Sidebar: "A Brief Guide to Grateful Dead Scholarship"
Joshua Green's recommended reading for would-be Dead students
Fans of the Grateful Dead are big believers in serendipity. So a certain knowing approval greeted the news last year that the band would be donating its copious archive—four decades’ worth of commercial recordings and videotapes, press clippings, stage sets, business records, and a mountain of correspondence encompassing everything from elaborately decorated fan letters to a thank-you note for a fund-raising performance handwritten on White House stationery by President Barack Obama—to the University of California at Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz was understood to be a fitting home not only because it exemplifies the spirit of the counterculture as much as, and perhaps even more than, Berkeley and Stanford, which also bid for the archive, but because the school’s faculty includes an ethnomusicologist and composer named Fredric Lieberman, who is prominent among a curious breed in the academy: scholars who teach and study the Grateful Dead.
Slideshow: Treasures from the Grateful Dead Archive
Music: "Attics of My Life," performed live in Berkeley in 1994
It’s worth noting right up front the hurdles Dead Studies faces as a field of serious inquiry. To begin with, the news that it exists at all tends to elicit grinning disbelief; a corollary challenge is the assumptions people carry about its practitioners, such as my own expectation when arranging to visit Lieberman last year that I would encounter an amiable hippie, probably of late-Boomer vintage and wearing a thinning ponytail. Rough mental image: Wavy Gravy with a Ph.D.
Lieberman is nothing of the sort. A small man with parchment skin, wisps of white hair, and large round glasses, he could have looked more professorial only by wielding a Dunhill pipe. His interest in the Grateful Dead, he explained, had arisen largely by chance. In the 1960s, he studied under the noted ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger (father of Pete Seeger) at UCLA, and came to share his mentor’s dismay at the academy’s neglect of popular and non-Western music. Lieberman went on to teach a series of classes in American vernacular music and, though he held no particular fondness for the Grateful Dead, became one of the first academics to teach the band’s music, in the early 1970s.
In 1983, the Dead’s drummer, Mickey Hart, asked Lieberman to help catalog his vast collection of instruments. When the project developed into a larger study of world percussion, Hart invited Lieberman to join him on tour. “I thought it would be interesting to treat it as an ethnomusicological field trip,” Lieberman told me. For some years, when he wasn’t teaching he traveled with the band, introducing Hart to ethnomusicologists by day and attending shows by night. If you squinted hard during any number of the Dead’s most famous shows in the 1980s and ’90s, you might have glimpsed the unlikely spectacle of an ethnomusicologist crouching in earnest concentration behind the drummer, going about his fieldwork.
Lieberman apologized for not being able to show me the archive. The whole thing was under lock and key in a Northern California warehouse whose location was a closely held secret—a precaution against overzealous fans’ plundering a hoard that many would regard as akin to Tutankhamen’s treasure. On March 5, the New York Historical Society will open the first large-scale exhibit of material from the Dead Archive. Then, if all goes as planned, the collection will become the centerpiece of a new campus library at Santa Cruz slated to open later this year. Among other things, it is hoped that the Dead Archive will galvanize a nascent group of scholars across many disciplines who, like Lieberman, study the Grateful Dead—not just musicologists but historians, sociologists, philosophers, psychologists, and even business and management theorists. Some have risked their academic standing in the belief that the band and the larger social phenomenon that surrounds it are far more significant than is commonly understood. Lately, the world has been changing in ways that make that not so hard to believe.
One of the first academic articles on the Grateful Dead appeared in the Winter 1972 issue of the Journal of Psychedelic Drugs, a periodical for medical professionals, and drew on emergency-treatment records to compare drug use at a Grateful Dead concert with that at a Led Zeppelin concert. (Verdict: Deadheads favored LSD, Zeppelin fans alcohol.) The popular association between the Dead and a drug-fueled counterculture did little to encourage respectable academic endeavor.
As the band’s following grew, the notion that it might have something to offer scholars, particularly in the social sciences, became somewhat less far-fetched, though still not without professional risk. In the late 1980s, Rebecca G. Adams, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, who studies friendships formed across distances, noticed deep bonds between Deadheads. The bonds seemed to belie the idea, then popular among leading social thinkers, that communities based on common interest, whose members do not live near each other, lack emotional and moral depth—that Deadheads might belong to what sociologists call a “lifestyle enclave,” but couldn’t possibly form meaningful relationships. Adams brought a class on tour with the Dead—an opportunity, she thought, to teach classical theory while letting students study a cutting-edge contemporary community.
She became instantly famous, among a small group of scholars, and then, suddenly, among a much larger group of people. One day, without warning, Senator Robert Byrd, the histrionic and prodigiously opinionated West Virginian, gave a speech decrying what he considered an appalling decline in the standards for higher education, and cited Adams’s class as an example. Adams had unwittingly placed herself in the crosshairs of the culture wars and was beset by, among other things, an inquiry from the president of North Carolina’s state university system. Though she survived with help from her chancellor and her department head, and though the question fell squarely within her specialty, Adams was politely discouraged from pursuing her line of inquiry. “I was advised to concentrate on the more respectable areas of my research,” she told me.
Other aspects of the band nevertheless continued to invite academic examination. Musicologists showed interest, although the band’s sprawling repertoire and tendency to improvise posed a significant challenge. Lieberman says that fully absorbing the Dead’s music could take years, and he has noted its similarities with South Indian classical music, with its complex notational system and highly formalized four-hour concerts. Engineers studied the band’s sophisticated sound system, radical at the time but widely emulated today. Even legal scholars took note, some contending that the American criminal-justice system, including the courts, unfairly profiles Deadhead defendants and has, on occasion, treated fandom as evidence of mental illness.