
hailed by UMass as academic firsts.
The class "was better than I expected," said Nathaniel E. Dyer, a
resource economics student and Grateful Dead fan. "I learned not to
trust the given historic perspective and challenge preconditioned
notions that permeate our learning."
In his class, Weir wove a tapestry of Americana with the Dead's music
as the pattern. In addition to studying the group's social impact,
students learned about the political, economic and cultural aspects
of the years 1965 through 1995.
Students read John F. Kennedy's inaugural address, Martin Luther
King's "I have a dream" speech, Arthur Miller's "Communist Fear," the
judge's decision in the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court
case and Norman Mailer's "White Negro" - all set against the backdrop
of the Dead's improvisational, jazzy, acid rock.
"It was a retelling of history and the culture of the time period,"
said Michael E. Misiaszek, an accounting major. "It was pretty
interesting and exciting."
In addition to providing a window into American culture filtered
through the psychedelic lens that is the Grateful Dead, Weir's class
stands in defense of popular culture as a useful field of academic study.
"It's risky to teach popular culture. People still look down their
noses at it," Weir said. "People need to get over it. Pop culture is
Semester-long, multidisciplinary projects on aspects of American
culture are expected to continue as a UMass tradition, said John R.
Mullin, dean of the graduate school. Who or what will be at the
center of next year's study is yet to be released.
"Universities like ours need to be courageous in propelling serious
scholarship in new directions, and in reaching out to communities far
and wide," Mullin said. "When we are timid in academia, we miss real
opportunities. We hope that the Grateful Dead is just the beginning."
Kristin Palpini can be reached at email@example.com.